North Korea casts doubt on Trump summit, suspends talks with South

Reuters: North Korea casts doubt on Trump summit, suspends talks with South. The given reason is (quoting) “…denouncing military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.”

Of all the possible reasons, the stated one is likely to be a pretext. Diplomacy is, of course, the land of pretexts and handshakes. Reuters takes the crown for running gratuitous handshake photos. Is it because they are cheap to buy from Getty Images? Do diplomats  carry hand sanitizer, or do they suffer constantly from grippe and colds? Will Trump, self described germophobe, wear latex gloves?

In spite possible indications of U.S. flexibility (WaPo, Is Mike Pompeo backing off Trump’s demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes?), Kim Jong-un has watched Trump abrogate the Iran treaty. He has likely come to realize that this administration cannot be gamed. After his useless test site is dynamited for the press, where would the game lead? The military exercises are the last chance for a decent pretext, save indisposition from illness.

Mike Pompeo’s carrot of U.S. investment is dangerous to the KIm dynasty. Kim Jong-un inherits juche, the doctrine of national self-reliance, from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the state. In this patriarchal-to-the-extreme society, this cannot be underestimated. Unlike the carefully curated environment of the Kaesong Industrial Region,  widespread private investment from western sources would expose the sheer horror of songbun, which includes a caste of slaves. North Korea is unique in the world today in the part slavery has in the political system.

Given world sensitivity towards the mere exploitation of labor in Southeast Asia, how could  crimes against humanity be ignored? Even if the U.S. legitimizes North Korea, these issues remain in the broader context for the foreseeable future. Exposed by opening North Korea, they are more dangerous to the regime than starvation.

Because of their shared cultural affinities and common language, the North-South talks are dangerous to the North. Scripted or no, South negotiators would read faces and estimate intent via observations of demeanor. Direct talks with Trump, conducted in stilted language via interpreters, spare Kim at least that danger.

But if Kim has updated his assessment of Trump’s personality, he may have concluded that  obfuscation by the North would lead the U.S. administration to a definite conclusion. If one plays the waiting game, this is to be avoided. There is a way out.

If the Trump-Kim meeting takes place, the military exercises form the base of a stack of complaints, a litany. The meetings could then be consumed working through the litany. One more handshake, maybe even a video, and Kim is safe for another six months. If the North refrains from the bizarre, threatening rhetoric and provocative tests , safety from a U.S. strike could become indefinite. This is the waiting game.

Need we question the sincerity of a handshake? The Ungame continues: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.







Tom Wolfe, Major Influence on this Blog, Has Passed

Tom Wolfe passed away.  He coined the term, new journalism, which in effect on the reader has relation to immersive journalism.

We can expect some new journalism about the Hereafter. It won’t be dull. Now  where can I get editions of his works on acid-free paper?

You may have some curiosity about the style of this blog.  At least part of the time, I try to immerse the reader in some kind of experience, even when writing about a technical subject. Reading Wolfe is an experience in itself, a  melody of words that lingers after you put the book down.  His use of words, with onomatopoetic grammar, is as creative as the strokes of an artist’s brush.

Any subject, save the most abstract, can refer to and relate to the human experience, engaging the reader more.

Thank you, Tom.

Gaza Shootings

On December 10, 2017, in U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem, I wrote:

It is reasonable to conclude that the moving of [ the U.S. Embassy to] Jerusalem will result in a shift of the parameters of the bell curve, enlarging the groups who make the radical transition all the way to the tip of the bell curve tail, to terror. This has has nothing to do with rational opinion. If individuals have free will, groups behave with something approaching determinism.

For wise thoughts, refer to the five former heads of Mossad (Times of Israel.)

Two former heads of Shin Bet: (The Guardian) Israel sunk in ‘incremental tyranny’, say former Shin Bet chiefs. 


