Archive for WMD

Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire. The ROK has one of the world’s highest population densities, and its defense is as dependent on technology as the rest of its society. I’m not surprised, then, that the South Korean military is denying that North Korea has EMP weapons … at least for now.

Meanwhile, another writer suggests that our own EMP weapons could help restore our failing military deterrence of North Korea.

One way to threaten preemption even without missiles is to further develop a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that could neutralize missiles on the launcher.  Because North Korea will soon develop road-mobile missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons, the further development of non-nuclear EMP systems capable of taking out, say, a 50-square-kilometer joint fire area, would also shift the cost-benefit calculus against North Korea. [Patrick Cronin, The Diplomat]

There is very little (but some) publicly available information about non-nuclear EMP weapons. According to Global Security, the U.S. military may even have used them against the Iraqi military in 1991.

The use of non-nuclear EMP doesn’t raise the same concerns about nuclear escalation and clouds of radionuclides drifting over, say, China. On the other hand, South Korea is almost certainly far more dependent on technology, and thus far more vulnerable to EMP warfare, than the North. The area south of the DMZ is heavily populated, whereas the area to the North is thinly populated and technologically backward. Whether a first use of EMP is really a good idea depends on unknowable facts, such as the imminence and scale of the threat we’d be preempting, the capability of the weapons, and the likelihood that North Korea could respond in kind.

For a more scaleable form of deterrence, I’m much more comfortable with this idea, myself.

While North and South Korea agreed some years ago to forego psychological warfare against each other, the North is a flagrant purveyor of vitriol and falsehood.  Surely the alliance can better saturate the North with uncomfortable facts—from pictures of Kim Jong-Un’s luxury houses side by side with North Korean gulags, to video lectures by North Korean refugees who have managed to escape the world’s most oppressive regime.

In fact, I don’t see any good arguments against doing these things in response to North Korea’s tests of SCUD, 300-millimeter rockets, or ICBM engines. If one of our goals is to slow the rate of North Korea’s progress toward acquiring an effective nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t it make sense to convince Kim Jong Un that that progress also carries risks, and that time isn’t on his side?

Obama’s soft line on North Korea sanctions has failed.

AT LEAST ONE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER thinks North Korea has never been nastier to the United States, and if its racist attacks on President Obama aren’t proof enough of that, maybe this message from North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-Il, is:

He accused the United States of using its military power to deliberately subvert any dialogue between North and South Korea — which is also a standard North Korean assertion. But in a variant of that theme, he said the American behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptom of a mentally retarded patient.” Asked later to explain the analogy, Mr. Ri said, “The U.S. has been doing it for over six decades on our doorstep.” [N.Y. Times]

I don’t think I’ll ever get over my amazement that North Korea, a flagrant violator of U.N. Security Council resolutions that keeps 100,000 men, women, and children in political prison camps, is a member of the United Nations in good standing.

“Ambassador” Ri also threatened that Pyongyang would continue its nuclear weapons development if the U.S. continues its “threats” against North Korea, and demanded that the Security Council conduct an emergency session to review joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises.

Consider the absurdity of this. It’s the equivalent of Dennis Rodman telling his agent that unless he quits nagging him about going back to rehab, he’ll have no choice but to keep drinking and sue for breach of the peace … in Judge Joe Brown’s court.

Meanwhile, as John Kerry claims credit for keeping North Korea quiet, North Korea continues its quiet progression toward the development of an inter-continental ballistic missile, and a pad to test it from:

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters Tuesday he believes North Korea has continued to make “steady progress” in both its missile technology and nuclear capability.

So we find ourselves in a place where the sanctions we’ve imposed are woefully insufficient to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or to force it to negotiate away its nukes. Our State Department still says it isn’t interested in talks with a North Korea that rejects the premise of nuclear disarmament, and North Korea insists that it isn’t disarming. Intelligence estimates vary on North Korea’s capacity to miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon, but time clearly isn’t on our side. We also know that North Korea will sell any weapon it possesses to any willing customer, including helping listed state sponsors of terrorism with their nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to reach out his hand to rogue states if they would unclench their fists. In the years since then, the President has given North Korea the closest thing there is to immunity from sanctions for its attacks on South Korea, its missile tests, its nuclear tests, its arrests of harmless tourists and tour guides, and its proliferation and weapons smuggling.

I suppose I shouldn’t overstate my point here, because I’ve never seen that much significance in North Korea’s displays of good will or temperamental moderation for external audiences. In fact, my point is that in the North Korean context, gestures and atmospherics mean next to nothing. By now, it should be clear that those who counseled the President that he could move us closer to the realization of our nation’s interests by avoiding confrontation with Pyongyang, and by building a reserve of good toward it have sent him on a fool’s errand. North Korea is never meaner than when, fairly or unfairly, it perceives us to be soft.

N. Korea threatens annual missile, nuke tests

Our setting is a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the prevention of WMD proliferation, last Wednesday. Ironically, a diplomat from South Korea, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, chaired the meeting.

