Yemen Hodeidah Assault

The assault on Hodeidah is significant as the first heavy ground assault by the Saudi led coalition. Previous fighting around Aden was much lighter.

In Saudi, Houthis, Yemen & Pirates of Penzance, it was noted that the wealthy Gulf states do not have a lot of young men willing to endure the privation and danger of grunts in the infantry. The forces of Yemen’s titular president, Mansour Hadi, were also inadequate. In this assault, much of the manpower is reported to come from a UAE run training camp  in Somalia, and possibly Eritrea. Most of the assault troops are mercenaries in the African tradition, with basic infantry skills and nothing more.

The mercenaries have  limited skills, limited motivation, and no connection with the Yemen culture. So this  is not a prelude to a military resolution of the conflict. The taking of Hodeidah would give the coalition a grip on the supply lines, though small  arms could still be smuggled from Iran in small boats.

With Hodeidah in control of the coalition, aid can be directed to political advantage.  In a country of tribes, aid buys loyalty. The war will continue, because there are too many tribes; the northwest and the whole of the south want their own ways, and there are too few resources for any of them. Not too long ago, the south was a separate country.  From Yemen, Saleh (Now Dead), and Civil War, Part 2,

With lower population density, absence of the tertiary conflict potential, and the civic, if not national feeling of Aden, the  south has potential for natural stability. This is best actualized by splitting it off.

Reuters offers a Yemen “factbox” , as part of (page down) French special forces on the ground in Yemen: Le Figaro.

But the tangled weave cannot be captured in a factbox. Ali Abdullah Saleh was Zaydi Shi’a. The Houthis are primarily Zaydi Shia, yet Saleh was their principal persecutor before he became their ally. Yemen does not organize along casually assumed lines.

For the weave, take a look at

Trump – Kim Summit; Tritium Choke Point

The pundits have displayed their scorecards, with suggestions that Trump has given away too much for too little. This is possible, but Trump’s strategy may be more complex than it appears. To cozy up to Kim is either naive or Machiavellian. The techniques of this blog do not allow us to  discern which. We hope, of course, that Trump’s outward enthusiasm is tempered by inner caution. Of mistakes that can be made, effusing about what a great guy Kim is, is the least of them.

The techniques of this blog do not contain a method for input of displays of emotion. Some may remember how FDR,  a very astute politician, attempted to charm Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Stalin, himself a charmer, convinced FDR that he had succeeded. To cement the relationship, FDR favored Stalin with attention in ways that excluded, slighted, and insulted the third great man at YaltaWinston Churchill. Yet FDR’s reputation has endured, even though, when very ill, at the end of his life, he made a fool of himself. Trump, in excellent health, has many upcoming chances to review  his judgement.

In March, CNN ran Trump teeters on the edge of a familiar North Korean trap. The possibility remains as real now as in March.  But if it is a trap, it’s not his fault that Trump  has to play it.  In diplomacy as in golf, one must play the ball where it lies. The world does not look kindly on leaders who pluck the ball out of the sand trap. Trump knows that he has to hit it out.

Whether  Kim’s nuclear complex can be destroyed by strike was doubted by the media, though H.R. McMaster made it clear that the option exists. Military action has risks, it may have to be repeated at intervals, and it invites very unpleasant retaliation. It doesn’t matter if the man with the gun is big or small.

If schmoozing  a dictator saves lives, is it the wrong thing to do? Only if you believe what you are saying. The primary danger is a weakening of sanctions, which were agreed to by China to avoid a strike.

In a later act of this play,  a troupe of inspectors descends on the North, a mountainous country with thousands of caves and no informers. Unlike Iraq, those on the ground will not be able to buy information. Unlike Iran, dissident thought survives only in the most private corners of the mind. The North Koreans will helpfully stage manage the process of getting from place to place. Under these conditions, shell games flourish.  There is, of course, nothing to stop the North from being completely honest. But why would they be?

So it may interest journalists who normally focus on figments of modern life in that country,  and culture, that there is one question they can ask that is so crucial to the North, it would tend to result in a few yeas in a labor camp, or at least destruction of their cameras.  Ask about tritium.

The North’s nuclear program has a choke point, tritium. All miniaturized nukes require a few grams of it. This is called boosted fission.  North Korean photos indicate that the pure, gas form of tritium is used, injected into the center of the plutonium core under high pressure. The tritium acts as a neutron amplifier.

Tritium has a half life of 12.3 years. Every few years, the tritium in a nuke  must be flushed out and replaced with fresh. The expired tritium can be refined to get some “fresh”, but regardless, the total  inventory decreases by half every 12.3 years, This means that a nuclear power must continually make it, which requires a nuclear reactor.