Iran Nukes; Secret Bomb Factory? IAEA Head Resigns; Analysis Notes

Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal has garnered more short term interest than perhaps any other article I’ve written. By now, I thought I’d be doing talk shows.  🙂 But why is the article so interesting? This is a question of technique, which is a focus of this blog. To keep you reading, we consider a choice for site of a secret plutonium bomb factory.

The article presents a hypothesis, which according to the scientific method is one step short of a theory. Although inspired by observation, a hypothesis need not be testable. A theory adds the requirement that it can be tested. It includes at least one test by which it can be proven wrong.

It’s important to say these things, because deduction, involving sequential logical steps, has acquired a bad name, caused by the abuses of conspiracy theorists. Besides the sleaze of the twisted mind, a common abuse is teleology,  the idea that something is proven by the need for it. For example: The Iranians want the bomb, proving the hypothesis in the last article. This is fallacious reasoning.

Fallacious reasoning, disguised by complexity, has been the bane of Western civilization, ever since Descartes introduced basic mental hygiene. In elaborate perfection, the scientific method is the antidote. But since the method disallows all of philosophy except science, the philosophers needed something more compatible to stay in business, and to argue about. Their answer was logical positivism.

Unlike the scientific method, logical positivism is not standardized. It comes in conflict with the scientific method with the idea that some things are known a priori. Quoting Wikipedia,

Thus, Kant saved Newton’s law of universal gravitation from Hume’s problem of induction by finding uniformity of nature to be a priori knowledge.

Modern physics considers the above to be incorrect. The uniformity of physical laws throughout the cosmos is not to be assumed. Logical positivism is not a prescribed method you can use for, say, drug testing. It is open to widespread corruption, by addition of philosophical gee-gaws.

Yet it has had a profound influence on the way we think. The street version of logical positivism is skepticism, as in show me. This is the ultimate defense against conspiracy theories, which, relying on innuendo, show nothing. We rely on this heavily in casual thought, editing the information flow according to:

  • If you can see or experience it, it’s real.
  • If you can’t, it’s not.
  • If you have a strong personal need to believe in something, you just make an exception.

Since there are a lot of things we would like to believe in that fail the above, we lie to ourselves liberally and invisibly. The worst liar is the self. But the hypothesis, “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is not about the self. So we ratchet up stringency. Since it  can’t be experienced, and there is no positive evidence in open sources, we kick it out of consideration.

The misuse, and overuse, of logical positivism is endemic to modern thought. We have our example. Given the interest in the hypothesis  in the previous article,  “Iran possesses untested plutonium nukes” is that example. Having been edited from consideration by the community of people who think about such things, it suddenly became interesting when presented with a few scientific bits about procedures commonly employed in practical physics calculations.

Most of us aren’t philosophers. We may have never heard of logical positivism. When we overlook something, or make an error or omission of thought, we don’t reach for Aristotle. Whatever positivism means, we are vulnerable to it because of:

  • Balkanization of knowledge.
  • Credence given to foreign powers that employ deceit as a normal tool of international relations.
  • An international regulatory agency, the IAEA, which relies entirely on open inspections and methods of analytic nuclear chemistry to fulfill a mission.

Balkanization is most important. The 20th century was the century of physics. It was then the king of sciences, employing the scientific method with exacting precision. In 1938, the atom was split, with the prospect of unlimited energy for mankind. It was with this sugar pill that the best minds set about to make the most destructive weapon ever seen. They worked on the bomb, not in pride, but necessity, anticipating peaceful benefits of atomic energy.

There was some pride of accomplishment, so it was talked about. That much energy from a new source inspired more amazement than horror. That came later, with the arms race, and proliferation. This is why so much information is in the public domain. But in the 21st century, the focus of hope has shifted to the life sciences, and A.I.  The quests of physics are very much alive, but are mostly incomprehensible to non specialists. There is no bang. There is plenty to write about, but there is no visceral experience. We can all imagine a nuclear explosion, but all of us have trouble with quantum entanglement.

