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.







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