Boosted nukes are  portable, by one man, or several. They can be carried out the back door when inspectors come in the front. Nuclear reactors are not portable; they typically weigh thousands of tons. If the reactor(s) used by the North to produce tritium were disabled or destroyed, the North’s arsenal would become inoperable in three to five years. After that time, without replenishment of tritium, the majority of their warheads would either fail to  detonate, or fizzle. In the case of a 160kt hydrogen nuke, the secondary, fusion stage would fail to light. The yield of the primary without the tritium boost would be zero to very low.

Could the North Koreans hide a tritium producing reactor in a cave? It would be very difficult, since a reactor has a large infrastructure footprint, and produces a lot of heat, which must be dissipated by the environment. Tritium production is the conspicuous activity to maintain an already extant nuclear arsenal. Without it, the weapons become duds.

One can anticipate the North’s excuse,  that the reactors must operate to produce medical isotopes. Ludicrous in a starving country, but diplomacy has suffered worse.

By tracking the tritium, open source monitors can participate in the process of devising and enforcing a durable denuclearization. Allowing the reactors to remain fueled and in place  would reprise the Iran treaty.

Follow the tritium like you follow the money.



North Korea’s past no indication, South Korea adviser; The Past is Prologue

(Reuters) North Korea’s past action no indication of future behavior: South Korea adviser. Quoting,

North Korea’s past action should not be used to try to predict its future behavior, the special national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in Tokyo on Monday, during a panel discussion on North Korea.

“Now is the time to set aside all those things. Let us see whether North Korea can deliver what the U.S. wants and the entire world wants,” Moon said.

“Therefore past behavior should not be the yardstick to judge current or future behavior of North Korea.”

Mr. Moon Jae In,  William Shakespeare disagrees with you. So do I.  The past is prologue. Quoting from The Tempest,

She that is Queen of Tunis; she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man’s life; she that from Naples
Can have no note, unless the sun were post—
The Man i’ th’ Moon’s too slow—till new-born chins
Be rough and razorable; she that from whom
We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again
(And by that destiny) to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come,
In yours and my discharge.

The Tempest Act 2, scene 1, 245–254

Wikipedia explains:

What’s past is prologue” is a quotation by William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest. The phrase was originally used in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. Antonio uses it to suggest that all that has happened before that time, the “past”, has led Sebastian and himself to this opportunity to do what they are about to do: commit murder, or make another choice.

In contemporary use, the phrase stands for the idea that history sets the context for the present. The quotation is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC,[1] and is commonly used by the military when discussing the similarities between war throughout history.[2][3]

The past is prologue to the future.

Kim Fires 3 Top Military Officers, Part 3

So far, we have:

  • The tendency of pundits towards circular reasoning, imposing a personality on the problem when the problem is the personality.
  • A  specific facet of personality.
  • The uncertainty created by the above.
  • A factual fence constructed from the external world, consisting of
    • limitations on how much and how fast an organization can change.
    • Kim’s search for an island of stability, a situation in which he can survive.

If you still think you know why Kim fired the three officers, consider Pavel Sudoplatov’s memoir, Special Tasks, from Stalin’s time. Besides running spy rings, Sudoplatov was head of the assassination service. Unlike his masters, he was the kind of person you might have wanted as a friend,  though deceived in his loyalty to the Soviet state.  In the chapter Final Years Under Stalin,  pages 320 -321, Sudoplatov explains how he came to realize the true nature of the Soviet state. Quoting,

Anna [Malenkov’s deputy] revealed to me that the leadership was aware of the heavy toll of every ideological drive, but the ends, Malenkov said, justified these “permitted costs.” This criminal justification for the adverse costs of the purge campaigns was the fatal mistake of the rulers…”

Anna did not realize how much she revealed to me concerning the true state of power relationships when she said that the Central Committee was aware of “negative elements” — meaning fabricated accusations…”

This is meaningful today in North Korea, a living Stalinist fossil. The political culture of purges an executions, even juche, descends from  Stalin.  It has no other roots. And Kim, like Stalin, is paranoid.

Sudoplatov, who lived inside a Stalinist system, did not understand it. This implies caution when we  ascribe motives to shuffles and executions. With people in general, there is usually a mix of motives. So why did Kim replace three top officers? Contributory reasons:

  • To disorganize the government, limiting the chance of conspiracy in Kim’s absence.
  • To reduce resistance of the nomenklatura to tactical concessions.

There could be other reasons, but these, and paranoia, are all that’s required to explain the shuffle.