Credence given to foreign powers has a huge impact on the viability of this hypothesis. It is an issue entirely apart from the personal veracity of Russia’s leaders, or truthfulness of  Russia’s leaders to their peer group. Russia’s statements to the foreign policy audience, and to media, are first and foremost  propaganda.  Russian statements have scant regard for truth, as understood in the West.

Russia assures us that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, none of the inadequately secured nuclear materials were misplaced. Refer to page 21, (pdf) GLOBAL FISSILE MATERIAL REPORT 2015. As of 2014, Russia had 88,000 kg of weapons grade plutonium.  A bomb requires only (Page 24) 5 kg.

That plutonium was not smuggled through  the  Wild West Russia of the 90’s, through the Caucasus, to Iran and other Asia destinations, relies on these assertions:

  • Russia’s denial.
  • Absence of evidence, as seen by Western intelligence services.
  • Logical positivism, with the street name of skepticism. This is institutionalized by the IAEA.

The head of the IAEA just resigned without explanation. (RFE) Chief Inspector Unexpectedly Quits UN Nuclear Watchdog. A conspiracy theorist would leap on this. But it does suggest that the  IAEA is dangerously vulnerable to political factors. An excess of logical positivism is used by politicians to influence institutional behavior.

Now for some speculation. If Iran wished to site a plutonium bomb factory, is there an optimal  choice for concealment? IAEA analytic methods,  to detect clandestine nuclear activity,  rely on isotope ratios differing from nature. In Iran, Ramsar County, on the shores of the Caspian, contains areas with the highest levels of natural radioactivity on earth. Iran may hope that high background levels would confuse IAEA methods by obscuring artificial sources.

So if you want to poke around, book your trip to Ramsar now. You’ll come home with that special glow,  from the vacation spot #1 in ionizing radiation. What’s a suntan when you can glow in the dark!









Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal

Reuters: Israel says Iran lied on nuclear arms, pressures U.S. to scrap deal.

I was going to  discuss something like this in connection with North Korea, but Netanyahu has scooped me. What follows is not to advocate that the U.S. should scrap the Iran deal. I tend to think like  Mattis.

U.S. nuclear weapons are highly optimized designs, made as well as the mind and hand  of Man can do.  Russian nukes are not quite as good. Of the others, not much is publicly known, but you can throw away a lot of design potential and still get a bang.  Some U.S. warheads, highly optimized for yield (explosive power) per weight, have been deliberately downgraded to smaller yields. This offers more flexible escalation of force. A target can be destroyed with the loss of thousands of lives, instead of millions. Offering POTUS the choice of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, the barrier to use, still high and horrible, is reduced to an exchange.

If a power knows enough about nuclear weapons, it is not mandatory to test the ones it builds. The knowledge is hard to come by, but it can travel on a thumb drive. It can take these forms:

  • Exact design.
  • Scaleable model of the whole device.
  • Partial models, models of pieces of the puzzle.
  • Simulation, a laborious process requiring lots of computer power, required by the less convenient models.

These words do not convey a hierarchy. One can possess a model for part of the design, yet lack for other parts. The Manhattan Project actually had a model for the behavior of the conventional explosives used to create the implosion. John von Neumann created the model with the Taylor shock wave equation . The calculations were carried out by Richard Feynman and his crew, before the advent of the modern computer, using punch card based IBM calculators. Today, your smartphone could solve it in between calls.

But they didn’t have the neutron cross sections that vitally predict the behavior of the plutonium sphere after it is imploded. They were missing parameters, numbers that all models require, and have to be filled in by  experiments. Some of the trials, using the Demon Core, were deadly.

Critical mass is the smallest weight of material that when imploded in a particular shape will undergo chain reaction. If it holds together long enough, there is a  nuclear explosion. The weight is very touchy. A penny under, and nothing happens. A penny over, you lose a city. Because it is so touchy, a lot can be learned by testing with a penny under. This is subcritical.

