a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Second North Korean nuclear test soon?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th October 2006

Via, a Bloomberg report by Meeyoung Song suggests a second North Korean nuclear test is on the horizon:

South Korea has detected signs North Korea may be preparing to conduct a second nuclear explosion, after a report said U.S. satellites picked up activity at the site of the country’s first test last week.

The South Korean government is aware of the indications of activity, a government official who declined to be identified said today by phone in Seoul when asked about the report from Washington by ABC News..

Yesterday, the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence issued a brief statement saying that radioactive “debris” confirmed that the underground explosion on October 9 was indeed a nuclear test; the point had been disputed because the relatively small explosion might have been accomplished with conventional explosives. The New York Times’ Thom Shanker and David Sanger report that indications are it was a plutonium weapon:

American intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea’s test explosion last week was powered by plutonium that North Korea harvested from its small nuclear reactor, according to officials who have reviewed the results of atmospheric sampling since the blast.

Together with what’s known about North Korean reactor fuel supplies, the finding suggests that North Korea has no more than 6-10 weapons. The fact that they exploded a plutonium weapon and not a uranium one clarifies who exactly dropped the ball on North Korea. As puts it, “Uranium would mean Clinton messed up, plutonium suggests the error was on Bush’s watch.” Sanger and Shanker:

As president, Mr. Clinton negotiated a deal that froze the production and weaponization of North Korea’s plutonium, but intelligence agencies later determined that North Korea began its secret uranium program under his watch. The plutonium that North Korea exploded was produced, according to intelligence estimates, either during the administration of the first President Bush or after 2003, when the North Koreans threw out international inspectors and began reprocessing spent nuclear fuel the inspectors had kept under seal.

Unlike the Clinton administration in 1994, the current Bush administration chose not to threaten to destroy North Korea’s fuel and nuclear reprocessing facilities if they tried to make weapons.

So now what? Not much. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote last Wednesday (“In Search of a North Korea Policy,” emphases added),

The attractive alternatives are behind us. There should and will be a U.N. resolution condemning the test. The United Nations may respond to calls from the United States and Japan for strong sanctions to isolate North Korea and cut off trade with it. But North Korea is already the most isolated nation in the world, and its government uses this isolation to its advantage. Stronger sanctions on materials that might be of use to the nuclear program are reasonable, but the horse is already out of the barn. Economic sanctions to squeeze North Korea would increase the suffering of its people but would have little effect on the elite. In any event, they would be effective only if China and South Korea fully participated, and they have shown no inclination to do so.

Heckuva job, Bushie.

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Well, what do you expect for $100,000,000,000?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th September 2004

The Washington Post’s Bradley Graham has taken a look at the purported missile defense system being installed in Alaska (“Interceptor System Set, But Doubts Remain: Network Hasn’t Undergone Realistic Testing“). The report’s tone is, um, skeptical:

But what the administration had hoped would be a triumphant achievement is clouded by doubts, even within the Pentagon, about whether a system that is on its way to costing more than $100 billion will work. Several key components have fallen years behind schedule and will not be available until later. Flight tests, plagued by delays, have yet to advance beyond elementary, highly scripted events.

Graham isn’t the only one:

“A system is being deployed that doesn’t have any credible capability,” said retired Gen. Eugene Habiger, who headed the U.S. Strategic Command in the mid-1990s. “I cannot recall any military system being deployed in such a manner.”

I can. But nattering nabobs of negativism, take note — Rumsfeld says it’s all good:

“Did we have perfection with our first airplane, our first rifle, our first ship?” Rumsfeld said in an interview last month. “I mean, they’d still be testing at Kitty Hawk, for God’s sake, if you wanted perfection.”

…which seems pretty similar to the relaxed view of Iraqi elections Rumsfeld is suddenly kicking around. Now, if it were only dumping a hundred billion dollars down the toilet, this all might not be so bad. But if you actually believe in this product, if you have faith in it, that’s another thing entirely. The Washington Times reported last year:

North Korea is a key reason Mr. Bush ordered the rushed deployment of missile defenses by next year. The first missile interceptor base is being built in Alaska as an emergency measure to blunt North Korea’s threat of an attack.