And real change?  Kim’s test site became unusable, and he made two quick trips to Beijing. This was followed by a 180 degree change in rhetoric, from vitriol to sweetness and light. Rulers don’t change their minds that fast.  In fact, their basic attitudes seldom change at all. Change occurs with generations. Systems change fast only when the ruler changes. Duterte’s about-face on the U.S. took all of a month, but it was meditated over a lifetime.

There has been just enough time for Kim, under pressure from Beijing, to devise a change in strategy. Beijing probably prefers real change, but to change the mind of a dictator is not within their ability. So acting as Kim’s shrink, they settled for the psychology of B.F. Skinner: aim to change the behavior, and thought will follow.

Recapitulating from Part 2, the list has six possibilities:

  • Make no changes.
  • Appearance of change.
  • Tweak it.
  • Tactical change,  minimal but real, to deceive an adversary.
  • Bend it.
  • Break it.

A no-knowledge estimate  would be a fair roll of the dice, with a 1/3 chance of something good. Of the six, only the last two equate to “de-nuke”. But we’ve fenced the problem with outside knowledge. Then we worked inside North Korea, with the Stalinist roots and the general characteristics of dictators and change. Kim’s search for an island of stability  biases towards the upper part of the list.

Deception is  a traditional  tool of foreign policy. With  Russia, the origin of the North’s political culture, the exceptions are the SALT agreements, honored until the past few years. Deception was avoided by the skill of the negotiators, of whom Henry Kissinger was paramount, the accuracy of compliance verification, and mutual interest. But for Kim to abandon it is unlikely. It is too useful a  tool; it’s like MSG, making everything taste better.

Now we can estimate Kim’s negotiating strategy. Should the talks not end very quickly, Trump will likely encounter a strategy with these elements:

  • Kim will entice with a   process that offers good public results, with maximal opportunity for cheating. As with Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran, the biggest loophole is the inability to inspect everywhere you would like to. It begins with trivial noncooperation, with increasing truculence, becoming an issue of national sovereignty.
  • Kim will try to sell closing of the test site as a concession that deserves reciprocation, when in fact the test site became unusable.
  • A pig-in–a-poke”, with invented  complications. Part of this will be justified by N. Korea based on a right to secrecy. The rest is justified by the alleged complexity of the de-nuke process. Some experts have floated ten years to accomplish it. But the warheads themselves could all be loaded on a ship and sequestered on a Pacific atoll. Any given time to dispose of warheads is not a technical issue, but  a political one.
  • A shift in  world sentiment away from Trump and favoring Kim, making it difficult or impossible to reimpose sanctions.
  • Momentum  in the form of faked progress, so that  exit by the U.S. becomes increasingly difficult to justify. If the U.S. exits, it. is cast in world opinion as the deal breaker.

I once spent two hours on a plane with a member of a U.S. state dept. team negotiating with Japan to protect whales. When I asked, “Isn’t it just that the Japanese want to eat whales and we don’t want them to?” the negotiator sputtered and raged the rest of the flight about how I could not possibly understand the complexities of the issue, how it was totally beyond my ken. It was a relief when we hit some turbulence and almost lost it.

So let’s simplify:

  • Some international experts,  representing an industry of nonproliferation  authorities and international bodies,  say that de-nuking would take a long time.  The complexity of monitoring partial control regimes, like the  Iran treaty, is one reason.  With North Korea, much could be accomplished quickly. The speed is mostly political.
  • The warheads can be disposed of quickly. The plutonium cores are not very radioactive, and not toxic unless abraded. In a remote location, with simple precautions,   the cores  can be easily removed from the warheads. The conventional explosives that surround the core are no obstacle, because there must be maintenance procedures. What remains after the core and explosives are extracted can be crushed by a bulldozer.
  • Decommissioning a reactor, and the plutonium purification plant, both of which involve a lot of highly radioactive material, does take a long time, sometimes decades. It represents a long term opportunity for cheating and regenerating the program.
  • Secrecy of North Korean technology is not a valid negotiating point, since it is inferior to that of every other nuclear power.

In the past, nuke negotiations  have bogged down in agonizing detail, disguising true motives. SALT succeeded because the Soviet leadership was under a more permanent kind of pressure, challenged by the economic squeeze of  Reagan’s “Star Wars”. The Iran negotiations may signify both what is possible and to be avoided.

The gray area is a proposal with a process that is so complicated to assess that experts are required to do the nuts and bolts negotiations. This is the way it was with SALT. Is North Korea entitled to the same?