A major step in the U.S. program was the replacement of nuclear explosions with subcritical tests, in which the explosive power  is solely the effect of the conventional explosives used to implode the plutonium sphere. Because the U.S. program aims for perfection, subcritical tests continue to the current day.

In theory, with enough subcritical tests, and parameters learned from actual nuclear tests, a weapon can be designed and built without actually testing it, with confidence that it will actually work. Since both Secretaries Pompeo and Tillerson were engineers, they know the Taylor Series (not the same Taylor) of freshman calculus. If two Taylor series, one on each side of the critical mass, are matched term-by-term, the result is a crude, open-source approximation of how a rogue state could vault into nuclear prominence.

Because the U.S. nuclear program aims for perfection, we neglect the possibility that a nuclear weapon could be produced solely with subcritical testing, and have a very good chance of serving both political and military aims. Such a weapon might have a 95% chance of not being a complete dud. If an Iranian weapon were designed, without testing, for a 200 kt yield, but the blast it produces when used is only 40 kt, would  it be a failure?

How does this affect a decision for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran treaty? There have been no apparent leaks of the negotiations. One can only speculate. Naturally, speculation has a strong political element. Some claim an irrational desire by Barack Obama for a successful negotiation. But this is speculation. We have described an alternative procedure to the orthodox path to becoming a nuclear power. Iran may have done this.

During the negotiations, the intelligence community may have decided that by this alternative path, Iran could build the bomb at will.  The exact date at which Iran would build the bomb could be closely bracketed with clandestine knowledge of the supply chain. During this period of scrutiny and negotiation, the  only thing Iran would give up is the actual test of a weapon which, untested, has a high probability of working. And the process of miniaturization has no specific requirement of testing.

So if the US. withdraws,  Iran may in short order test a weapon, already fully miniaturized for delivery by missile. Nevertheless, a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty could be justified so as to politically isolate Iran. Now, as with North Korea, one has to consider how the ecosystem of international relations will react.

This defines the dilemma. I’ll pass on the solution.







The Personality of Kim Jong-un; Fencing; the Ungame, Part 2

The fence of almost-facts consists of four  negations and three assertions. A common element is a blur between fact, and what Kim is likely to consider as fact. Theories that implicitly predict successful negotiations assume that the end of North Korea’s nuclear program is required for these benefits to occur, which is false:

  • Lifting or weakening of sanctions.
  • An increase in the political legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
  • An increase in the stability of the regime. Stability and legitimacy are not the same.
  • Accession of North Korea to the “community of nations”, a term which implies acceptance instead of ostracism. Although unlikely, this could happen anyway.

The assertions are:

  • North Korea’s nuclear program, instead of being dismantled, can be concealed.  While programs of  nuclear proliferation have been approximate recapitulations of the  programs of the original five, it is not necessary. Many more options exist for clandestine development.
  • A single personality cannot combine the nature of Kim’s rule with the emotional “glasnost” on display at the recent conference.
  • Termination would not result in accession to the “community of nations.” It is neither a requirement or a benefit. There is no coupling at all.

Let’s first consider weakening or lifting of sanctions.

The discrete and  dramatic events of the current confrontation have captured our imaginations as as kind of chess game. Once a game is identified, it becomes an unconscious assumption that the game will continue under the same rules to checkmate or stalemate. And cheating at chess does not mean you aren’t playing chess. When the game changes, there is great fanfare. It seemed that the game might switch to poker, with a Western saloon gun-fight as the culmination.

Kim Jong-un has, in what may be a masterstroke, switched from a competitive game to a  noncompetitive game. See The Ungame. We don’t have to judge  his sincerity to observe that foreign policy mavens, anticipating that chess and poker will continue, have not considered all the twists and turns an ungame would allow.

Rather than immediately negate the potential of the ungame, make a list of Kim’s possible goals. Put yourself in his shoes. If you were Kim, would you actually de-nuke which amounts to maximum concession, no game at all, or would you play the ungame for a while, perhaps for an indefinite period, spinning webs and veils of silk, gauze, and gossamer?