In his New Republic article “As I Say” detailing the Bush administration policies on North Korea that have been the practical opposite of those on Iraq, J. Peter Scoblic writes,

In September 2003, Powell said, “If they test, we’ll take note of their test…. The president has already accepted the possibility that they might test. And we will say, ‘Gee, that was interesting.'” For his part, the president seems almost Buddha-esque about an increasingly aggressive and atomic Pyongyang. When a New York Times reporter asked him last month if he was concerned about the possibility that North Korea might have six to eight nuclear weapons, Bush simply turned up his palms and shrugged.

The Scoblic article, while not suggesting a connection to missile defense, describes a self-contradictory, almost dreamworld Bush policy toward North Korean WMD development that was actually less robust and less forceful than – ahem – that of known weak-kneed liberal William Jefferson Clinton.

The Bush approach makes a kind of demented sense if he thinks he has or soon will have a “missile defense” ace up his sleeve. But you can’t just say “we’ll shoot the dang things down if they shoot ’em at us.” You have to be able to actually do it.

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If this took two days…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th August 2003

Via the Guardian, I learn that Allies Agree on N. Korea Weapons Program:

After two days of talks, the United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed that North Korea must end its nuclear weapons program, the State Department said Thursday.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th April 2003

For the opinion pieces I mentioned yesterday, “worth reading” only means that I think the pieces are challenging and well written, not that I completely agree with them. The thesis that some of the writers are developing is that human rights repression and threat to the United States tend to go hand in hand. I’m open to the idea that a sufficiently totalitarian regime or movement is in and of itself a security threat: a government (or movement) that brooks no opposition and sets no limits on its ambitions is one that will eventually need to seek its victims elsewhere.

Nevertheless, my view about Iraq was fairly specific to the circumstances: there were supporting UN resolutions, the dictator involved had a history of aggression and non-deterrability, international cooperation in containing him was breaking down, and ending the atrocious repression in Iraq was a good to be weighed against the costs of the war.

I don’t support extending that war to any and all totalitarian regimes. The problem is agreeing whether a given regime is 1) “totalitarian” enough, and 2) threatening enough to the United States or our allies to warrant military action, with 3) low enough expected costs. To keep this short, I’ll set aside the need for international approval and how to go about gaining it, other than to say the greater the threat, the less the need for that approval.

My personal answers to the above three questions for various “next?” countries are currently: North Korea: yes, yes, no (Seoul). Syria: yes, no, yes. Iran: no, unsure, no. So far, I feel like what’s next is that we should try to get Iraq right, and not look around for another fight. That’s not to say I’m against exacting some pledges from these countries to mend their ways while the iron’s hot, so to speak.

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Call it a hunch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th October 2002

VOA News: Bush-Jiang Summit May Focus on Iraq, N. Korea Nuclear Issues. Hmm, thanks, might not have guessed that on my own.

Moving over to the “for what it’s worth” department, China denies helping N. Korean nuclear programme ( lateline news). Given rumors of Pakistani and/or Russian help with the latest North Korean nuclear weapons effort; it may even be true, at least technically. It’s hard to see how China actually benefits from a nuclear armed rogue state on its border.

Finally, in the “blogger speculation” department (which is what we [don’t] get paid to do, right?) Aziz Poonawalla points to some thinking out loud by Suman Palit (“Kolkata Libertarian”), to the effect that North Korea needs to mind what China tells it to do, and other reasons why North Korea is deterrable and action against it can be postponed. I agree with Mr. Palit about China’s influence on North Korea — should they choose to use it. But there’s the rub; I think “deterrable” in the context of North Korea misses the point. “Deterrence” is about preventing a country from starting a war. What Palit is really talking about is “containable” or “capable of being influenced”, both of which require interested, motivated parties to do the containing and influencing. Palit points to diplomatic pressure by China to get North Korea to return to the 1994 agreement. We’ll see whether that’s pro forma pressure or whether it’s accompanied by threats of reducing fuel shipments to North Korea, the quickest way to bring pain to that government.