An early crisis in the talks could occur if Kim insists on reciprocation for closing of his test site. See The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect. Even though Kim had no alternative, failure to reciprocate promises classic “loss of face.” Could he be placated with something equally valueless?

Lets’ see how it goes.







Kim Fires 3 Top Military Officers, Part2

When the quality of information is poor, try to shrink the space in which you have to search for the estimate. It’s like knowing you lost your keys somewhere in your house. This  technique, “fencing the problem”, was introduced in Russian Casualties estimate; a technique note. It receives further application  in these articles.

The fence is made of high quality almost-facts that are likely to contain the estimate. If the estimate contains a line of reasoning that jumps the fence, it’s discarded.  The open-source information that comes from North Korea itself is poor quality. So to construct a fence, let’s look outside. There can be multiple concentric fences, the inner ones made of progressively lower quality “almost-facts.”  This is a form of “fuzzy logic.” Let’s now consider the outermost fence.

The outermost fence  is made of Kim’s options for the system he inherited:

  • Make no changes.
  • Appearance of change, or temporary change, with no lasting effect.  A difference that is no difference can for a time change the way the regime is seen by the world; the release of political dissidents, who are subsequently re-arrested.
  • Tweak it, changing low level details.  I.e., “Shoe repair shops are now permitted away from place of residence.” There has been gradual appearance in North Korea of small scale private enterprise.
  • Tactical change,  minimal but real, to deceive an adversary, yet acceptable to the power base.
  • Bend it. The Soviet New Economic Policy of 1922, which snapped back into a massacre of peasants.
  • Break it. This is rare while a ruler is alive. Myanmar, where the ruling military clique chose a new direction, may be the singular example.

One would think that the the more absolute the power of the ruler, the more change the ruler could accomplish. Historic examples suggest exactly the opposite. Maintaining grip on power  consumes most of the energy of the dictator. Change requires initiative in the power structure. Initiative risks loss of grip on power. The stakes are high, because loss of power frequently results in death of the deposed ruler.

Absolute rulers sometimes liberalize temporarily, giving the appearance of change, for these reasons:

  • For foreign aid.
  • To play power blocs against each other.
  • To tempt hidden dissenters to expose themselves, so they can be destroyed.
  • As a social experiment, as with the Khrushchev Thaw and Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. But both rulers were powerful thinkers, forged in the Bolshevik  mold  to be authentic revolutionaries.

We think we aren’t interested in the second list.  We want North Korea to choose Option 5 from the first list, to bend the system. Bend, because the nuclear effort has absorbed a large part of  state resources for more than a decade. The only carrot we have to offer is economic, which implies opening, which implies  liberalization.  But the stability of the N. Korean state relies on just:

  • Enough cash to pay the salaries of   the nomenklatura, and for the material perks of western luxuries that keep them happy.
  • Enough cash for the nuclear program, which is part of the myth of the state.
  • Fuel supplies.
  • The minimal prosperity required to prevent starvation at the bottom from creeping upwards.
  • Isolation.

Borrowing a term from systems theory, there is likely to be an island of metastability, conditions of a stable regime close to the situation before sanctions. Kim knows the island, and he is rowing towards it. It’s not a great island; it is only a temporary refuge against eventual decay. Kim executed around 370 nomenklatura in that period. But it is familiar. Only a brilliant intellect  ventures beyond the familiar.

We should look for contradictory precedents. Among states other than the Stalinist offspring, there are many.  The Second French Empire of Napoleon III began as a dictatorship that liberalized over two decades. But among Stalinist states, history is bereft of examples of significant change  with these criteria:

  • Small country.
  • Without ruling transition.
  • Absence of revolution.

Consider instead, these Stalinist states with cult-of-personality: Ceausescu‘s Romania,  Hoxha’s Albania ,  and Honecker’s East Germany.  These persisted until replaced by revolution.

Belarus, unique as a new, post-Soviet Stalinist state,  is worth a look, as a more observable version of North Korea. The country exists in a metastable state of backwardness that Alexander Lukashenko hopes will not decay before he dies. The country has deindustrialized, to the point that it makes a few tractors. It has revived serfdom.

What is the possible exception? To be a revolutionary requires creativity, or receptiveness to new ideas. If not a great thinker, the revolutionary is well above average. But like Venezuela’s Maduro,  every revolutionary thinks that his revolution is the last. Change is abolished, until the next great, or nearly-great thinker comes along.

This is the outermost factual fence of the problem. Since North Korea is so hard to observe, it is composed from the external world. Consisting of almost-facts, it allows for the small possibility that Kim Jong-un is more than competent, that he contains the seeds of greatness. Since Kim Jong-un inherited a system, there is no evidence that he is revolutionary at all.

