All posts by Number9

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.













US sizes up Kim; Replacement Test Site Criteria

(CNN) US sizes up Kim ahead of possible nuclear summit.

This is a very good article, one of a few recent surprises from CNN. Remarks by those interviewed deserve comment.

Because of the delicacy of this period, this discussion is restricted to interpretations of public statements, and factual data. No inference should be made that I advocate any particular position, tactic, or the use or non-use of force. Let’s consider:

  • Serious gesture – closing of test site..
  • Alternative test sites.
  • Personal impression of Kim, and body language.
  • Kim as a rational actor.


They [U.S. officials] said the May 24 destruction of underground tunnels to test nuclear devices was a “serious gesture.” But it “doesn’t foreclose further testing” at other locations, one official said.

It’s impossible to know whether the official’s statement expresses genuine belief, or is reciprocal flattery of Kim. But it is not a “serious gesture”.  See The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect. The test site had to be abandoned. Kim accurately estimated that to abandon it silently would be a sign of humiliation. To abandon it publicly would be a PR triumph.  If it is Kim’s logic, it is impeccable.


In addition the US has preliminarily identified other potential sites where the North Koreans could dig new underground tunnels for testing.

Is  North Korea is out of potential test sites, or was the closed site just the best choice? The North Koreans have been constrained by poverty of technology to excavate their test site by the methods of 19th century hard rock mining. The easiest tunnel to dig is horizontal. This is why N. Korea requires a mountain;  the desired burial depth can be reached by tunneling in from the side.  Free of this restriction, many options exist.

In the 19th century, as in North Korea today , tunnels were excavated  with explosives, hand and pneumatic tools, and carts on rails to remove the tailings. As long as the tunnel is above the water table, the rock is hard, and the slope is close to horizontal, there is no particular limit to  the length of the tunnel. It’s simply a matter of manpower and time.

The north portal of the now closed test site is located at 41°16’51.77″N, 129° 5’7.62″E, which you may paste into Google Earth for a bird’s eye view. By conventional calculation the safe burial depth for a 160kt blast is  1788 feet. If we suppose the North Koreans honored the calculation, the  length of the tunnel connecting the north portal to the site of the last blast is about 7000 feet. If the depth calculation was not honored,  the reasoning applies in a relative way. Now let’s see what this means in terms of a new site. The site was chosen with these criteria:

  • Proximity to forced labor camps.
  • Minimum tunnel length required to burrow far enough into the mountain mass to achieve the safe burial depth.
  • Well above ground water.
  • Tunnel sloping downwards from the test site to achieve passive water drainage.

The closed site, Mantapsan Mountain, is part of the Hamgyong Range, which offers many possibilities. Have a Google Earth look at 41°12’53.11″N, 127°21’29.34″E, about 15 miles north of Mantapsan. The 1788 foot  burial depth can be achieved with a tunnel about three miles long, determined by the reduced slope of this alternative. If the North Koreans do not honor the conventional burial depth, the new tunnel would be proportionately shorter.

Horizontal tunneling is the low-tech option. Favored by geology and sophisticated technology,  the U.S. switched in the late 50’s to large diameter borehole rigs, requiring minimal manpower to drill big holes straight down.


Pompeo is not specifically trained to interpret body language indicators or other subtle details that may have presented themselves in these meetings, but he was accompanied by intelligence officials who were taking note of these cues, a source familiar told CNN.

There is a particular culture barrier to reading Kim’s body language. . Were South Koreans among the intelligence officials?


That idea is largely supported by the US intelligence community’s assessment that Kim is a “rational actor” motivated by the survival of his own regime.

The utility of “rational actor” is that it supposedly excludes certain kinds of behavior.  But page 491 of Stalin; The Court of the Red Tsar, by Montefiore, illustrates the cultural relativity of the phrase. Quoting,

Stalin was asked whether Hitler was a lunatic or an adventurer: “I agree that he was an adventurer, but I can’t agree that he was mad. Hitler was a gifted man. Only a gifted man could unite the German people…”

The present danger is that Kim may be as sane as Hitler, or possibly saner, but his logic may not be ours. Numerous brief episodes and isolated events from the recent past suggest this. But a more effective counterweight to the “rational actor” theory is in the relationship between Kim’s Korea and China.

