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 Yalta, Winston 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.