Greatness is rare. So what does this mean for Kim’s strategy?

To be continued shortly.




Kim Fires 3 Top Military Officers, Part 1

(CNN) North Korea shakes up military leadership as Trump-Kim summit nears.

This is a time of hopes and fears for the Trump-Kim meeting. Neither sentiment is  helpful in the activity of making an intelligence estimate. It will be useful to attempt an estimate that is as completely objective as possible. We can immediately examine it for weaknesses of subjectivity. After the meeting, we can compare it to the accuracy of  sentiment as a predictor, learning something about the faculty called judgment.  And if  our estimate proves wrong,  we can more than shrug our shoulders. We can take it apart and find out why.

Quoting the CNN article,

“All these (promoted) guys are top Kim Jong Un guys,” said Michael Madden, author of the highly respected North Korea Leadership Watch blog. “All three of them have held very sensitive and high level positions under Kim Jong Un, they’re very loyal (to him), and all have experience interacting with foreign delegations.”

Madden’s blog relies on a general characteristic of any propaganda organ. The first purpose is dissemination of propaganda. But it has to be embedded in a large matter of harmless truth. All but the most gullible media consumers unconsciously fact-check against what little they know. On the trivial, obvious level, media must correspond with the consumer’s world. Madden’s blog  dissects North Korean media for the factual material that must accompany propaganda in the media delivery.

This is very good open source material, but conclusions about motives for actions are more speculative. Quoting,

“(Kim) is not going to want these military commissars helping themselves to any of this assistance coming to the North,” Madden said. “That was a problem during the sunshine period, a lot of misappropriation and malfeasance.”

Inferences of Madden, and unnamed administration officials, about Kim’s motives are:

  • The replacements are loyal to Kim.
  • Misappropriation and malfeasance are the reasons for replacement.

If these inferences are not aided by espionage, they rely on the hypothesis that Kim is “good.” But Kim’s inner nature is one of the unknowns, so it is circular reasoning. If we later conclude that Kim is “bad”, it will be equally plausible that:

  • The replacements were driven by  personality, the reason of Stalin’s purges. Stalin was paranoid. Since even paranoids have real enemies, the nuances become inaccessible to open source analysis.
  • Rather than a primary motivation of preventing  malfeasance, Kim wants control in detail, as did Stalin, through personalization of the power structure.

We have some indication of Kim’s level of paranoia. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed in December 2013. He is thought to have advocated the prioritization of of economic reform over military development. Quoting Wikipedia,

Chinese media and North Korea experts suggested that Jang Song-thaek’s fall reflected a rejection of his efforts to prioritize economic development, and a victory for North Korean advocates of a military-first policy.[50]

A man was executed who aspired to be what Kim is hoped to be. But put that aside for a moment. According to Madden et al., Jang Song-thaek was building a parallel power structure. The structure would have acquired the royal dye of legitimacy with the replacement of Kim Jong-un by his half brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Kim Jong-nam was a man of little ambition. He ws the original heir, booted for trying to visit Disneyland Japan on a fake passport. There is no evidence that he had any desire for power, though it is reasonable to suppose that Jang Song-thaek could have drafted him to be the figurehead.

When the media mentions the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, it comes with words like “alleged”, while omitting “Kim Jong-un” except to note that they were half brothers. But intelligence is a business short of facts, and the circumstantial evidence is as good as it comes: Kim had the authority and means, VX nerve agent, to accomplish the murder  of his hapless brother.

Since Kim Jong-nam gave no evidence of ill intent, the motive is simply their shared blood, the fear of a usurper of the throne. In the years preceding his murder, Kim Jong-nam repeated begged for his life. (Guardian) North Korea killing: Kim Jong-nam pleaded for his life, say reports. What follows is predicated on the conclusion that Kim Jong-un ordered the killing of Kim Jong-nam,  very close to the official determination of the  U.S. State Department.  (Reuters) U.S. sanctions North Korea for killing of leader’s half-brother with VX chemical.

Since Jang Song-thaek had the capacity and motive to conspire, his execution had the logical basis of self preservation. But  Kim Jong-nam  lacked capacity and motive. His murder  identifies someone as a threat based on who he is, not what he thinks, with lethal consequence for that person. Hence an insight rare in open-source, a diagnosis of paranoia.

So far, we note:

  • The tendency of pundits towards circular reasoning, imposing a personality on the problem when the problem is the personality.
  • A  specific facet of personality.
  • The uncertainty created by the above.

These are just partial conclusions. We aren’t done yet. To be continued shortly.