On July 7, Mike Pompeo defended the results of the Trump-Kim summit. (Reuters) After Pyongyang put-down, Pompeo stands by ‘difficult’ denuclearization talks. Quoting,
“When we spoke to them about denuclearization, they did not push back,” Pompeo told a news conference after two days of talks in Pyongyang that ended on Saturday. “The road ahead will be difficult and challenging and we know that critics will try to minimize the work that we’ve achieved.”
This is a difficult problem. There would be no point in contradicting Pompeo, unless I thought the problem was being mishandled, and my analysis would clarify. Pompeo is entitled to put a spin on the talks, apropos of encouraging Kim to do the right thing.
There have been two reports since then:
- Increased activity at a plutonium processing plant. (Independent) North Korea has increased nuclear fuel production at secret sites, US officials say.
- At a missile factory. (Telegraph) North Korea renews work at long-range missile factory, US intelligence officials say.
After the plutonium plant accelerated, some respected retired diplomat or other, possibly connected with 38 North, said it was just what you would expect of a dictator who honestly intends to dismantle his nuke program. With the increased missile construction, I guess some respected retired diplomat or other could just keep going with the same argument: to dismantle a program, you enlarge it. You could prove the existence of God this way. This is a weakness of diplomats in general.
Instead of a proof of Kim’s benevolent intents, an uncomfortable insight is offered. In (12/26/2017) N. Korea Missile over Japan; Kim Jong Un’s Fakeout Move, Kim’s behavior amounts to a nasty trick to seize control of the narrative. Whether the sequence was accidental, or intelligently conceived by Kim is of the most vital interest. So here’s the reprint:
- Warnings by the U.S. of the possibility of military action if North Korea continues to progress towards operational ICBM capability. The threat has been made in association with nuke and/or missile testing, but with a somewhat crumbly “red line” that has been an intermittent weakness of U.S. diplomacy for many years.
- The usual dire threats of nuclear catastrophe by North Korea towards the U.S.
- Verbal posturings from the Trump Administration that have tended to alternate between the strike option and diplomacy. The most recent of these is a definitive statement (WP): a strike option is ready to go.
- In response, Kim threatened to (The Hill) target the vicinity of Guam with a missile attack of an unspecified nature. (Splash, explode, or EMP?)
- The Trump Administration implied this would trigger the strike option.
- Kim deferred the Guam strike.
Superficially, it appears a U.S. “win”, with Kim backing down. But he changed the narrative, the story of the strike threshold, making it contingent on a strike on Guam. In public dialog, it transforms “Strike North Korea to disrupt their missile/nuke program” into “Strike North Korea in retaliation to a hostile act.”
We proceed with the assumption that the above was not an accidental success story, that it was Kim’s intelligent conception. “Narrative” turns out be the wrong word, because this is not spin. Kim actually shaped events, converting a war of words into ground facts. Kim controls the game. If this is so, Kim possess a weapon, in the form of intelligent strategy, that the U.S. has not been able to actualize with the same precision.
The manufacturing activities reported by the intelligence community suggest that Kim may try again. This time, ground facts precede words. Mattis: “North Korea ICBM Not a Threat Right Now” Part 2 considers possible triggers for a U.S. strike:
- A missile-born atmospheric detonation in the Pacific.
- A long range test of ICBM standard trajectory, possibly with a survivable reentry vehicle, although it is not required to pose an EMP threat.
- A deployment surge.
- An orbiting satellite, or constellation of satellites, of plausible size and mass to contain a nuclear device.
- A threat of unconventional delivery. The channels of communication relating to the North Korea threat, which are currently vibrantly clear, would suddenly become opaque.
These were thought to be out-of-play after the summit, but they are now in play again. One of the above, a deployment surge, is consistent with the satellite reports. It is now reasonable to consider how a deployment surge could be used by Kim to his advantage. Some narratives:
- Kim surges the missiles out, readying them for rapid in-situ conversion to operational status.
- In this period, Kim’s language notably lacks hostility, encouraging the idea that negotiations are possible, lacking reference to ground facts.
- With all the parts neatly arrayed for quick assembly, the missiles are fueled and the warheads attached.
- Conversion to operational status occurs in the most inconspicuous fashion within the constraints of North Korean technology.
- The North’s rhetoric shifts from bland to harsh. The strategy is nuclear blackmail.
Recently, statements have appeared in the press that, because the missiles uses liquid fuel, they are meaningfully less of a threat than solid fuel rockets. Let’s dispose of that now.
North Korea manufactures UDMH, a hypergolic propellant and nitrogen tetroxide. The rockets can stay fueled for a long time. The launch time is not as instantaneous as with solid-fueled rockets, but it’s not slow. The last U.S. missile in the nuclear deterrent with similar technology was the Titan 2, which could be launched in a minute. So let’s give North Korea an hour.
But what kind of blackmail? The CIA’s assessment of Kim is that he is fundamentally sane with respect to self preservation. So this is not likely:
- Kim demands that sanctions be lifted or he will launch.
But this satisfies the definition of sanity:
- Kim states that in the event of a U.S. strike, he will launch. To launch against ground targets has a touch of insanity. But it’s not an empty threat either; an EMP strike is borderline.
Or he could drag the game out, with:
- The rockets will be removed if sanctions are lifted.
- A peace treaty is signed.
A surge supplies Kim with many more options, in both demands and longevity of the game. In fact, Kim defines the game. Examine the events of last December, and decide whether Kim is in fact a sufficiently sophisticated actor to justify these scenarios.
The viability of possible measures cannot be analyzed via open source. So I am not a critic of the administration’s policy, and I don’t have an opinion on further steps. But the events of 2017 suggest some simple advice:
Don’t escalate the words. Don’t talk about it.
If you’re going to do something, just do it.