A totalitarian state uses isolation to maintain control, to avoid contamination by the more plural outside world.  It’s the excuse for “juche”.  But interaction with China presents little of the danger of pluralism. China has tried  to promote market reforms in the North. The North has had for at least a decade the opportunity to join the many smaller Asian countries that host subcontractors to China based enterprises.

With the expense of great human suffering, the choice, not to integrate with the economy of China, is logic that differs from our own. No other nearby country has been able to resist the temptations of enrichment, but North Korea has. It implies a kind of logic  presumably excluded by assuming a “rational actor.”

Quoting Bruce Klingner,

“When someone meets with Kim, they often come back sort of in awe — realizing that he is not the crazy guy in the basement — and with the conclusion that the US can deal with him,” he said.

“But due to the fact that they often go into the meeting with a misconception of Kim based on caricatures from outside intelligence community, the perceptions often shifts from one extreme to another,” he added.

Kim is not Idi  Amin, who was vividly nuts. Saddam and Stalin could charm. There may not be a dictator alive today who can’t. So put these on the scale:

  • Deeds: atrocities, assassinations, and torture.
  • Talk: He gives good meeting. In fact, he could be a con.

“He gives good meeting” may exclude only one thing: that Kim himself would push the nuclear button. The question lies with more indirect actions, such as proliferation, selling nukes, or parts of nukes. If Kim sells plutonium cores, is he liable for the use?

It may not exclude selling suitcase nukes for a pretty penny.









John McCain: Iraq War Was a Mistake

(MSNBC) McCain prepared to accept some ‘blame’ for the war in Iraq.

Thank you, Senator John McCain, for your service to your country. By your own account, you were a rough kid, but your lifelong program of self improvement bore magnificent fruit. Quoting,

In his new memoir, he concedes that the war in Iraq he fought so hard to launch and then escalate now “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

In pursuit of making better history, a mistake should be squeezed for all it is worth.  But if negation of past decisions were a good teacher, we would be better at making history than we are. So perhaps the learning process has a flaw.

In this case, the prospective flaw is thinking of the 2003 Iraq War as a unitary event. This is natural, because, historically, wars have been hard to start and hard to end.  This is why the word has three letters, and rarely has modifiers, like mild, medium, or hot. You can try to choose the temperature, but it can run away from you. And unlike a bowl of chili, it can be impossible to finish the dish. Instead, the dish eats you.

So when the mistakes of war are analyzed, the opinions don’t include “it should have been hotter”, or “cooler.”  Why fight a war for mediocre, inconclusive, conditional goals? Back in the day, the only modification of this was the occasional “intervention”, or “peacekeeping force”, but these deployments lacked contingent thinking about failures of mild persuasion. Hence tragedies like the tragedy of the 1982 deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon, with the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings. 

Only in the past decade has there been a change in attitude towards conditional goals, forced upon us by the futility of unconditional victory. We had that victory in Iraq, and found no one to bestow it to. Yet our dream of individual liberty is so compelling,  we staggered into the Syrian conflict with the same chimerical desire to bestow it to a culture that has no interest in it. In the Middle East, tribal and religious hegemony is, to the inhabitants, the natural order of things.

What would the period known as the 2003 Iraq War, and aftermath look like if it had been pursued with limited goals? And what would the current situation be if there had been no war? The cost of the mistake is actually an equation:

Total Cost = Cost of Iraq War  minus Cost of No Iraq War

The Bush Administration contrived the WMD justification as the Cost of No War. It was a great selling point. Because it wasn’t true, popular belief has come to be that the second term did not exist. But perhaps Bush had another, more legitimate reason that couldn’t sell. FDR had the same dilemma through the late 30’s with the rise of Nazi Germany, solved for him by Pearl Harbor.

There were a very few of us who were interested in Saddam’s novels with the apparent self-reference to a caliph-like character, who builds the Caliphate,  capitalized to signify the universal Islamic state.  It is equivalent to the universal  dominion of the Catholic Church that gradually disintegrated beginning in the 15th century.

Among this minority of thinkers, the possibility that Saddam could build a military power strong enough to dominate the Arab Middle East, and threaten the West, was more than theoretical; we considered  the 1529 Siege of Vienna. But the Caliphate as expressed by Saddam was a figment of his novels, lacking expression in fact, since his defeats in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War and  1990-1991 Gulf War.

But on 9/11/2001, we learned that there is very little difference between a figment and an empowering thought. Bin Laden, like Zarqawi, was light on ideology. Both proclaimed a need; the solution was the Caliphate. Again, see  (Brookings, pdf) From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State. 