The turn of North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong Il, came. When it did, Ri added further evidence to support the Theory of North Korean Exceptionalism — that is, North Korea is neither inclined nor expected to follow the simplest of rules that apply to everyone else on earth. Ri was supposed to have four minutes to speak, but he growls on for at least four times that. The Chair finally cut Ri off mid-sentence, just as he was getting to the part about the annual testing. Unless you find this sort of thing interesting on its own merits, skip to the 40-minute mark.

[link; hat tip to Adam Cathcart]
As a result, we miss the full flavor of just exactly what the North Koreans intend to test, and how often. Pity. I suppose there’s always KNCA.

Just test the damn thing already.

So the news this week is that the Obama Administration, which for the last five years has stayed its hand from sanctioning North Korea because of Chinese sensitivities, has just blocked the assets of top members of Vladimir Putin’s government over their seizure of the Crimea. That sounds like an effective way to piss them off, but I can’t see how it poses a serious threat to Russia’s economy or Putin’s domestic support, or how it will deter his next aggression. (If you want to do that, give the Ukrainians some capable antitank and antiaircraft missiles, train their troops well, and bait Putin into a long, nasty insurgency that will do to him politically what Chechnya did to Yeltsin.)

The other news this week is that one nuclear test may not be enough for Kim Jong Un, and as I write this, North Korea has just announced a live-fire exercise near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea. North Korea, in contrast to Russia, has unleashed a stream of homophobic, sexist, and arguably racist insults against world leaders, committed crimes against humanity on a massive scale, attacked a U.S. treaty ally twice, proliferated nuclear and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and tested two nukes (and counting).

For which, it faces the full wrath of Samantha Power’s Twitter account.

What this means is that we’re using the strategy against Russia now we that should have used against North Korea ten years ago, that we’re (finally) using the strategy in Syria that we should have used there in 2011 and should be using to help Ukraine defend itself now, we used the strategy in Libya in 2011 that we should have used in Iran in 2009 (only with a more competent follow-through), and we have no North Korea strategy at all. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a penguin square dance.

~   ~   ~

Obama’s visit to Seoul, designed to reassure our Asian allies, coincided with so much bad press about the incoherence of his North Korea policy that it may have had the opposite effect. The Washington Post portrayed the President as at a loss for solutions to a security challenge he underestimated. The New York Times said this and more, revealing that White House staffers are frustrated, divided, and out of ideas:

“We have failed,” said Evans J. R. Revere, who spent his State Department career trying various diplomatic strategies to stop the North. “For two decades our policy has been to keep the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. It’s now clear there is no way they will give them up, no matter what sanctions we impose, no matter what we offer. So now what?”

It is an assessment some of Mr. Obama’s aides say they privately share, though for now the administration refuses to negotiate with the North until it first fulfills its oft-violated agreements to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. A recent effort inside the National Security Council to devise a new approach resulted in a flurry of papers and classified strategy sessions — and the conclusion that all the alternatives to the current course were worse.

“We’re stuck,” one participant in the review said.

The first step toward recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. The second step would be to stop listening to people like Evans Revere who gave you the sort of counsel that got you where you are now. But in the end, the administration is responsible for its own choices. It wasted valuable time on the flawed narrative that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education meant that he would be a reformer, and “largely left North Korea on the back burner while focusing on sanctions, cyberattacks and pressure on Iran.” This leaves the administration desperate for a deal, yet uncertain what that deal could be:

In recent months the Chinese have led an effort to restart diplomatic talks, and the United States has quietly met with the North. But the goal is unclear. To the United States, the purpose of the talks would be denuclearization; Mr. Kim’s government has already declared that the one thing he will not do is give up his small nuclear arsenal, especially after seeing the United States help unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who surrendered his own nuclear program in 2003. [N.Y. Times, David Sanger]

It’s implausible to me that the White House would have talked to China and North Korea without some willingness to compromise its demands for denuclearization. That lends further weight to what I wrote here a week ago. My best guess is that they were toying with the idea, but it’s not clear that they committed to it. The only thing that’s clear is North Korea’s position.

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Sadly, our President can’t even sound credible when he threatens to impose new sanctions. Here is what he said in Seoul last week, amid rumors of an imminent nuclear test:

President Barack Obama says it may be time to consider further sanctions against North Korea “that have even more bite” as the country is threatening its fourth nuclear test.

Addressing a joint news conference alongside South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said threats by North Korea will get it “nothing except further isolation” from the global community. But Obama acknowledged there are limits to what impacts additional penalties can have on the country.

“North Korea already is the most isolated country in the world by far,” Obama said. “Its people suffer terribly because of the decisions its leaders have made. And we are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight.” [Korea Herald]

The veracity of that statement depends on the North Korean, but I’ll have more to say about that later this week. As threats go, the President could learn a few things from the North Koreans about clarity and message discipline. He may not believe in a magic bullet — especially if he isn’t really willing to use a high enough caliber — but a speech designed to restore the confidence of nervous allies is no place to sound wobbly, equivocal, and agnostic about his own threats. He’d have been clearer if he’d borrowed the script of ex-aide Robert Einhorn:

“There is no question, if there is fourth round of test, the U.S. will take additional sanctions, steps,” Einhorn, a former adviser on nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, said in a press meeting on the sidelines of an international forum in Seoul. “And they will increase the overall effectiveness of the sanctions regime against North Korea. I think it would be a real mistake in terms of North Korea’s own interest for them to go ahead with a nuclear test.” [Yonhap]

Other prominent members of Obama’s party have also been arguing for tougher sanctions recently.

