Recent presentations in the media are useful to confirmation bias, while not actually providing new information. Let’s follow an imaginary news consumer trying to puzzle it out.
CSIS presents Undeclared North Korea: The Sino-ri Missile Operating Base and Strategic Force Facilities. Since this is new to the news, it is instinctively identified as a new threat. It is not; NRO has much finer imaging capabilities than commercial imagery used by CSIS.
Remembering Trump’s effusive praise of Kim Jong-un, our imaginary consumer wonders if the existence of the CSIS – identified facilities is due to spin artists in the Trump administration. Do these facilities antedate North Korea’s development of nukes that can be launched on missiles?
With considerable unease, our consumer cannot make that determination. (They do.) Nevertheless, these missile sites seem to amplify the threat that North Korea presents, in a potential if not actual way.
The average news consumer probably will not jump all the way to the analogy with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is widely criticized for loopholes that in effect allow the development of “nuclear capable missiles.” The distinction between a nuclear capable missile, and one which is not, exists only in the imagination. Hence an Iran analogy is high on the list of outcomes.
Now the consumer has a choice. The bag of choices that makes a reader a conservative, a liberal, or the increasingly rare in-between, promotes a polar response to the idea of the impure blends of truth and lies that most treaties are.
- The hawkish conservative will focus on the lies, criticizing that the bases, which have been studied for years by NRO, are not part of the deal.
- The liberal who wants to get on with the liberal agenda will ignore the parts of the deal that constitutes “lies”, and note that it isn’t cricket to suddenly demand inclusion of the bases, which antedate N. Korean nukes that can be carried on missiles.
- The in-betweeners are the most thoughtful group. Very intelligent defense specialists, notably former Secretary Mattis, though not a supporter of the Iran agreement, advocated against U.S. withdrawal. Theirs is the most complex calculus, in dealing with a world that cannot be made safe, only safer.
The missile bases are certainly part of the threat, as the destinations of a future deployment surge of nukes; this is discussed in North Korea Buildout; Kim Defines the Game. Quoting,
- 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.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a school of thought that has sought to eradicate the last bastions of tyranny and bellicosity. The Middle East has been the most recent laboratory for their experiments. The site nknews.org interviews a Tufts professor; Tufts University’s Sung-Yoon Lee talks diplomacy, “fake concessions,” and what the DPRK really wants.
Though he provides valuable perspective from a cultural vantage point closer than our own, Sung-Yoon Lee also ideates his fears of hegemony. Instead, let’s stay focused on the three major threats:
- Rather than ideate the nightmare of regional hegemony by North Korea, the unnamed policy of containment offers good promise that North Korea will remain pariah state, with no influence beyond its borders. It will remain successful provided U.S. economic ties with South Korea continue to have a preferential element.
- The strategic threat has a choke point, tritium. See Trump – Kim Summit; Tritium Choke Point. This is far more important than “hidden” missile bases. As before, follow the tritium like you follow the money. It is far more certain than missile defense as it currently exists, which has an unacceptable record.
- Nuclear blackmail, discussed in North Korea & Trump’s Mental Rubicon; Smuggling Nukes?, remains a concern. As well as proliferation of warheads, North Korea is a potential source of radioactive material for dirty bombs, in forms more concentrated than black market sources.
Nuclear blackmail has a distinct appeal to the criminal mind, because it can be deployed in a deniable fashion. No one has to know where a cache of radioactive material is hidden, where it came from, or the identity of the instigating actor. While other threats can be countered by counter-threat that appeals to reason of the adversary, this logic doesn’t assure with blackmail. It might work, and it might not.
In the years after 9/11, some wondered what could deter Al Qaeda from the use of WMDs more damaging than the 9/11 attacks. The calculus of statecraft was helpless, because Al Qaeda is not a state, and not driven by rational goals. The threat of destruction of Mecca by nuclear weapons was considered. ISIS, apparently, has a different view; they might desire to destroy it themselves.
Blackmail remains the dangling thread of the problem. It invites consideration of unconventional solutions. In language, both moderation and bellicosity, of carrot and stick, isolation and selective engagement, of convincing the North Korea leadership of the best path to a normal lifespan. Of other things of which we probably should not speak.