But that assumes China sees a need to do so. It seems likely to me that China has good enough intelligence in North Korea to have not been surprised or alarmed by anything North Korea is doing. But even if they didn’t, the situation may not seem very dire from Beijing’s point of view.

North Korea has two weapons programs that rightly worry the U.S. and the Western world: its missile program, and its nuclear program. Neither is necessarily threatening to China: to me, the missile program seems likeliest to be intended as a source of foreign exchange, in both the form of covert sales to other countries (a very legitimate worry to the United States), and in the form of forcing dialogue for “aid” with the European Union and the United States. China may see North Korea in this respect the way Toyota sees Hyundai — a competitor, but not a mortal threat — to the extent they are joining that market (I have no idea, to be honest) or likelier the way Sony sees Hyundai, if they don’t. It’s altogether unlikely that the missiles will ever be fired at China, since China’s principal adversaries already have missiles of their own*, and China is North Korea’s only ideological partner and ally to any extent.

That leaves the nuclear weapons. They, too, are not directed at China; at current levels (zero to two, as near as I can guesstimate from the news), their main military purpose can only be deter an American/South Korean attack; now American troops or (given the missiles) Japanese cities would be under the threat of nuclear retaliation. We may believe the chances of such a U.S. attack are nil; the North Korean military may not. The secondary purpose may again be foreign exchange. Again, there’s not necessarily any compelling interest for the Chinese to intervene, let alone intervene forcefully. Inducements from the United States will be needed for any more than the bare minimum of cooperation in containing and/or reversing North Korea’s weapons programs.

It’s possible the one result for the Chinese out of all of this is that they want a unified Korea less than ever, since that country will have an active nuclear weapons program; South Korea could probably develop its own in a relatively short time, but there’s nothing like already having a nuclear weapon to get others to quit trying to keep you from getting it — or at least become a lot more careful about trying.

If you believe, on the other hand, that China is seriously worried about the North Korean weapons programs, my guess is that they could be at the DMZ within [distance from Yalu River to DMZ ] / [20 miles per hour] + [time for lunch and rest stops]; North Korean land defenses “point south” for the most part, not north (except, of course, for those nuclear weapons). Especially with US cooperation — attack and destroy missile sites and weapons facilities — this could be a “just between us superpowers” thing. In an equally unlikely followon scenario, China might actually allow reunification in exchange for dismantling the nuclear program, an ironclad pledge of nonproliferation by Korea — and withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Taken altogether, that might actually make sense for everyone, and is therefore vanishingly improbable.

So I’m guessing China won’t do much. Does that mean we must? Not really, and not necessarily before Iraq, if you accept that’s necessary. While China may not be interested in forcing North Korea to do anything, it may be willing to help keep them from exporting weapons by sealing its borders and permitting a focussed blockade of North Korea: no weapons in or out, possibly inspections-on-demand to see what’s going on inside North Korea (but no consequences spelled out). What will be interesting is how much it will take to get even that level of cooperation.

*Except perhaps Taiwan. I would think even North Korea wouldn’t make that mistake, though.

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Imbalance of bluster

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th February 2002

As is well known, President Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” in the State of the Union address, leading to concern in some quarters and satisfaction (or at least nuanced understanding) in others. Over at “More Than Zero,” (MTZ) for instance, “Andreas” wrote (01/31/2002):

While Bush’s speech made us all a little nervous, it was intended to make terrorist sponsors nervous. The jangling of European nerves was a side effect. This was a forceful speech intended to show terrorist regimes and dictators that:

a) we won’t necessarily be restrained by a need to please Europe or other parts of the world, and

b) we won’t be restrained by waiting for an open act of aggression on your part.

The point was to increase our threat power. It would not have been effective if it weren’t as jarring as it was.