The international community should step up efforts for “targeted sanctions” on the North Korean leadership before it hands over nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, a former U.S. nonproliferation official said Thursday. “The DPRK (North Korea) looks like a good place for targeted sanctions,” said Joseph DeThomas, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under the Bill Clinton administration. [....]

DeThomas emphasized the importance of finding “very targeted mechanisms to go after the leadership of a country doing bad things without doing damage to the population.” He said a lot of hard currency is put aside in foreign banks for leadership purposes. “Any time you can affect their access to hard currency, that has significant impact,” he said. 

The problem is not the will to impose sanctions on Pyongyang but a lack of information, said DeThomas. He said the possibility of North Korea proliferating its nuclear technology and equipment is more worrisome than another nuclear test. [Yonhap]

Every word of that makes sense to me. Finally, Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence recently told a Senate subcommittee that North Korea is “susceptible to” financial sanctions:

“What we are going to continue to do is to implement the sanctions programs that we have in place, which are focused on North Korea’s efforts to develop its nuclear program, as well as North Korea’s other illicit activity,” David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at a congressional hearing.

The North is clearly susceptible to sanctions, he added, testifying before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. [....]

The Obama administration is constantly reevaluating what it has been doing with respect to North Korea, which is a topic actively under consideration within the government, he added. Cohen added denuclearizing North Korea is an unswerving goal of the administration. [Yonhap]

Or so we hope. For its part, the U.N. had already been considering the designation of two more North Korean entities — Ocean Maritime Management and Chinpo (snicker) Shipping — for their role in the scheme to smuggle MiG-21s from Cuba to North Korea. But this whack-a-mole strategy can’t hope to outpace North Korea’s production of shell companies. Its banks are its weak link.

There are three things that can be said now that we could not say one year ago today. First, the administration is under new pressure from a newly critical media to show that it has a coherent North Korea policy. Second, if North Korea provokes in some way, the President will come under strong pressure from within his own party, and probably from within his own administration, to impose financial sanctions. Third, the President will face new pressure from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who have offered a coherent alternative to contrast with his own incoherence. Now there is a trigger, just waiting for someone to pull it.

It may well be that if the President is forced to act, he’ll prefer to claim credit by signing an executive order rather than a legislative creation like H.R. 1771. There are certainly loopholes in existing sanctions that the President could close, particularly on human rights, but as with any sanctions regime, the enforcement will be more important than the authority. That’s why the President would make a deeper impression by announcing a round of asset blocking actions under the existing Executive Orders 13,551 and 13,382. But if North Korea continues to provoke, it will only raise more election-year calls for the President to abandon incremental pressure for something that has the potential to change policies — or personnel — in Pyongyang.

North Korea approaching provocation phase of its “vicious cycle”

North Korea’s bipolar cycle is now familiar to most Korea watchers, including the President of South Korea. The North pursues its nuclear weapons capability with consistent determination in all phases of that cycle, but not always with consistent ostentation. There are periodic acts of satellite theater — a new excavation here, a new launch pad there, or steam from a cooling tower. Words vacillate between conciliation (often cryptic) and belligerence (but mostly, belligerence).

You can’t really time North Korea’s cycles with a calendar — although it does strike me that it would be interesting to try — but it is possible to identify some broad patterns. The cycles have higher tides and lower ebbs when the North wants to test a new or weakened administration in the United States or South Korea. The tides ebb when the North calculates that it’s about to get a payoff, or that it has gone as far as it can without suffering some consequence that it fears. They probably rise due to a combination of domestic political motives, a desire to keep its opponents off balance, and simple extortion. As for how the tone of North Korean propaganda has changed under Kim Jong Un, I’ll recommend this analysis by the Daily NK.

What is increasingly clear is that North Korea’s current moon-faced tyrant has entered a waxing phase.

Three years ago the retaliation was limited to Yeonpyeong, but in the future it will include the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae and other centers of the puppet South Korean government,” said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

The KPA command, which is responsible for units facing the sea demarcation line in the Yellow Sea, claimed that if Seoul has forgotten the “crushing defeat” it received in the past, it will face greater tragedy for making any kind of impudent provocations.

A senior North Korean official has also threatened the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with “a nuclear catastrophe.” (North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves.)

By the end of the Lee Myung Bak administration, the North had posted banners on the KCNA website calling for the slitting of Lee’s throat. We can already see that Pyongyang has begun the process of making Ms. Park its new Emmanuel Goldstein. Last week, KCNA called Park “a political prostitute.” This week, it’s Uriminzokkiri’s turn:

Uriminzokkiri, North Korea’s main Internet-based media and propaganda website, said a Pyongyang printing house released a booklet called a “diagnosis of the South’s theory of principle” that dissected the follies of policy goals being pursued by the conservative Park government.

It said the so-called principled approach lauded by the chief executive who took power in late February effectively aims to change the North, and is based on the arrogant idea that the South can dictate actions of the North.

