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Figuring out North Korea and those missile launches

This article in the Independent articulates an argument that I summarise thus: North Korea is developing nukes, it is firing rockets and other stuff into the sky near or above its neighbours, but the country is a basket case; it is led by a nutcase and all this stuff is in fact it is a sign of weakness, not strength. In other words, nothing much to worry about, please move along, ManU are playing Barcelona in the Champions League, etc.

I actually accept that there is probably a great deal of truth in this “nothing to get overly worried about” line. There’d better be. There is not much, short of war, with all the terrible costs it would bring, that neighbouring countries such as South Korea, China or Japan can do to pressure North Korea that they have not done already. (Japan, by the way, has been busily expanding its naval forces). When in the past I have briefly mentioned North Korea, some commentators on Samizdata will point out that the West (ie, the US), should not, or has no need or business, to defend South Korea or indeed to act as if North Korea is a “problem” to be fixed. Let the locals sort it out, etc. Well up to a point, but there will be wider effects to think about if nuclear weapons are ever used, or threatened to be used, against what is, after all, a broadly free and friendly country like South Korea.

I think part of the problem is that as long as the US has kept significant armed forces in the region, it can create a sort of moral hazard problem, in that the countries thus protected fall out of the habit of learning to defend themselves, or understand its costs. I am not an expert on South Korean public opinion, but I cannot help but wonder what the impact of a long-running US presence will have on creating a possible false sense of security. One of the things that is clearly coming out of the current economic crisis, and the wrecked state of US public finances, is that there will now be enormous pressure on any US administration, even one led by more hawkish people than Mr Obama, to cut, or just limit, defence spending. South Korea has not escaped the impact of the credit crunch, and if it was not willing to shell out more money on defence five years ago, it is hard to see it doing that now, unless it is completely terrified of an attack. I am sure that the top brass in North Korea understand all this only too well.

Let us hope it is a sign of a weak, not strong regime. But remember also that weak, or desperate countries can do desperate things, such as the Argentine Junta’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982. As we know, Argentina lost that conflict, and it helped destroy the regime. But Argentina did not have, or threaten to use, nukes.

27 comments to Figuring out North Korea and those missile launches

  • Seoul is less than 50km from North Korea, and the closest Japanese cities are something like 400km from North Korea. North Korea may well be failing, but with very unpredictable leadership and now with nuclear weapons. The worst case scenarios (which involve the nuclear weapons being used in high population areas before the South and US really know what is happening) are terrifying. Virtually all scenarios then involve rapid and total defeat for the north, so one hopes that (a) they realise this and (b) they will behave reasonably rationally. One cannot be certain of either though.

  • The Welsh Jacobite

    Ironically, Argentina did have a covert nuclear weapons programme, but never came near to producing a weapon.

  • Kevin B

    Moving right along, North Korea has abandoned the five decade old truce and is ready to go to war if South Korea starts searching it’s ships for nuclear bits and pieces.

    Meanwhile the UN is preparing a ‘strongly worded’ resolution.

    It’s difficult to know what the neighbouring countries, the US or the world community can do in these circumstances.

    My guess is that back-channel talks are already taking place in which Kim demands that Obama hand over a load of US taxpayers money for yet another promise to STFU. The problem is that O! does not have a lot of taxpayer dollars to spare at the moment and any move to appease Kim is going to look pretty bad for his street cred both at home and in places like Teheran.

    So welcome to the White House Barack. The red-phone is on the desk and the guy with the football is just outside the door.

  • virgil xenophon

    I don’t know about S. Korea, because there is a large segment of pacifist “Stockholm Syndrome” types in the population, but Obama will do more for the re-armament of Japan than anything short of an outright invasion of S. Korea by the North. The paring down of America’s ABM program is a sure signal to Japan that they may no longer be able to live under America’s nuclear umbrella–something they and the rest of the “free-rider nations in the region have all done since the end of the Korean war. The same goes for the ever shrinking US Navy and the growing Chinese naval capabilities. Look for a new mini arms race in the region. Because as Japan muscles-up–and especially if it signals it’s intentions to acquire it’s own nuclear capability–the rest of the Asian countries, who have long memories and still fear a fully re-armed Japan, will increase their military budgets also–something they are already doing anyway mainly in response to the Chinese. A spurt in Japanese defense spending will only speed up the entire process throughout the region.