I replied with a comment the other day, to which “Andreas” replied; have a look, if you like. To clarify my comments there, I’m not saying MTZ approves of bluster, but he does seem to approve of Bush’s “axis of evil” phrase. My read of his comments is that he feels it improves the “threat imbalance” that terrorists and their sponsors enjoy vis-a-vis nation-states with more self-imposed restrictions on their behavior. But while MTZ appears to see “axis of evil” rhetoric as threat enhancement, I see it as one checkers move away from mere bluster. Unless the regimes involve cave in with fright, Bush’s statement only temporarily improves the threat imbalance, and ultimately will confront us with a “put up or shut up” dilemma we didn’t need. At that point we either admit we were blustering, or we’ll “put up.”*

And that would presumably involve starting a war, something international law and opinion quite reasonably frowns on, even when there’s a reasonable case for it. After all, who gets to decide how reasonable the case is? Many in China, Iraq, and any number of other countries no doubt have any number of wars they would be happy to start. The authorized brains in those regimes may think their case is “reasonable” too: Taiwan gets some rocking military equipment, Israel exists for yet another intolerable day. Are we willing to furnish them with a precedent? Are we willing to rely only on our own military strength not just to start wars we believe we have to wage, but also to prevent wars we disapprove of? I’m not; I’m concerned that’s where the “axis of evil” rhetoric is heading us.

Those are not “ironizing” quotes around “axis of evil.” I’m no fan of any of the regimes Bush mentioned, and I’m aware of the danger they — or factions within those regimes — pose to our safety and those of our friends. I disagree with MTZ’s occasionally equating them with Al Qaeda as far as the game theory of it all goes; unlike that group of worthies, these are states with something to lose (even North Korean functionaries have some kind of life: food that isn’t grass, a roof, 100,000 dancer follies, what have you.) I continue to believe it’s better to focus on those who have actually attacked us, to get wars over with as quickly as possible rather than turning them into a new way of life, and, given the choice, to finish one before starting the next. But I’m not blind to the threat these regimes pose.

MTZ comments that he isn’t sure the Bush strategy is a good one, either, but wants the threat imbalance problem addressed. So with apologies to devoted non-militarists, non-interventionists, non-imperialists, and/or peaceniks generally, I’ll suggest that we spell out a doctrine, not a catchphrase — preferably in concert with an alliance built or recentered on the concept. That doctrine might avoid making us the sole arbiter of when to declare the need for and carry out self-defensive pre-emptive strikes. It would at least spell out clearly a sequence of enemy missteps that would lead to such a strike, and a sequence of steps or a timetable that ratchets down the danger. It would also spell out whether this is a militant antiproliferation doctrine, a militant anti-terror-harbor doctrine, or both.

I’d prefer that doctrine to rely as much as possible on existing international law, so that we’re making up the fewest possible new rules, and gain at least some clear advance understanding, even approval — dream with me! — of our position. I’m aware of the limitations this could put on us; but I wish others would similarly acknowledge the problems with unilateral action on our part. Meanwhile, the presence of a well-understood doctrine might begin to address that threat imbalance; we would not be groping for responses to WMD discoveries and the like, but might instead just set the clock ticking on defined courses of action, and let the other side sweat out the confrontation. With all due respect for Dubya’s wartime instincts, diplomacy may not be his long suit: you might get more bad guy “blinks” this way than with the “apes at the water hole” approach. And as Ug once reasoned, in extremis you can always go ahead and beat their brains in after all. (“In extremis” was a widely used Neolithic ape-man phrase.)

Treaties, conventions, and the customs of foreign policy are ultimately made of paper or less; but they still serve as brakes on bad behavior, and that often benefits us, preventing some crises and providing some consensus about how to analyze and respond to others. Building and respecting international systems of law and trade has been a key element of U.S. foreign policy since the nation was founded. The treaties we’ve signed are also ostensibly the supreme law (see Article VI) of our own land, on the same plane as the Constitution itself. One of those is the U.N. Charter, which appears to vest primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in the Security Council, and which limits self-defense to cases of actual armed attack. The Constitution is no suicide pact, it’s true. Yet we owe it to ourselves and to a world ruled by laws, not guns (not even ours), that we work within those laws, and seek to modify them in advance when necessary.


* MTZ notes this is similar to a point made by “Sergeant Stryker” (“walk the walk”) which may well be the case. Also, I suppose there’s a 3rd alternative to “put up or shut up”: “bluster even harder,” but that just postpones choosing between the first two.

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