According to the website, the booklet claimed South Korean hardliners want to wrestle the initiative in inter-Korean dialogue and use this advantage to strive for unification based on a free and democratic political system.

Where else is this headed? For one thing, we continue to read rumors that the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test. Recent strains between the U.S. and China may tempt Pyongyang to see a moment of opportunity to get away with a provocation.

Personally, I hope North Korea does test a nuke. If it can be said that the Obama Administration has a North Korea policy at all, that policy clearly isn’t working, and is allowing North Korea to rush toward nuclear breakout almost unimpeded. The administration seems disinterested in North Korea, perhaps because it has quietly resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea, or perhaps because it’s distracted by domestic troubles or Iran. Whatever the cause of the administration’s apparent lack of a coherent policy, it’s not going to change unless busy policymakers stop thinking about immigration reform, Obamacare, the 2014 elections, or Iran long enough to focus on this problem for a week or two. Every time they do, it becomes more obvious to them that the old approach has failed and that a new, tougher approach is needed.

What will make this test different from every other test is that this time, there is a ready policy alternative at hand that threatens to cause severe (and possibly fatal) damage to North Korea’s ruling class. At the very least, a sudden case of bankruptcy should convince an unsteady new North Korean leader that time isn’t on his side.

Can North Korea have both Kaesong and Yongbyon?

Who is the real Park Geun Hye? The uneasy coexistence of two headlines may soon tell us. The first headline tells us that, six months after North Korea withdrew its workers, the Kaesong Industrial Park will soon restart.  The second tells us that North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon already has. Both of these developments are bad news for those who want to see North Korea disarmed, for reasons I explained here. But if Park is really as tough as some of us wanted to believe she was, she’ll at least make Kim Jong Un choose one.

To some, Park’s tactical success at negotiating the reopening of Kaesong revealed a predisposition to a more conditional variation of Sunshine. To others, it showed that Park was a completely different kind of leader than her predecessors–one who was not only willing to let Kaesong die rather than yield on principle, but perhaps even secretly hopeful that it would die, for reasons not easily attributed to her. As one who previously held the latter view, with declining confidence, over the last few months, I grasped at her insistence that the North “guarantee” that it wouldn’t shut Kaesong down again. Perhaps these guarantees were really poison pills. Perhaps they disguised demands for apologies or compensation–things that North Korea couldn’t possibly accept. But it doesn’t look that way now.

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said it best in a conversation over dinner a few weeks ago, when he called Trustpolitik “a Rorschach test.”

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In early April, just before North Korea was hit by a wave of financial pressure, Kim Jong Un made what turns out to have been a grave miscalculation by withdrawing 53,000 workers from Kaesong.  Kaesong was a source of $80 million a year in hard currency, but in early April, Kim Jong Un calculated that Park Geun Hye would be as easy as her predecessors to manipulate, that the disruption would be brief, and that he had enough cash reserves to weather it.  He would not have withdrawn the North Korean workers from Kaesong had he known what would happen in the following weeks.

The Kaesong affair has taught us all–but Kim Jong Un most of all–that Park Geun Hye’s tactical sophistication is a dimension beyond her predecessors. For years, I’ve watched North Korea lead the likes of Roh and D.J. with nose rings forged from their own beneficent hallucinations.  I’ve watched them stampede every American president to hold office since 1993 with thunderclaps of scary headlines.  President Obama is the only one of them who hasn’t paid Pyongyang off yet, but it’s still hard to see what his policy vision is, or that he even has one.

Park Geun-Hye is not like these others.  Park–who was poised and statesmanlike at an age when most of us were experimenting with facial hair, whose North Korea messaging has been maddeningly consistent for a decade, who coolly questioned her staff as they rushed her to the hospital with a slashed throat–has an actual, calculated policy vision for North Korea.  I’m not sure exactly what that vision is, but I doubt that it’s quite the same as the advertised vision.  I saw hints of it when I was fortunate enough to be in the Capitol for her speech to a joint meeting of Congress.

I’m at the upper center-right of the audience in the beginning of the video (appropriately enough). Recognize me? No? Neither do I. Here’s what I keyed in on:

But as we say in Korea, it takes two hands to clap. Trust is not something that can be imposed on another.

The pattern is all too familiar — and badly misguided. North Korea provokes a crisis. The international community imposes a certain period of sanctions. Later, it tries to patch things up by offering concessions and rewards. Meanwhile, Pyongyang uses that time to advance its nuclear capabilities. And uncertainty prevails.

It is time to put an end to this vicious cycle.

Pyongyang is pursuing two goals at once, a nuclear arsenal and economic development. We know these are incompatible.You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

The leadership in Pyongyang must make no mistake. Security does not come from nuclear weapons. Security comes when the lives of its people are improved. It comes when people are free to pursue their happiness.

North Korea must make the right choice. It must walk the path to becoming a responsible member in the community of nations.

In order to induce North Korea to make that choice, the international community must speak with one voice. Its message must be clear and consistent.

Is Park now letting that cycle re-play itself? Her tactical achievement in negotiations over Kaesong now threatens to become a strategic setback, both for Park and for her American allies, who expended substantial diplomatic capital securing the passage of U.N. Security Council 2094.