This sudden wisdom may not be entirely his creation. It happened after a train trip to the Celestial Kingdom, the repository of centuries of foreign policy wisdom. Perhaps he was gifted a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  For 2500 years, it has been the wise guide to foreign policy for Eastern rulers. Some sample quotes:

  • “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
  • “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

This is not theoretical.  With 2500 years on the book racks,The Art of War is the best-selling “The Art of…” book of all time. Km Jong-un took a train to Beijing. A complete makeover resulted. What edition did he come home with? Leather-bound, web  links, or merely the impression that it is very important? So important that one maxim popular among risky livers is misattributed to Sun Tzu, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” The gem owes to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

It may now suddenly occur to you that you have no idea how Kim Jong-un can play the Ungame. You grab your Hoyles Rules, and it isn’t even listed. You find you are completely unprepared to estimate whether he can use it to lift sanctions, partly or totally. You discover that

  • A significant part of dollar denominated trade, mainly for bulk cargoes that originate and deliver in Asia, could be conducted in the renminbi.
  • Another part could be done as goods-swap.
  • Yet another could be by service swap, such as facilitating drug transactions via North Korea’s huge submarine fleet.

But with the cooperation of China, how could the above happen?

If someone does you a favor, do you always know why? Is China cooperating with the U.S. solely because of pressure, or is there an additional reason? Is their real concern  nukes, or that they want North Korea  to evolve in the direction of a civilized state? This could be one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Evolution in North Korea, modest by our standards, could be enough for China to return to a purely regional approach. Their thinking: With time, things will only get better.

So, as per Criticism of Administration Policy Towards North Korea ?, the game is embedded in the international ecosystem.   China’s attitude towards North Korea, up till the current sanctions regime, is explained well by Henry Kissinger in his book On China. China has another approach to regional problems, requiring Eastern patience.

It goes back to the need to deflect  the border tribes, beyond the Great Wall and elsewhere in central Asia, that posed the same threat to the Celestial Kingdom as the Gauls, Visigoths, Vandals, et al  did to Rome. The Romans chose to co-opt; the Chinese chose to corrupt, as in, “Show them the good life”, and make them dependent. China has tried this with North Korea in the form of cross-border commerce, and encouragement of entrepreneurship. It hasn’t worked so far. But while our basic interval of time is 4 years, China’s policies have the patience of centuries.

So sleep on this, the Ungame, and let your Zen-master talents soar to the heights:

If you were Kim Jong-un, how would you effect the wisdom of Sun-Tzu in the short term?

To be continued shortly. In the meantime,

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.






The Personality of Kim Jong-un; Fencing the Problem

Let’s drop the nuclear physics for a bit. People want know what makes Kim Jong-un tick. Theories abound, but no candidate has the quality that says, “this nails it.”  In the euphoric moment, political types tend to confuse fact and desire. But the intelligence community is not so easily beguiled. (Reuters) Understanding Kim: Inside the U.S. effort to profile the secretive North Korean leader.

My own attempt at a compact theory appears in, Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible:

  • The rule of Kim Jong-un is too weak to survive cancellation of these [missile, nuclear] programs.
  • If Kim Jong-un is deposed, it is most likely that he will die. He is too dangerous to his challengers to be left alive.
  • In the protracted negotiations with the father, Kim Jong-il, under the 1994 framework, the program slowed, or appeared to stop for periods, but no assets were relinquished by North Korea. Hence the son cannot relinquish assets.
  • The portraits of father and son hang side-by-side. This is not for decoration. It is symbolic proclamation that the son is the continuation of the father. A loss of symbolic continuity would immediately activate the weakness of the son’s power base.

with the conclusion,

The bullet list has tight linkages, implying that the object of regime change is identical as a goal with nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

But the human mind is not ultimately knowable. This is a game of almost-facts. The estimate should be read as, “This is likely to be the case.”  Now this estimate is challenged by new emotions, producing new biases, caused by a political meeting that may have featured either genuine sentiment or really good acting.

