US sizes up Kim; Replacement Test Site Criteria

(CNN) US sizes up Kim ahead of possible nuclear summit.

This is a very good article, one of a few recent surprises from CNN. Remarks by those interviewed deserve comment.

Because of the delicacy of this period, this discussion is restricted to interpretations of public statements, and factual data. No inference should be made that I advocate any particular position, tactic, or the use or non-use of force. Let’s consider:

  • Serious gesture – closing of test site..
  • Alternative test sites.
  • Personal impression of Kim, and body language.
  • Kim as a rational actor.


They [U.S. officials] said the May 24 destruction of underground tunnels to test nuclear devices was a “serious gesture.” But it “doesn’t foreclose further testing” at other locations, one official said.

It’s impossible to know whether the official’s statement expresses genuine belief, or is reciprocal flattery of Kim. But it is not a “serious gesture”.  See The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect. The test site had to be abandoned. Kim accurately estimated that to abandon it silently would be a sign of humiliation. To abandon it publicly would be a PR triumph.  If it is Kim’s logic, it is impeccable.


In addition the US has preliminarily identified other potential sites where the North Koreans could dig new underground tunnels for testing.

Is  North Korea is out of potential test sites, or was the closed site just the best choice? The North Koreans have been constrained by poverty of technology to excavate their test site by the methods of 19th century hard rock mining. The easiest tunnel to dig is horizontal. This is why N. Korea requires a mountain;  the desired burial depth can be reached by tunneling in from the side.  Free of this restriction, many options exist.

In the 19th century, as in North Korea today , tunnels were excavated  with explosives, hand and pneumatic tools, and carts on rails to remove the tailings. As long as the tunnel is above the water table, the rock is hard, and the slope is close to horizontal, there is no particular limit to  the length of the tunnel. It’s simply a matter of manpower and time.

The north portal of the now closed test site is located at 41°16’51.77″N, 129° 5’7.62″E, which you may paste into Google Earth for a bird’s eye view. By conventional calculation the safe burial depth for a 160kt blast is  1788 feet. If we suppose the North Koreans honored the calculation, the  length of the tunnel connecting the north portal to the site of the last blast is about 7000 feet. If the depth calculation was not honored,  the reasoning applies in a relative way. Now let’s see what this means in terms of a new site. The site was chosen with these criteria:

  • Proximity to forced labor camps.
  • Minimum tunnel length required to burrow far enough into the mountain mass to achieve the safe burial depth.
  • Well above ground water.
  • Tunnel sloping downwards from the test site to achieve passive water drainage.

The closed site, Mantapsan Mountain, is part of the Hamgyong Range, which offers many possibilities. Have a Google Earth look at 41°12’53.11″N, 127°21’29.34″E, about 15 miles north of Mantapsan. The 1788 foot  burial depth can be achieved with a tunnel about three miles long, determined by the reduced slope of this alternative. If the North Koreans do not honor the conventional burial depth, the new tunnel would be proportionately shorter.

Horizontal tunneling is the low-tech option. Favored by geology and sophisticated technology,  the U.S. switched in the late 50’s to large diameter borehole rigs, requiring minimal manpower to drill big holes straight down.


Pompeo is not specifically trained to interpret body language indicators or other subtle details that may have presented themselves in these meetings, but he was accompanied by intelligence officials who were taking note of these cues, a source familiar told CNN.

There is a particular culture barrier to reading Kim’s body language. . Were South Koreans among the intelligence officials?


That idea is largely supported by the US intelligence community’s assessment that Kim is a “rational actor” motivated by the survival of his own regime.

The utility of “rational actor” is that it supposedly excludes certain kinds of behavior.  But page 491 of Stalin; The Court of the Red Tsar, by Montefiore, illustrates the cultural relativity of the phrase. Quoting,

Stalin was asked whether Hitler was a lunatic or an adventurer: “I agree that he was an adventurer, but I can’t agree that he was mad. Hitler was a gifted man. Only a gifted man could unite the German people…”

The present danger is that Kim may be as sane as Hitler, or possibly saner, but his logic may not be ours. Numerous brief episodes and isolated events from the recent past suggest this. But a more effective counterweight to the “rational actor” theory is in the relationship between Kim’s Korea and China.

A totalitarian state uses isolation to maintain control, to avoid contamination by the more plural outside world.  It’s the excuse for “juche”.  But interaction with China presents little of the danger of pluralism. China has tried  to promote market reforms in the North. The North has had for at least a decade the opportunity to join the many smaller Asian countries that host subcontractors to China based enterprises.

With the expense of great human suffering, the choice, not to integrate with the economy of China, is logic that differs from our own. No other nearby country has been able to resist the temptations of enrichment, but North Korea has. It implies a kind of logic  presumably excluded by assuming a “rational actor.”

Quoting Bruce Klingner,

“When someone meets with Kim, they often come back sort of in awe — realizing that he is not the crazy guy in the basement — and with the conclusion that the US can deal with him,” he said.

“But due to the fact that they often go into the meeting with a misconception of Kim based on caricatures from outside intelligence community, the perceptions often shifts from one extreme to another,” he added.

Kim is not Idi  Amin, who was vividly nuts. Saddam and Stalin could charm. There may not be a dictator alive today who can’t. So put these on the scale:

  • Deeds: atrocities, assassinations, and torture.
  • Talk: He gives good meeting. In fact, he could be a con.

“He gives good meeting” may exclude only one thing: that Kim himself would push the nuclear button. The question lies with more indirect actions, such as proliferation, selling nukes, or parts of nukes. If Kim sells plutonium cores, is he liable for the use?

It may not exclude selling suitcase nukes for a pretty penny.









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