What financial transparency ensures us that Kaesong and Yongbyon aren’t really just two reactors in different stages of North Korea’s nuclear cycle? No one knows that answer. And if Park doesn’t know, she’s violating that Security Council resolution we’ve just fought to secure, and are trying to get other nations to enforce. That would be a major diplomatic victory for North Korea. And weakening the enforcement of Security Council resolutions shortly after their passage is part of North Korea’s playbook.

The Syria-North Korea Axis

After watching North Korea get away with shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists and its past chemical and nuclear proliferation to Syria, it’s gratifying to see people catch onto North Korea’s role in the tragedy in Syria.  There are several more op-eds and stories on this today, all of them well worth reading:

These weren’t necessarily Korea-related, but did provide useful information:

  • Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is collapsing. It’s unfortunate that we seem divided and irresolute, but it’s better that the President steers toward a new strategy, hopefully after he solicits Congress’s views and gets its support. A strike would make us feel like we’ve done something, but the only way it could slow Assad’s use of chemical weapons at this point would be to hit enough artillery to also, incidentally, help Al Qaeda. Better to attack the proliferation network that supplies the weapons to begin with. That network’s source is in Pyongyang, and the best ways to attack it don’t involve the use for military force.
  • It’s a pretty rare week when Tom Friedman writes two columns, and I agree with a majority of what he writes in both of them.

[Update: I changed the wording in the first sentence, which previously read "proliferation" to terrorists, to "shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists," because "proliferation" implies the transfer of WMD, which I don't know to be the case (not that I'd doubt it, either).]

AP Exclusive! North Korea’s nuke test a cry for peace

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — AP Pyongyang has all the logic and perspective of KCNA Pyongyang and none of the guilty pleasures of KCNA’s prose.  

The way North Korea sees it, only bigger weapons and more threatening provocations will force Washington to come to the table to discuss what Pyongyang says it really wants: peace. [....]

North Korea has long cited the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and what it considers a nuclear umbrella in the region, as the main reason behind its need for nuclear weapons. North Korea and the U.S. fought on opposite sides of the bitter, three-year Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce in 1953, and left the peninsula divided by heavily fortified buffer zone manned by the U.S.-led U.N. Command.

Sixty years after the armistice, North Korea has pushed for a peace treaty with the U.S. But when talks fail, as they have for nearly two decades, the North Koreans turn to speaking with their weapons.  [Jean H. Lee, AP]

I realize that Lee frequents a place where war is peace, but peace isn’t the first goal one would attribute to a regime that, less than four years ago, renounced the Korean War cease fire agreement, subsequently carried out two sneak attacks against South Korea, killing 50 of its citizens, and attempted to assassinate several defector-dissidents on South Korean soil.

Is this The Onion, you ask?  No, this is The Onion.

The idea that a peace treaty with North Korea is the solution to our problems with North Korea is nonetheless the stated position of a small pro-North Korean fringe, and just about no one else, no doubt because the negotiations would give that fringe the chance to support North Korea’s preconditions for said peace.  Still, I suppose it’s good to have clarity on where Lee stands.

For something a little better grounded in reality, see this Reuters analysis by Paul Eckert and Michael Martina:

A North Korean nuclear test draws international condemnation, modest U.N. sanctions and expressions of hope in the United States that China will finally rein in its brazen ally.

Beijing chides North Korea, but nothing much happens.

The world has seen this movie before and it’s likely to witness another rerun after North Korea’s third nuclear test on Tuesday.

See also this piece by Jeffrey Lewis and this one by Bruce Klingner, citing evidence that North Korea may already have a miniaturized and functional nuclear weapon that it can deliver on a missile.  Say what you want about the accuracy of North Korea’s long-range missiles; its short and medium range missiles are thought to be accurate and effective enough to pose a real danger to South Korea and Japan.

If that’s not bad enough, consider how many terrorist-sponsoring clients North Korea has in the Middle East for its nuclear and missile technology.  Claudia Rosett has an excellent summary in Forbes.

Guess who just tested a nuke. Now I’m going to sleep.

Here’s the USGS report, coming in at 4.9,  and here’s the first report saying it looks like a nuke test.  In case you’re keeping track, North Korea’s 2009 test measured 4.7 on the Richter scale after a yield estimated between 2 and 8 kilotons. Its 2006 test registered 4.2, at a yield of just under a kiloton.  Remember — this is a logarithmic scale, which means that a 5 is ten times larger than a 4.

Anyway, a nuclear test site isn’t the only thing newsworthy in that vicinity.  If you wonder if the North Koreans are evil enough to actually use one of their new toys, well, have a look around the neighborhood.

Open Sources: Special Nukewatch Edition

ANYONE UP FOR A NUKE POOL? So North Korea didn’t test a nuke on Monday, as rumor had it, but Sung Yoon Lee was on the record (in an email to me) before that, saying it would happen around February 10th.

