Wednesday, May 2, 2018


When it comes to understanding events on the Korean peninsula, we need to move past both Donald Trump's blustering and South Korea's president Moon Jae-in's ego-soothing suggestion that Trump deserves a Nobel Prize for his blustering. It's clear that South Korea's president knows what yanks Trump's chain, and he's tugging that line so he can have a freer hand on the peninsula. 

Then we have North Korea pretty much melting down one of its nuclear mountain test sites. As you can imagine China, North Korea's neighbor, is not happy with this development. As North Korea's biggest trade partner, this makes all the difference in the world.

The Chinese have already hit Pyongyang with economic sanctions that have collapsed trade between the two nations. But all of this - Kim Jong Un drama (with a touch of Trump for added effect) and economic sanctions - is par for the course, and really just surface level white noise.

The real reason we shouldn't get worked up about what's happening between North and South Korea is because we've seen this show before. There are many regional currents and counter-currents at work here, which the Korean leaders understand far better than Donald Trump, John Bolton and the American press.

In an article written for Foreign Policy Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, writes a summary of the primary issues, which helps to explain why we shouldn't get so worked up over what's happening between the two Koreas. In fact, Lewis writes that "optimism over Korea" just might "kill us all."

Specifically, Lewis writes that the primary factors driving rapprochement between the two Koreas include:

* WHAT WE DON'T SEE: There are two other nuclear test complexes in different mountains, which Kim Jong Un hasn't said anything about. He's keeping those open, which means closing down the testing at the melted mountain is effectively good optics.
* IT'S DEJA VU ALL OVER: 10 years ago North Korea agreed to dismantle the cooling tower for gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon,  then connected it to another pump when no one was paying attention (dismantling the tower was always a PR stunt).  
* THE DISARMAMENT TWO-STEP: Kim Jong Un has not actually promised to disarm. What North and South Korea have done is put out a vague promise to work towards a day when nuclear weapons aren't necessary. This requires the U.S. to pull out of South Korea (which China wants), and to promise not to invade North Korea. Instead, Kim Jong Un actually agreed to a series of steps, which he can back away from at any time (and to the extent that Kim Jong Un does disarm, it's because of China, not Trump).
* THE REAL PRIZE: Kim Jong Un is actually working to gain acceptance as a de facto nuclear player, in exchange for agreeing to certain limits and stage moratoriums. 

Add to this the fact that China's role in the Korean peninsula will be maintained, regardless of what Donald Trump thinks, and you have a situation where Trump's visit to North Korea is more window dressing and PR fodder for the western press (and Trump's base). Keep in mind that China has repeatedly demanded that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile tests in the past in exchange for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea halting regional military drills. So Trump's demands on this issue won't be nothing new.

In sum, Donald Trump might think that he's setting the table on the Korean peninsula but, in reality, we've seen this show before. Perhaps more importantly, China's the real player behind the scenes.

For a complete review of Lewis' piece, click here. I've posted a little more than half of the article below (copyright issues, you know).

Last week’s inter-Korean summit, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s declaration that he would “close” his nuclear test site by May, were greeted widely with celebration. But contrary to the hoopla, we have now arrived at an especially dangerous moment in Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang. We are on the verge of letting our hopes get in the way of our survival.

Consider the now widespread view that North Korea’s test site is unusable or that the mountain that contains it has collapsed. This was always garbage reporting. You can download the two academic papers that are said to have originally made these claims — they say nothing of the kind. What the papers do is prove that, after North Korea’s big nuclear test in September 2017, the cavity created by the explosion collapsed in on itself. We already knew that probably happened (although it is cool to see it demonstrated through seismology).

But the collapsing of the cavity and shrinking of the mountain do not mean the tunnels leading to it collapsed, let alone that the mountain itself had done so. And, of course, there are two other nuclear test complexes underneath entirely different mountains at the site

Kim was quoted as making this point himself: “Some said we will dismantle unusable facilities, but there are two more larger tunnels [in addition to] the original one and these are very in good condition as you will get to know that when coming and seeing them.” But commentators in the West, hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough (whether for political or more idealistic reasons), still heard what they wanted to hear about the condition of North Korea’s program.

The whole episode reminds me of something that happened a decade ago — when North Korea agreed to demolish the cooling tower at its Yongbyon gas-graphite reactor. The demolition of the cooling tower, accomplished with great fanfare, was not, in fact, a part of the original agreement that the Bush administration had reached with North Korea. But the Bush administration went back and asked North Korea to do it because it wanted “a striking visual, broadcast around the globe, that would offer tangible evidence that North Korea was retreating from its nuclear ambitions.” In other words, it was a PR stunt — and people fell for it.

There was just one problem. Although North Korea never rebuilt the cooling tower, that didn’t stop it from it secretly restarting Yongbyon — it simply connected the reactor to a nondescript and very boring pump house it had constructed under everyone’s noses. (This was the same sort of pump house, incidentally, that North Korea helped Syria build at its secret nuclear reactor near Al Kibar.) But without the visual of Yongbyon’s cooling tower, almost no one noticed what North Korea was doing with the reactor.

Kim’s promise to close the nuclear test site doesn’t really mean much in practice, certainly not much more than the demolition of the cooling tower. The site is a few support buildings surrounded by mountains with massive tunnel complexes dug horizontally into them. 

Simply closing the site wouldn’t be anything like the disabling of South Africa’s nuclear test site, whose vertical shafts were filled with debris. Instead, it would be more like the closure of Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan, which the United States helped seal after the Soviets had abandoned it. Scavengers eventually just popped open the seals, forcing the United States to reseal them and then add surveillance measures. 

North Korea can seal up the tunnels, but it could always unseal them later. And we should keep an eye out for the proverbial pump house. After all, it’s not like North Korea is short on mountains or labor to dig new tunnels.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

This is not to say that I am not delighted that North Korea has announced an end to nuclear explosive testing and the closure of its test site. This is a very good thing. But we must be clear about what’s happening and what it means. 

North Korea isn’t giving up a test site because it collapsed. North Korea agreed to stop testing because Kim is getting what he wants. 

The third inter-Korean summit was not premised on Kim Jong Un offering to disarm. He has never, ever made a concrete promise to abandon his nuclear weapons program. If you read the joint statement closely, what South and North Korea have done is to take disarmament off the table as a concrete outcome and substitute a vague aspiration that at some point nuclear weapons will no longer be necessary.

Until that time, Kim is willing to agree to a much more modest series of steps — a moratorium on launches of intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, as well as an end to nuclear testing. Those are good things. We should appreciate them as genuine improvements to U.S. security, not something to tide the United States over until North Korea turns over missiles and nuclear warheads.

Kim is working toward winning a de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power in exchange for his agreement to respect certain limits — an end to certain missile tests and nuclear explosions, an agreement not to export nuclear technology to other states, and perhaps a pledge by North Korea not to use nuclear weapons. To accept this would represent a complete and total retreat from decades of U.S. policy — a retreat that I believe is overdue and the inevitable consequence of North Korea’s development of ICBMs and thermonuclear weapons. 

We have to learn to accept North Korea as it is. And what North Korea is, is nuclear-armed ...


- Mark

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