Nuclear Roundup I: The North Koreans and the China-US-Korea Tangle



It will take weeks and probably months before the full implications of the 5th nuclear test are clear, and perhaps not then. Recall that the 4th test occurred on January 6 of this year and UNSC Resolution 2270 was not adopted until March 2, almost two months of on-and-off-again diplomatic posturing and negotiations. But in this post, we can at least telegraph some theories of the case, central diplomatic problems and new policy options that are likely to get discussion, including military ones. Today, the North Korean side of the story and the ongoing diplomatic dance between China, the US, and South Korea. Next time, a discussion—yet again—of sanctions and what other options might be on the table, including military ones.

The North Korean Side of the Story

There is clearly a “this time is different” sentiment in the policy community (an example, plucked virtually at random, is Jonathan Pollack’s analysis at Brookings). The reasons are twofold. The first is the frenzied pace of missile testing, summarized in a post by Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk that contains a nice table of the missile inventory. Of particular concern is not only the range of the new missiles being tested—particularly the so-called Musudan—but the focused quest on survivability by going for solid-fueled road-mobile and submarine-launched capabilities.

But the second reason this feels different hinges on the distinction between a device and a weapon. It is one thing to make a device that goes boom in a tunnel at a test site; it is another to mount it on a missile in a fashion that it can be targeted, survive re-entry and thus be credibly deliverable. Central to the North Korean announcement was the claim that the test was of a “standardized” warhead that can “be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army.” As the North Korean statement almost seems buried amidst the usual KCNA dross—and was made by the Nuclear Weapons Institute, not a political body—it is reproduced below.

Is the claim credible? We don’t know. But in another important piece at Foreign Policy, Lewis makes an important point about the size of the potential weapons inventory and why testing may not be depleting fissile material at the rate we think. If the devices/weapons are using composite pits of both plutonium and enriched uranium (a so-called mixed charge device) and then are boosted using a gas of hydrogen isotopes (so-called “prompt thermonuclear reaction”), then 40 kilograms of plutonium could produce 20 weapons, with more to come if Yongbyon is up and running. The main point is not made even forcefully enough by Lewis. An ample supply of fissile material means a much shorter countdown to deliverable weapons if the leadership is willing to test missiles at this pace; don’t think they aren’t learning.

The debate over the theory of the case rotates around three main causal factors, each associated with a policy prior:

  • That the weapons are designed as a cheap deterrent for a small country facing a disadvantageous balance of power; we thus need to assure them;
  • The North Koreans are trying to get us to pay them off to stop (thus the need to get back to negotiations and haggle over the bribe price);
  • That the regime means exactly what it says—that the weapons are non-negotiable, that the weapons programs are integral to the regime’s DNA (and thus all you can do is continue the pressure and defend yourself since negotiations are a sham).

In a radio interview with Seoul over the weekend, I got a question that caught me up short: maybe, despite the apparent exuberance, the pace of testing in fact reflects North Korean angst: the recognition that time might not be on their side (as the proponents of engagement always argue it is). Could Kim Jong Un be testing and trying to get attention precisely because the sanctions are in fact constraining him and that he is hoping for a deal before the pressure really bites? If so, the logic of making a bold diplomatic gesture is not costless; rather, it makes absolutely no sense. Let them hang out to dry for a bit. What’s the cost in testing the proposition that sanctions—always bad-mouthed as not working—just might be?

The Diplomatic Game: The China-US-ROK Tangle

I have outlined my theory of the case at some length last week (here, here, and here), so I can state it briefly: North Korea lives and breathes in the strategic space opened up by conflict between China and the US and South Korea. Nothing opened that space up more than the joint decision to deploy THAAD, which—as President Obama recently reiterated--is nothing more than a defensive response to North Korean capabilities despite China’s claim that it is another brick in the region-wide encirclement effort.

China’s enervating response to the test demonstrates how cleverly North Korea has put Beijing on the spot. Needless to say, the statement exhibited genuine annoyance, and came out in pretty strong terms against the test. And this was on top of China acknowledging that US and South Korean concerns about the missile program were legitimate (see my discussion of Wang Yi’s three new objections here).

Nonetheless, it is similarly in the Chinese diplomatic DNA to return to the mantra that all sides must stay calm. If you think that the government is not playing its own domestic balancing game here, think again. Just peruse the Xinhua page on the test, which is replete with “analysis” of how the test reflects nothing more than America’s hostile policy, in short, statements that mirror in full exactly the North Korean position (see for example, this gem: Experts See US-DPRK Antagonism as Root Cause of Nuclear Test). THAAD has not only annoyed the Chinese government; it has annoyed the nationalist right and left in the blogosphere and commentariat as well. It would certainly help the case if Beijing allowed the flowering of the quite justifiable sentiment that China is itself getting played by the impudent Young General.  