Between July 1979, when Saddam consolidated absolute power in a purge of the Ba’ath Party, and his fall in 2003, his wars of aggression against other countries in the region occupied almost half the time. The remainder was spent gassing the Kurds and with miscellaneous liquidations.

With the above, Saddam’s expressions of the Caliphate become more significant. Yet in recorded history, there is no case of a war because of something a ruler wrote in a novel. How could you sell it to the world?

I have always wanted to ask George W. Bush whether his WMD justification was in lieu of the danger of Saddam’s dreams. (George, how about a beer?) We are both fans of Tom Wolfe, so he has great literary taste.  And we’re both painters. To Bush, and to the rest of the minority who were thinking about it, the second term in the equation, Cost of No Iraq War, provoked concern. If it is considered as a possibly huge unknown, whether the Iraq War was a mistake becomes the wrong question. It is replaced by at least two separate questions of cost:

  • Of the war itself.
  • Of the ambitions of the transition to a new civil government.

The critical decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority was De-Ba’athification, known as CPA Order 1, issued in May of 2003. The Ba’ath (“renewal”) Party was a pan-Arab movement with inclinations toward revolutionary and violent struggle, drawing inspiration from Trotskyism. In both Syria and Iraq, slight pluralism in the Ba’ath movement was resolved by coups and assassinations.

It is not hard to see why the neoconservatives wanted Order 1. Ba’ath was the hotbed of pro Saddam sentiment, and it oppressed the Shiite majority. At the time, Order 1 was criticized mainly for the expulsion of trained and qualified civil servants, without a  reservoir of replacement talent.  Although defects in civil government were obvious to close observers, it became visible from afar in the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, at the high watermark of ISIS.

But we neglected something that may have been more important, that Ba’ath was also a reservoir of secular thought. Ba’ath spanned Iraq, where Sunnis dominated, and Syria, where the Alawites functioned within, and eventually dominated Ba’ath. By destroying the Ba’ath Party, we destroyed the instrument of secular expression in Iraq.

The CPA had another choice, to leave an eviscerated Ba’ath Party in control. In the history of the Party, only one figure with figments of the Caliphate has appeared, Saddam himself. At the time of Order 1, it was natural to worry that another Saddam might emerge. But it was actually  CPA Order 1 that set the stage for ISIS.

Can a democracy send its sons and daughters to fight a war without the ideals represented by Order 1? Would they have sacrificed so that a bunch of Iraqi politicians with mildly murderous inclinations could stay in a place that gave birth to one of the monsters of the 20th and 21st century? To decide, average people have to look at the deadly equation,

Total Cost = Cost of Iraq War  minus Cost of No Iraq War

and then, maybe kiss their kids goodbye. Maybe this is too much. John McCain and George Bush, what do you think?

Tomorrow reminds us of the cost.












Moqtada al-Sadr wins Iraq Elections

A basic rule of propaganda: When the propagandist has monopoly of the media, when there is only one message, people will tend to believe that message. This is because critical thinking takes mental energy,  requiring mental rebellion against the imposed order. It takes less energy to go with the flow.

But even when monopoly control of the media is absent, there is a tendency to give more credence to a public figure than would be logical. Part of it is the mental energy issue. Part of it is the dislike of mental void, of an undefined public figure versus one who is self-defined. With nothing to choose from, the citizen fills the void with one possibility: that the figure is telling the truth about himself. The classic example is the politician who runs on the simplest of platforms, “No new taxes.”

Occasionally, when assessing personalities, intelligence analysts fall victim to the trap. When the Coalition Transitional Government of Iraq was succeeded by the first elected government, there was concern that Nouri al-Maliki, proposed to be the first prime minister,  could be an Iranian agent. So he was vetted by the CIA in a series of short interviews. The conclusion of the CIA, that he was not an Iranian agent, was vulnerable to the Turing Test Loophole. Alan Turing’s test attempted to define the meaning of artificial intelligence. If the machine could fool the interlocutor into thinking it was human, then it was intelligent.

This is the application: If Nouri al-Maliki was more intelligent than his interviewers, he could deceive them as to his true allegiances. If he was less intelligent, he could not, implying that conclusions of the CIA were accurate. Exactly what intelligence means in this case is unimportant. The possibilities are obvious. In subsequent events, around the high-water mark of ISIS in 2014, his incompetence was demonstrated. Retrospectively, it improves the CIA’s chances of being right. But at the time?