As a compact chain of logic, my theory may share the inherent weakness  of the three theories presented in (CNN) Why Kim Jong Un came in from the cold: 3 theories. But it should not be an invitation to pick one of the four. That would be like betting at the track without an edge.

The real takeaway is that complicated theories do not work very well by themselves. Deduction has limits. An additional mode of logic must be invoked.  Precedent or consensus are no help, because the meeting is  a singular event. If four theories with at most six logical steps (count the paragraphs) contradict each other,  should we look to more complicated theories, or simpler ones?

I introduced a technique called “fencing” in No successor to Maliki named; fencing the problem. Quoting,

Fencing the problem is an important part of the predictor’s toolkit. Sometimes the fence is made of facts; other times, pseudo facts, things that have higher probabilities than the swirling cloud of amorphous possibilities.

By surrounding the problem with “almost facts” the solution becomes a bounded space. It can be used to knock a theory out of contention. It happens when the theory hits the fence and keeps on going. But let’s first knock down the euphoria a bit. It centers the     mind.

The concept of a personality profile useful in the conduct of  foreign affairs and conflict is rooted in the Second World War. The rulers of the Axis powers were colorful, histrionic, labile demagogues. Their personalities were adorned with quirks as colorful as the feathers of exotic birds. But Joseph Stalin, more relevant to the current question, was ordinary.  See author Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

When not in a sadistic mood, Stalin’s traits of persuasion earned him the nickname “Uncle Joe.”   He deceived some of the most important political figures in the West. A small circle of diplomats with extensive exposure to the Soviet Union  accurately divined him. But it took until the 1947 publication of the X Article by George F. Kennan, that the political establishment understood what the small circle knew years in advance.

Their story is the subject of The Wise Men; Six Friends and the World They Made, by Walter Isaacon and Evan Thomas. This is a slow-cooked book. It depicts, not a  the wisdom of sudden, magical divination, but the stew of a decade, resulting  in their ability to see what others could not.

That resource for  North Korea does not exist. We have instead the reports of defectors, who, not being members of any intellectual establishment whatsoever, are treated more like raw data than people of respect. Their effect on the political establishment is by the conduit of the intelligence community. Defectors are like microdots. If you magnify them enough, you can see the message, but you can’t feel it. Empathy is lacking.

This conclusion risks being true: Lacking empathy, which is the skill of simulating the mind of another, we diminish the threat  by imagination. It’s analogous to the Stockholm Syndrome.

To be continued shortly.


The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect

In  search of a story the size and taste of a Chicken McNugget, the news has  the story wrong. If you lay 5 facts out on a table, and draw an arrow through them, people will think that A implies B implies C implies D implies E…. and you’ve got what looks like “story.”

But if you lay the facts out in another order, the Chicken McNugget looks the same, but underneath the fry batter, it’s completely different. Our McNugget is:

  • A cavern in Mantapsan Mountain, created by a nuke test, collapsed.
  • Man-made tunnels also collapsed.
  • The mountain shifted.
  • There is a chimney of fractured rock, what the China authors call a “hole.” What covers the hole is in a delicate state.
  • The  mountain cannot contain further nuclear explosions.

So the Chicken McNugget headline is: (CNN) North Korea’s nuclear test caused collapse, study says. To an ambulance chaser, this could be as important as deliberately throwing banana peels on a busy sidewalk. But here it’s a mistake. When writing a story, news writers use the memory aid  “who-what-when-where-why”.  Everything’s OK except the what and why.

The CNN headline has the wrong “what”. The correct “what” is:

  • The mountain is leaking, and is finished as a test site.