    Signs of this are already evident. Australia is significantly increasing it’s naval budget, as is Singapore. Vietnam is as well, all mainly in response to the Chinese so far, but a muscled-up Japan will really light a fire under those with long memories of WWII. Unless out-right war occurs shortly, look for the entire region to become much more militarized as long as Obama continues to shrink the defense budget and US capabilities in the Pacific continue to diminish.

    Now, some might say this is all to the good. These nations have rich economies these days, let Asian nations defend themselves as opposed to American tax-payers shouldering the load–which makes sense, up to a point. But does America and the rest of what used to be called the “free world” really want a new, uncontrolled and unpredictable arms race–and maybe a nuclear one at that–in a region now so vital to world trade? These concerns are nothing new, btw, articles bemoaning just such a state of affairs appear regularly–indeed are the staple of–publications like “Foreign Affairs,” “Foreign Policy” and the out-put of a million think-tanks. I’m saying nothing new here except to point out that current events and recent trends are certainly doing nothing to prove such arguments wrong.

  • RPL

    FWIW, you’re likely seeing the first public steps in the succession of KJI’s youngest son to the throne. They are doing this to prove how strong they are (they really are weak), and they have the ability to take down a large part of northeast asia when they go. They likely don’t have the supplies or the logistical capability to conduct operations for greater than a few days, and would have to live off of captured goods.

    The consensus is that the NK military has lost its edge, the SK military is more than capable, and it will still be bloody.

    Regarding China, they can shut off the supplies that they give NK, and the country would die very shortly thereafter. They are probably quite happy to let KJI rant and rave. By the way, I don’t think that KJI is in the picture much; it’s the military and the ruling elite who are probably running the show due to Kim’s illness and frailty.

    No one wants to take responsibility for NK; from an economic standpoint, it would kill the economy of the country that assumes recievership (think E. Germany, W. Germany, but worse).

    As the old Chinese saying goes, may you live in interesting times.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    If I may add a couple of points. First, the primary risk to us [Sorry Japan and ROK, from a US point of view] is not necessarily a direct missile attack by DPRK on the US, although it is an outlier possibility as there is no indication that DPRK is “rational” from our perspective. [In their world-view their "rational response" may make no sense at all from our world view. There is a reason that competent strategic analysts are concerned with dealing with capabilities and not intent. If you mistakenly read an opponent's intent, you can be well and truly scrod.]

    Our primary risk is the production and sale of nuclear devices to non-state actors who will then attack us. Secondarily, there is a variant of the outlier case wherein the North Korean device will be smuggled in to our country via shipping container, etc. by the DPRK.

    There is the additional possibility, raised by documented instances of nuclear cooperation between Iran and the DPRK; that the test we just watched was in fact an Iranian test using a Korean locale to avoid a response from the West. After all, they know that the world will do nothing for a Korean test; but an Iranian test would provoke a response from Israel, and once again as an extremely distant outlier, possibly by the US.

    The determinative data point will be the analysis of the data collected on the detonation in the West. The DPRK makes its devices using plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor by the implosion method. The success of the test is NOT good news as it indicates that they have some mastery of the harder but more efficient method.

    The Iranians use the U-235 gun type device. Their thousands of centrifuges are being used to cascade-separate and concentrate the U-235 to the 70%+ enrichment needed to make a weapon. For the record, depending on reactor design, fuel grade is 3-5%. The fissile material furnished by the Russians, it is reported by some, was already 7-9% enriched which puts paid to the idea of it being for peaceful use.

    If we find that the device just detonated was plutonium based, we can make a working assumption that it was an indigenous effort. If it was U-235, we can make a similar working assumption that it was a joint Iranian-DPRK effort; with all the implications for the Middle East and the world. I also note that there is a significant incentive for the governments of the West to falsify or suppress the data if it is U-235.

    Both Iran and the DPRK are operating largely under doctrines that are not rational or subject to modification by discussion in our terms; the “12th Imam” and “Juche” respectively. Their doctrines view the use of third parties to inflict deadly damage on the West as a feature not a bug.

    One has to wonder what the reaction of any Western country would be if suddenly a nuclear device was detonated on its territory with no attribution to a nation-state. My guess is that the first attack would result in paralysis by indecision. The second may result in a strategic response, although that may involve a field-expedient change of government.

    The recent renunciation of the 1953 Armistice by the DPRK may be simple polemics, or it could be indicative of more serious events to come.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • I think part of the problem is that as long as the US has kept significant armed forces in the region, it can create a sort of moral hazard problem, in that the countries thus protected fall out of the habit of learning to defend themselves, or understand its costs.