Intrigue has been characteristic of the region since the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. In the latter 19th century, the Ottoman military came to be dominated in numbers by Arab officers, who conspired in the secret society al-‘Ahd, against the Ottoman rulers for many years before the open Arab Revolt.  Their last leader, Faisal I of Iraq, was educated in the Ottoman court. (We know him as the ally of T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”.) Such was the level of deception that the Ottomans never became aware of the centrality of al-‘Ahd. After the Ottoman dissolution, intrigue continued as a political way of life, fueled by tribalism, Arab nationalism, and the arbitrary nature of the child states of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Al-‘Ahd was the product of a relatively simple, nomadic culture, under the thumb of the culture for which the expression “Byzantine” was coined. Since 1979, Iran has become the modern example of a Byzantine state. Foreign policy is conducted by multiple entities, with both conflicting and competitive aims. This goes beyond the obvious division between secular and religious. The multiplicity of power centers in Iran has no equal. Facilitated by the bonyads, state capitalism, and endemic corruption, it extends to the religious establishment as well. Money is, of course, the lifeblood of conspiracy.

So what does this have to do with Moqtada al-Sadr? What credence we gives to his self-description is due to murkiness of alternatives. But once alternatives are named, we have what probability theory calls a space of outcomes. His history includes multiple flip-flops and complex social/religious bonds:

  • Sectarianism.
  • Ethnic inclusiveness (flip-flop).
  • Violence with organized militias, notably the Mehdi Army, with funding by Iran.
  • Positioning as purely political, abjuring militias and violence, supposedly to oppose secularism. (flip-flop.)
  • Prolonged residence in Iran; ethnicity partly Iranian.
  • Religious stature largely determined by the Iran religious establishment, which is much larger than Iraq’s.
  • Coalition with highly incompatible elements., including the Communist Party of Iraq, while previously he opposed secularism (flip-flop). Communism advocates atheism, to which Islam applies the most severe punishment, death.

We recognize the domestic equivalent in the politician whose platform rapidly changes to get elected, with policies after election that don’t represent the platform. We call it political expediency. But Moqtada al-Sadr is exceptional in the frequency and disruptive nature of his turns.

Moqtada al-Sadr maneuvers at high speed through multinational Middle East politics with the reflexes of a bootleg booze runner. More striking than any particular position is his adroitness at the bootleg turn, where with simultaneous application of throttle and brake, the car swivels and skids 180 degrees, taking off at high speed in the opposite direction. If we admit the possibility that Moqtada al-Sadr actually believes his current platform, his record still suggests that he will change again. And he may not believe it anyway. His politicking may be entirely tactical, in the service of abstracted goals that are not apparent to the Western mind. One part of Shia doctrine, a common legacy of oppressed sects, is deception of outsiders.

Now the space of possibilities opens up. Moqtada al-Sadr could be:

We’ve activated our critical faculty, diminishing credence in his stated positions, possibly to zero. The enumerated alternatives form a kind of probability space. The chance that any one of them is true, to the mutual exclusion of the others, may be equal.

The one constant of Moqtada al-Sadr is his extreme hostility to the U.S. But in view of his hospitality to kafir Communists, the antipathy lacks a genuine cultural basis. The beneficiary is Iran, adding a little to Byzantine speculations.

In Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War?, I wrote,

The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities.  Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would  steamroller it.

In The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy, I wrote,

Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.

The phenomenon of Moqtada al-Sadr is congruent with these notes.

Texas School Shootings; the Right to Kill

It’s like a funeral. Time stops, while we have reverent thoughts of memory. We drive away, and life starts up again.

Guns have a single purpose: to kill. It can be justified to kill. Rare is the creed that denies self defense.

The Right to Bear Arms is equivalent to the Right to Kill, provided you are willing to suffer the consequences. This is an equation.

But some diseased minds, and some unformed adolescent minds, do not weigh the consequences. So they are free to act as if the equation does not exist.

Some people in this country clutch tightly their Right to Kill, while denying others their Right to Live.

Although life on earth is full of horrors, it is shocking that the two parties, the Party of Right to Kill and of Party of Right to Live, can’t find a meaningful compromise.

It is saddening that this country chooses to sacrifice the lives of their children for the sake of a principle: The Right to Kill shall not be infringed.

The funeral ends; the mourners disperse; life goes on.

But these funerals could have been prevented.