If it’s a uranium device, the closest guess gets my autograph on your copy of “Meltdown.”  I say this knowing that there might be two winners, and that it might be a while before we know, if we ever do. For more on that, you may find Sig Hecker’s thoughts to be of interest, but be mindful that Hecker has sometimes gone astray when he let his political views influence his scientific conclusions; for example, he was a long-time skeptic of a growing body of open-source evidence that North Korea violated the 1994 Agreed Framework by assembling a uranium enrichment program.  Even now, he still finds North Korea’s pursuit of a uranium enrichment program “puzzling,” yet former SecDef Bill Perry thinks the North Koreans actually have at least two HEU facilities.

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WHILE OUR EYES WERE ON PUNGGYE-RI, the Israelis just bombed another WMD facility in Syria with a North Korean connection.

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ONE THING I CLEARLY SENSE is that the mood in Washington is much more open to ideas like this than at any time in the last five years.  Centrists of both parties are acknowledging that diplomacy has failed — Perry refers to it as “the same losing diplomatic strategy” — and guys like Bill Richardson, who continue to advocate appeasement, have been marginalized.  Most North Korea-watchers still seem uncomfortable with their cautious and qualified support for new sanctions, but thankfully, some people know exactly where they stand.  We don’t to guess where Ed Royce’s head is:

In an interview in Seoul with Yonhap News Agency, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the U.S. Treasury Department’s 2005 blacklisting of a Macau-based bank accused of laundering money for the North Korean regime proved to be “the most effective” means to deal with Pyongyang’s provocative behaviors.  [....]

“When we did that with the Banco Delta Asia, the impact they created was the situation where the North Korean regime could not pay its generals, could not get the hard currency they needed in order to continue its nuclear program,” Royce said, referring to the Macau-based bank.

If North Korea detonates a nuclear device again, Royce said, “I will suggest those types of sanctions to the Treasury Department and its executive branches in order to create deterrence this type of behavior.”  [Yonhap]

Royce is a man after my own heart.  The problem is that these actions can’t work unless the Executive Branch is willing to enforce them.  The last time the boys at Treasury tried that, State rolled them.  And of course, the China and Korea lobbies will do everything in their power to insulate their own North Korea-enabling corporations and banks from the effect of these measures.

It’s good to see U.S. and South Korean diplomats already coordinating about what new sanctions they’ll pile on, but what effect will it have on Kaesong?  It’s too early to judge Park Geun-Hye, and the Obama Administration has never looked less serious.  You can see it in the Obama Administration’s retreat on U.N. sanctions, and its anemic application of Executive Order 13,382.  But at least the stage is set for a public debate about North Korea policy, and in the current political environment, there’s almost no chance State can get Congress to fund the aid that North Korea would demand as the price of Agreed Framework III.

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I WELCOME THE HARDENING OF ATTITUDES toward North Korea, but let’s be a little smarter about it.  Someone needs to take a deep breath and chill.

 

Sometimes, a missile is just a missile

Every time North Korea tests a rocket, Hans Blix sheds a little tear and Ban Ki Moon’s fluffy white tail stops wagging, because North Korean rocket tests violate three U.N. Security Council Resolutions — 1695 (which bans “all activities related to its ballistic missile programme”), UNSCR 1718 (ditto, and requires N. Korea to “re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching”), and 1874 (which bans “any launch using ballistic missile technology”).  North Korea’s official response is that it is launching peaceful satellites, not testing ICBMs.  You may be wondering if anyone on the Outer Earth is still fool enough to believe this.

There’s little reason to doubt North Korea’s claim that it simply wants to put a satellite into space.  [John Feffer, Foreign Policy in Focus]

Maybe John Feffer just needs more reason, so he can reason his way to what’s obvious to the rest of us.

North Korea exhibited the fuselage of what is presumed to be the long-range rocket it launched in December, and explicitly called it a ballistic missile, despite its claims to the outside world that the Unha-3 was part of its peaceful space development program, a report said Monday.

The report by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun quoted North Korean sources as saying that the fuselage was displayed under the name “Hwasong-13″ among the exhibitions of the country’s missile lineup in an exhibition hall in Pyongyang. The Hwasong line also includes shorter-range scud missiles, which the country has produced since the 1980′s.  [Yonhap]

Well, you say, if they’re missiles, then they must be for strictly defensive deterrence.  No need to infer any malicious intent here, right?  So we now have this, via North Korea’s quasi-official Uriminzokkiri:

Uriminzokkiri roughly translates to “among our race only” and is aimed at South Korean norksimps. It is reportedly run from China, a country that selectively decides what speech should be permitted based on the state’s value judgments about its content.  Or so you may have heard.  (Hat tip)

If your memory is long enough, may recall that other norksimps in South Korea, the Korean Teachers’ Union, produced an equally sickening video for schoolchildren before the 2005 APEC Forum in Busan, featuring replays of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, set to “What a Wonderful World.”  A theme seems to be emerging.

I’m sure that all across the more progressive quarters of this world, there are fevered minds with room enough for the conflicting lunacies that the Jews and neocons pulled off 9/11, and also that on 9/11, nineteen great martyrs fulfilled a divine mandate of vengeance against toddlers, flight attendants, and office workers.  Similarly, there’s clearly some market in some quarters of Korea for fantasies of North Korea’s peaceful satellites destroying American cities.  I hope that market is a whole lot smaller than it was a decade ago.