Why is this an important distinction? Because all underground nuclear explosions create caverns. Most of them eventually collapse. The U.S. Nevada test site is dotted with (pics) subsidence craters, each one indicating the collapse of a cavern. The nuclear explosion did not cause the cavern to collapse. It created the cavern in the first place.

The phrase “mountain collapsed” conjures something like a coal mining disaster, so it’s an attractive headline. But with Mantapsan Mountain, the environmental danger is not the collapse, but the chimney of fractured rock, and other fractures as well. If you knock a few feet off a mountain, is that a “collapse” ? It subsided. Non volcanic mountains cannot collapse in a big way. Tunnels collapsed, killing unlucky slaves.

The writers of the China paper doubtless know this. They may have assented to the headline in response to a leading question, or simply despaired of explaining it properly to reporters.

This is the why, which builds to the ultimate reason why the site has been abandoned:

  • The rock fractured so severely not because the blast was particularly powerful, but because it wasn’t deep enough.  There wasn’t enough overburden, rock above the blast. So the rock heaved upwards many more feet than it would have if there had been more rock holding it down.

In search of drama, CNN supply a graphic in which the last North Korean test is the largest of the chart, implying that the explosion was huge. On the scale of things nuclear, the 160KT yield is actually quite small. The underground U.S. Cannikin test at Amchitka Island was roughly 50X stronger. The graphic is devoid of context.

Now if you’re a liberal arts guy, your sense of Aristotelian logic (or sophistry) has you argue, “But if there were no blast, there would have been no cavern to collapse. Therefore, the nuke is responsible.”

Although I firmly believe in the innate cussability of inanimate objects (as in “By gum, another damn infernal contraption”), this is not a useful chain of cause-and-effect.  That thinking might be useful to a trial lawyer. But what we want to know is:

  • Why did North Korea get into this situation? Why was the decision made to test at Mantapsan Mountain? Have a look at 41°16′47.87″N 129°5′10.51″E .  You can park your news truck in the lot 700 feet to the south. Be sure and tell them you’re coming.

Hint: Clues are in plain view. Once  the “why” is nailed down:

  • What are the North Koreans going to do about it? What are their alternatives for testing nukes?

To news writers who find this too daunting, try  writing up NYC crane collapses.  Easy to get to, and pretty simple; they get blown over by the wind, cables break, pedestrians get mashed, plenty of nice flashing lights, street barricades, and human interest.

These guys know the who and the what-like nobody’s business. They even know why. Don’t ask me who.

Taking a tip from  Abbott & Costello, we’ll get to the why shortly.






Criticism of Administration Policy Towards North Korea ?

Since more posts on North Korea will follow, it’s best to clear the air.  The vociferous tone of the past two posts,

and the Donald Duck cartoons have nothing to do with criticism of Administration policy,  but may have been misinterpreted  by some. The ultimately correct course of action is a complex matrix of benefit and risk to U.S. security, heavily reliant on clandestine methods, and the realities and limitations of power projection. It is partly embedded in the international ecosystem. It cannot be discerned from open sources. Too often, politics is made of what is known to decision makers, but cannot be revealed. The Missile Gap, invented by JFK for his political benefit, is the classic.

So although my assessment is similar to what is publicly known of the CIA assessments,  I refrain from having an opinion about North Korea. Dirty Harry said it best. But the astute open source observer can still call bullshit when it’s obvious.

Even when operating in non interpretive mode, good journalism has a story. Quoting the American Press Institute,

A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important. A great story often does both by using storytelling to make important news interesting.

I differ a trifle with the Institute, preferring to substitute or add the word “relevant”. Make important news interesting and relevant.

Had the article authors looked back at their own previous articles, as cited in N. Koreans Giving Up Test Site — Baloney!, they would have seen the implication: Rather than the joyous note of a new leaf for North Korea, the gesture of closing the test site is not motivated by goodwill. It’s a geological necessity dressed up as a gesture.