The Russians are playing the same game. While issuing a tough statement, Sergey Lavrov could not help getting his digs in at a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry announcing the important new agreement on Syria. Lavrov argued that while the test was a bad thing, the answer was not simply “sanctions, sanctions, sanctions” but a return to talks.

To his credit, Kerry stood US ground. First, he pointed out that it is simply not true that sanctions never work; look at the Iran case, in which sanctions brought the Ahmadinejad government into secret talks with the US even before Rouhani was elected. But second, Kerry basically stated for the first time what this blog has long expected: that the United States is now asking for absolutely nothing to get back to the talks other than a statement by the North Koreans that denuclearization would be part of the agenda. The language is worth quoting, and we hope seriously analyzed in both Beijing and Moscow, because it clears all the smoke that is being blown about “preconditions” and “denuclearizing prior to negotiations”:

Now with respect to North Korea, we have made overtures after overture to the dictator of North Korea. We have made it very clear to him that we’re prepared to talk about peace, about peace on the peninsula, about food assistance, about normal relationship with the world, about a nonaggression pact – I mean a host of different ingredients – if he will simply acknowledge he is prepared to come to the table and talk about denuclearization and his responsibilities to the world – not to us, to the whole world.

And our hope is that ultimately we can get back to the talks. We’re prepared to go back right away. All Kim Jong-un has to do is say, “I’m prepared to talk about denuclearization.” But unfortunately he takes the exact opposite tack, recommits to his program, and against all United Nations Security Council resolutions, continues to explode, continues to shoot missiles, and continues to threaten and be provocative in the region.

Finally, the Park government is naturally at wits end; while continuing to test, the North is floating disingenuous proposals for talks of various sorts that we will review in a subsequent post. Prior to the test, Park Geun-hye was pointing out that Kim Jong-un’s autocratic decision-making system was “irrational”; as Max Fischer points out at the Times in a piece on the social science meaning of the term, this is not a good premise for formulating policy. The government’s official response to the test reflects its new line, joining human rights and predictions of “the collapse of its economy and eventually self-destruction.”

More significantly, the South has apparently developed a war plan (the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation plan) designed to show that Seoul has conventional capabilities that are more than adequate to deter. The language is florid and—dare I say it—North Korean, emphasizing both pre-emption and political targeting: "Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon. In other words, the North's capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map," according to the source quoted in Yonhap. Needless to say, the plan requires ongoing South Korean missile development capabilities; by next year, the military plans to finish launch tests of the missiles and sharply expand the Hyunmoo missile arsenal. Are these developments in Beijing’s interests?

In addition, South Korean signaled that it would be playing a very forward diplomacy aimed at the ineffective UNSCR 2270 sanctions regime. The elements of South Korea’s ask according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will include “issues that were omitted from the resolution 2270 at the last minute, the other is to fill the resolution's loopholes, and still another is to include fresh elements.” Moreover, the spokesman noted that the parties will seek more transparent monitoring of the bilateral trade relationship, noting that "China can no longer protect a certain aspect (of its trade with North Korea).”

Next time, a discussion of the broader trade relationship between China and the DPRK shown by the new KOTRA report, followed by a more extensive discussion of policy options on Wednesday.

The North Korean Statement

Pyongyang, September 9 (KCNA) -- The Nuclear Weapons Institute of the DPRK made public the following statement Friday:
    Scientists and technicians of the DPRK carried out a nuclear explosion test for the judgment of the power of a nuclear warhead newly studied and manufactured by them at the northern nuclear test ground under the plan of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) for building strategic nuclear force.
    The Central Committee of the WPK sent warm congratulations to nuclear scientists and technicians of the northern nuclear test ground on the successful nuclear warhead explosion test.
    The nuclear test finally examined and confirmed the structure and specific features of movement of nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army as well as its performance and power.
    It was confirmed through the results of analysis of the test that the measured values including explosive power and the nuclear material usage coefficient conformed with the calculated values and that there was no radioactive materials leakage during the test and, therefore, no adverse impact on the ecological environment of the surroundings.
    The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce as many as it requires a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power with a firm hold on the technology for producing and using various fissile materials. This has definitely put on a higher level the DPRK's technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets.
    The nuclear warhead explosion test is a demonstration of the toughest will of the WPK and the Korean people to get themselves always ready to retaliate against the enemies if they make provocation as it is part of practical countermeasures to the racket of threat and sanctions against the DPRK kicked up by the U.S.-led hostile forces who have gone desperate in their moves to find fault with the sovereign state's exercise of the right to self-defence while categorically denying the DPRK's strategic position as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.
    The DPRK will take further measures to bolster the state nuclear force in quality and quantity for safeguarding its dignity and right to existence and genuine peace from the U.S. increasing threat of a nuclear war. -0- 

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