If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that the North Koreans aren’t just fucking around.  We already know what they’re capable of, morally speaking.  Faster, please.

Rumor Control: Nuke Test Imminent

Thanks to those of you who emailed the tips.  I’m hearing either this weekend or Monday.  I guess we’ll know soon enough if that’s disinformation.

Over at Foreign Policy …

Professor Sung Yoon Lee and I have a piece up discussing the world’s next, almost-certain-to-be-lost opportunity to respond to North Korea more effectively than having Susan Rice continue to beat her cranium against the Great Wall of China at the Security Council.  It’s a blend of Professor Lee’s prognostications about what the North will do next, and some of the financial constriction ideas I’ve been pushing as one of those Three C’s.

I’ll say this about FP — it’s certainly a great place to find an audience that isn’t, erm, accustomed to reading that sort of proposal, which makes me all the more appreciative that they decided to publish it.  I’m sure the comments will be just … fascinating.

I want to offer my sincere thanks to Professor Lee for his co-authorship, without which I doubt FP would have given this serious consideration.  Admittedly, there are many people who share his linguistic head start toward understanding the pathology of North Korea; very few who are his equal in judgment, intellect, and knowledge; and none who can communicate that understanding so cogently to those of us who aren’t Korean.  Honestly, I think his English is actually several levels better than mine.  That’s what makes him such a unique resource.

Update:  Here’s Prof. Lee saying many of the same things in 2009.

Nuke Test Watch: One Disease, Many Symptoms

OK, I admit it — I’m disappointed in the North Koreans for wimping out:

North Korea on Tuesday ruled out an imminent nuclear weapon test, but vowed to expand and bolster its nuclear deterrence as well as its sovereign right to launch satellites, while slamming the Group of Eight nations’ condemnation of its failed long-range rocket launch in April.

In a remark given to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that the North didn’t have a plan for a nuclear test from the beginning, because it sought to launch a scientific and technical satellite.

“From the beginning, we did not envisage such a military measure as a nuclear test as we planned to launch a scientific and technical satellite for peaceful purposes,” said the official.

“Several weeks ago, we informed the U.S. side of the fact that we are restraining ourselves in real actions though we are no longer bound to the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement, taking the concerns voiced by the U.S. into consideration for the purpose of ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula necessary for focusing every effort on the peaceful development.” [Yonhap]

Well, damn. I wanted an election-year demonstration of how our desperate diplomatic appeals and offers failed to buy North Korea out of the headlines. I wanted someone else to point out how we allowed our obsession with treating each symptom to interfere with our diagnosis and treatment of the disease. I wanted someone else to wonder how it is that even now, our diplomats seem befuddled that North Korea doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to when appeased. And maybe I’ll still get what I want. Keep hope alive!

If North Korea puts this off, the most plausible reason is that China pressured North Korea to put it off. This will be both temporary and inadequate. If the North Koreans don’t test a nuke before Election Day, it’s a safe bet they’ll test one shortly thereafter.

Earlier Tuesday, James Hardy, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly said that images taken by two satellite companies, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, in the past month showed more earth being removed from a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea’s northeast.

There is a trope in this town that China — despite being the portal for the vast majority of North Korea’s regime-sustaining trade and aid, both legal and illegal — really can’t control North Korea. I’ve long suspected that China merely chooses not to control North Korea, except just before American and South Korean election seasons. But we’re never more than one excuse way from North Korea doing something completely different from what it just said.

Of course, most diseases have many symptoms. Have a look at what the North Koreans are doing at the Cape Musudan test site. Yes, 38 North can be interesting when it’s adding something new to the discussion.

On October 11, 2008, North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism for its progress toward nuclear disarmament. Discuss among yourselves.

New Imagery of Mt. Mantap Nuclear Test Site

I’ve updated the end of my Camp 16 / Mt. Mantap post with new GeoEye imagery of the test site, published on 38 North.

A New Approach to North Korea: Contain, Constrict & Collapse

Sometime in the next few hours, North Korea will launch a prototype for an intercontinental ballistic missile, in flagrant violation of three U.N. Security Council resolutions. The North Koreans announced the launch two weeks after agreeing to a deal to freeze their missile and nuclear programs in exchange for U.S. food aid. It now seems they will follow their missile test with a nuclear test. Traditionally, Chinese obstructionism delays U.N. Security Council action by about three weeks after a North Korean missile test, and North Korea’s next nuke test usually follows that by six to eight weeks. A month later, there will be more U.N. action — this time, maybe even another resolution. The resolution won’t do much, because China will undercut sanctions by funding the regime, and will even let North Korea smuggle missile parts and luxury goods through Chinese ports.  After another six to nine months, the State Department will have convinced the President that the sanctions aren’t working and announce its latest agreement to give North Korea real aid in exchange for fake promises to disarm.  If we’re lucky, the next missile test won’t happen for another two years after that.

Read more

North Korea shipped chemical reagents to Syria, possibly via China

This is a little old now, but I haven’t seen anyone else talking about it, so I will. The U.N. has launched an investigation into an attempted shipment of chemical weapons reagents and protective suits to Syria, a close ally of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and whose government gave safe passage to recruits on their way to Iraq to join Al Qaeda forces there.