Can disposal of a worthless test site also be a gesture of good will? By failing to include all the relevant aspects of the story, the articles were actually free publicity for Kim Jong-un.  North Korea has no friends in the Western press, but omissions of relevant parts of the story can result in a powerful bias, even if totally unintentional.

Although castigating the press is an occasional sport, this blog is about open source intelligence — not just the results, but how to get it. In some articles, the focus on methods is explicit. In this series, it’s been example. The note of technique is  that while modern media is all too focused on the immediate here-and-now, much can be gleaned simply by scanning back the past few months.

In pursuit of open source, it’s helpful to have broad enough interests to remember what at the time may have seemed divorced from geopolitics. When North Korea’s test site was discovered to have become unstable, it seemed an irrelevant geological curiosity. Politicians are not typically interested in geology, unless related to oil. Yet it became the centerpiece of a bogus negotiating offer by an adversary.

So if nobody’s got any objections, we’ll continue shortly. You got a problem? Make my day.




Could North Korea’s Nuke Program be Hidden? Syria Analogy

Suppose there was a successful negotiation to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Could North Korea successfully hide the continuation of such a program? Such an exploit relies on the interplay of two factors:

  • A  conflation of the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, with the corresponding standard of “guilt” of international law. A confusion in language, used by the press and exploited by our adversaries,  is rampant.
  • A change in the character of North Korea’s nuclear program. Modification of goals, with clandestine  techniques, to make invisible to international inspection continuance of  part of the program.

The two factors interlock, creating a technical twist on word play in a neglected corner of legal thought.

The language of international law tends to follow the customs of Western legal systems. This influences the vocabulary of journalism. For example, Syrian use of poison gas in Ghouta is described by major news outlets as “alleged.” With this word, the media offers protection in language analogous to the protection in law given to the accused. In short,

An “alleged” violation of international law derives from protection of the accused in Western legal systems.

Autocratic regimes know this confusion of words and standards, and exploit it extensively as a weakness of Western thought. When a consumer of Western media reads or hears the word “alleged” in connection with an international act, there is little chance of distinguishing it from the presumption that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty.

We can have multiple volumes of intelligence data about Syrian chemical attacks, yet like as not, Reuters et al will use the word “alleged.” The likelihood that a slowly deployed UN inspection team succeeds in recovering CBW agents from an area the Russians and Syrians have spent a week cleaning is small to zero. When Russia says, “You have no proof”, they exploit the  conflation in language. They have discovered the loophole and use it: In the domain of international law, proof  by the standards of Western domestic legal systems  is rare.

That this situation persists, created by confusion in language, stems from the whimsical desire to pretend that international law approaches domestic law in constancy and fairness. While international law is not a complete fiction, some of the common memes are lie, cheat, and steal. The occasional successful prosecution of a war criminal does not imply that it is actually a legal system. It might be a negotiating framework.

The media do not invent vocabulary. If they are at a loss for words, having to resort to “alleged” for Ghouta gas attacks, the responsibility is with the intellectual establishment, who have failed to render the distinction between the rights of the accused in Western legal systems, and the “rights” of Assad’s regime. The conflation of “rights of the accused” stems from a language void, which we cannot expect the press to fix on their own.

Now for the reductio ad absurdum . Reuters et al call the Ghouta gas attacks “alleged”, yet there has been a multinational strike against Syrian CBW targets, in direct retaliation for the “alleged” attacks. This shows that Reuters et al extend the term “alleged” to what are, to very high probability, actionable facts.

But while press vocabulary is the day-to-day, there is no fixed barrier in the human mind between different spheres of discourse. The languages of the press and of diplomatic forums cross-fertilize and recirculate. The press reports on diplomacy; diplomats read the press. The linguistic error of legalese is a recirculating loop.

This is the strata of words and logic in which a North Korean nuke program could be hidden, buried beyond  what in domestic legal systems is called “proof.” Detected, yet not proven, the Morlocks dig deeper.

Next, the technical changes that make this possible.

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