    BINGO!

    I am not an expert on South Korean public opinion, but I cannot help but wonder what the impact of a long-running US presence will have on creating a possible false sense of security.

    Interestingly, the US presence in Korea is designed more or less to assure NK that the sense of security in the South is not false. The reason there are 20,000 or so grunt-level US army personel in in South Korea – rather than a more mobile, lightweight and technologically sophisticated USAF presence alone (of the kind Rumsfeld suggested) – is to ensure that the US takes heavy-ish casualties in the event of an attack from the North. This has the effect of giving the US a public opinion stake in fighting back. The idea being that if it were only facing the South, the North would be more likely to attack regardless of the situation on the ground.

    I think the general consensus of people who study this is that the moral hazard in the case of South Korea is very real – precisely because of all that US cannon fodder sitting on the DMZ for no good tactical purpose. In the case of Japan, however, which North Korea could effectively attack without killing any American soldiers, there isn’t much of a moral hazard, and Japan has indeed quietly built up quite an impressive “self-defence” force over the years.

    As someone who lived in South Korea for two years, I can say “good luck” to anyone trying to figure out public opinion there amid all the hysterics. The late Noh Moo Hyun (who jumped off a cliff to his death last week) was elected in a flurry of completely irrational patriotic sentimentality about the two Koreas being one country. It didn’t take the public very long to come to regret that choice, and they overwhelmingly voted with the opposition candidate in the more recent presidential election. (There was also much domestic silliness during Noh’s tenure that informed their decision.) One can hope that the recent antics from the North serve the purpose of confirming in the public’s eyes that it made the right choice – but who can say?

  • Both Iran and the DPRK are operating largely under doctrines that are not rational or subject to modification by discussion in our terms; the “12th Imam” and “Juche” respectively. Their doctrines view the use of third parties to inflict deadly damage on the West as a feature not a bug.

    The difference being that while Iranian officials might actually believe their state religion, it’s doubtful that the North Korean elite does. No way to say for sure, of course, but my money’s on Juche being just a tool for the preservation of their regime at this point. There are no true believers in the upper echelons.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Joshua @ 1933 hrs.

    I agree with the concept of having primarily air and logistics support for the ROK’s. From what I understand, we are pretty much off the DMZ, with almost all of our troops in the far south. The 2nd Infantry, which was based overseas [almost all the time in Korea] since shortly after WW II finally has a home base in the US as of a couple of years ago. It is just down the road from me about an hour at Ft. Carson.

    From what I heard, the ROK civilians were screaming at us to get out …. until we said we would. Their attitude changed somewhat thereafter.

    The ROK’s are in a strange situation. Their country is divided, with the other half wanting to destroy them, and at the same time they saw what reunification did to West Germany’s economy, and the psychological inability of the “Osties” to adapt to freedom and capitalism; and they know that it would be far worse if they reunified with North Korea. Paying Danegeld has proven not to work, and the devastation of the Korean War convinces many of them that there is no acceptable military solution. As we pull back [and we will, worldwide] they are losing their comfortable out. Add to this a generation of homicidal nutjobs north of the DMZ, hungry desperate nutjobs, and a leadership there that has an unusual variant of reality testing, and this likely will not end well.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Alice

    Subotai Bahadur has hit the nail on the head — the real issue here is that now anyone with a large amount of cash has a willing seller of tested nuclear devices, no questions asked.

    War is hell. But refusing to fight does not mean the end of war — simply that the hell will be felt more deeply on the side reluctant to fight.

    When some Cornish nationalist extremist group drives a small boat up the Thames & explodes a purchased nuclear weapon in the heart of London, will our intellectual superiors still be able to convince themselves that North Korea is someone else’s problem?

  • Their country is divided, with the other half wanting to destroy them, and at the same time they saw what reunification did to West Germany’s economy, and the psychological inability of the “Osties” to adapt to freedom and capitalism; and they know that it would be far worse if they reunified with North Korea.

    Much worse, yes. The Sunshine Policy was sold as a Korean version of Ostpolitik, but of course it’s fatuous. You can’t do Ostpolitik with a nation that won’t even allow family visits and fences in its tourist destinations. When I was there, the going suggestion was that in the event of a DDR-style meltdown, the South would keep the North fenced off for another generation and administer it separately for a time. That’s a sensible suggestion – but of course it would be impossible to get away with it politically. Even if the international community (specifically China) allowed it, it would mean ROK soldiers shooting North Korean refugees – and there’s only so much of that that Seoul’s spinmeisters can blame on Japan (which is responsible for everything bad that happened in Korea ever – except when the US is).