In November 2009, Greek authorities seized a container from a Liberia-registered freighter as it headed toward Syria. Inside the container they found wooden boxes stuffed with several types of ampules believed to be made of glass, each containing liquid or powdered reagents, the sources said. These reagents are used to identify chemical substances that become airborne after the use of chemical weapons, the sources said. The reagents can be used in chemical weapons attacks and for defending against them, they added.

The Greek authorities also seized about 14,000 anti-chemical weapons suits from the vessel. The suits were the same type as those seized by South Korean authorities in September of the same year, which were determined to be designed for military use as they are extremely airtight, the sources said. Observers say North Korea tried to build up their foreign currency reserves through the export of reagents and protective suits. [Yomiuri Shimbun]

North Korea is a member in good standing of the United Nations, and was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss among yourselves. It may also be worth discussing this:

The diplomatic sources pointed out the possibility that the attempted export of chemical weapons reagents was conducted through China, as in past smuggling cases involving North Korea. [....] As long as Beijing does not stop neutralizing the sanctions against Pyongyang, it will be impossible to prevent arms smuggling by North Korea, the sources said,

The U.N. resolution calls for U.N. member nations to take forcible measures to inspect North Korean cargo ships if they are suspected to be in violation of the arms embargo. But it is unclear whether China inspected North Korea’s cargo shipments strictly. According to annual reports submitted by the Sanctions Committee’s expert panel to the Security Council in 2010 and 2011, China served as a transit point in at least four of the 10 arms smuggling cases involving North Korea.

Said “possibility” must have been fairly strong for “diplomatic sources” to see the need to implicate China by name, although I don’t think anonymous leaks will be much of a political disincentive for the likes of Xi Jinping.

What a shame it would be if somehow Taiwan acquired nukes small enough to be carried on a new indigenous delivery system with an uncanny resemblance to the Tomahawk. Of course, some wouldn’t see this as a shame at all, but as a far better way to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait than putting an American aircraft carrier battle group in the middle of that. A nuclear Taiwan might even restore enough deterrence and cross-strait stability to allow us to back away from the infamous “Three Communiques,” and give Taiwan a stronger incentive to budget more for its own conventional defense, such as against a naval blockade. After all, the Chinese are smart enough to play the proxy game with little apparent restraint, and nuking up Taiwan looks increasingly attractive as a way to ensure its defense without getting us into a war with another nuclear power. It isn’t the proliferation WMD’s that I lose sleep over, it’s the proliferation of WMD’s to psychopaths, especially when our government isn’t doing anything effective to deter that.

This has been a pretty depressing election year, and it’s probably too much to expect to have a real debate about whether the people who run China really harbor enough malice against us to facilitate these things intentionally. It might do the “realists” of the world much good if they’d spend a few minutes each day reading Global Times editorials like this one instead of the echo chamber that Foreign Policy has become. You can argue that the Global Times is only one side of a spectrum of official opinion that the Chinese government tolerates, but its viewpoint certainly seems well represented by people like Shen Dingli, and speaks much more like China’s actions than the ones you’re likely to hear on CCTV’s new English-language channel.

Below the fold, I reprint a slightly edited version of something I wrote at the late New Ledger in February of 2010. Read more

Al-Kibar Redux

There’s nothing more I really care to say about what we should have done about the North Korean-built nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in Syria, which Israel destroyed in a September 2009 air strike. This was a matter of some temporary inconvenience to Chris Hill’s efforts (abetted by the President and Secretary of State) to sell us a shiny, pre-owned agreed framework, complete with rust-proofing and warranty.

Recently, however, Dick Cheney’s memoir has revived that debate. Michael Anton, writing in The Weekly Standard, summarizes Cheney’s argument. Bob Woodward responds here, at the Washington Post. For sur-rebuttal, we have this piece by Elliott Abrams, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman and John Hannah, writing in the Washington Post. Among the interesting facts we learn from this is that Syria apparently had other facilities on its territory, presumably reprocessing facilities, that were designed to work with the reactor.

On a somewhat related note, although this piece by Jonathan Pollack about North Korea’s missile trade is interesting, it finds that North Korea’s missile exports declined precipitously after 2006. So how can Pollock be so sure of that? He thinks this decline coincides roughly with when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1695, the first resolution banning North Korea’s missile program. I suspect that Pollack is partially right — North Korea probably did sell fewer missiles outright since the Proliferation Security Initiative began to bite, although I have yet to be convinced of exactly when the decline began or how steep it was. The reason? It may just be that because of said resolution, the North Koreans and their customers simply became more cagey about hiding their commerce. One way they went about this was to fly their missile parts right through the Beijing airport. Maybe Pollack has ways of registering that traffic, too, but I tend to doubt it.

Also somewhat related: I don’t find myself agreeing with Jennifer Rubin all that often, but I think failing to block Wendy Sherman’s confirmation will eventually turn out to be one of the worst decisions the Republicans in the Senate failed to make. It would have been better to let Sung Kim slip through and make Sherman the political issue, but some congressional oversight is still better than none at all.