    From what I heard, the ROK civilians were screaming at us to get out …. until we said we would. Their attitude changed somewhat thereafter.

    Confirmed. I lived there from 2000-2002, and everyone under 35 (people who remember the Korean War or were born shortly thereafter have a very different perspective) was very much against the US military presence. It was really gratifying to see President Noh do a total about-face when Rumsfeld started talking pullout. Not that I think we should be in South Korea, but I really did have my fill of irrational anti-Americanism from Koreans by the time I got home.

  • With respect to the nuclear weapons issue, North Korea is a country where people eat grass and suffer mass starvation, and which has devoted a huge portion of national resources to build probably a couple of small nuclear weapons. South Korea is a major industrial power that could probably develop a serious nuclear arsenal within six months without any significant cost to the rest of the economy. To some extent, the purpose of the continued US presence in Korea is to prevent South Korea (and likely Japan as well) from developing their own nuclear arsenal. This makes sense, but the time for this position may be over. I can’t imagine either Japan or North Korea using nuclear weapons except in extreme circumstances, whereas I am much less certain about North Korea, or other countries that North Korea might try to sell the technology to.

    The truth is, I think we are heading for a world of much greater nuclear proliferation, whether we like it or not.

  • Eric

    Regarding China, they can shut off the supplies that they give NK, and the country would die very shortly thereafter. They are probably quite happy to let KJI rant and rave. By the way, I don’t think that KJI is in the picture much; it’s the military and the ruling elite who are probably running the show due to Kim’s illness and frailty.

    This is my sense of it. China can pull the plug on the DPRK at any time, but their primary interest at this point is in propping the regime up to forestall collapse. Both the South Koreans and the Chinese are pondering what in the world to do if the Nork regime collapses and millions of low-IQ starving people flood across their respective borders. There’s already a million of them in China.

  • lukas

    The Chinese have dealt, in various ways, with a couple hundred million of low-IQ starving people of their own… that is not a problem for them.

  • Current

    There is an aspect to this people are forgetting.

    In North Korean the propaganda that has been fed to the masses over a long period of time is that the US want to destroy them. The US are portrayed as the worst of the bad guys. It is this view that encourages North Koreans to obey their masters.

    When there was talk about the US pulling out of the South the reaction in the North was an increase in hostility.

    The reasons why is simple. The leadership of the North need the US presence in the South. They need it so they can plausibly tell their own people that they are in danger.

    North Korean leaders must agitate if they did not there would be revolution.

    When the USSR fell many of the Nomenklatura became high up businessmen in the state industries privatized by Yeltsin. They did very well from this deal. The North Korean leadership must ensure that nothing similar can happen in North Korea. If it could happen then their Nomenklatura will revolt and bring the masses with them. They must ensure that for their Nomenklatura there are two choices, to work for them or receive a bullet from someone.

    (This view is not unique to me BTW, I’m mentioning ideas from an article I read long ago.)

  • Rubrik's Tetrahedron

    Could we bring Kim Il Sung back to the peace table by having Obama offer profuse apologies for his portrayal in Team America: World Police?

  • “The reason there are 20,000 or so grunt-level US army personel in in South Korea – rather than a more mobile, lightweight and technologically sophisticated USAF presence alone (of the kind Rumsfeld suggested) – is to ensure that the US takes heavy-ish casualties in the event of an attack from the North. This has the effect of giving the US a public opinion stake in fighting back. ” Joshua, earlier.

    Exactly…and the USA, the pariah of Islam, and much of the underdeveloped world, is alaways ready to take the casualties.
    What a f***ing disgrace. Why is the UN only prepared to talk ? Why not regional Asian forces responding against a common threat under the banner of the UN ?

  • Paul Marks

    “Team America: World Police” is indeed proving to be far more true to life than the endless “documentaries” and print journalism “feature articles”.

    However, now the United States itself is under the influence of a Communist – although, as far as I know, he is not also a space alien.

  • David Gillies

    What would a full-scale US/ROK/NORK war look like? As has been pointed out, we could probably write off the ‘tripwire’ force of US troops in the event of NORK initiating hostilities. Given the reaction to 4,000 fatal casualties over the course of six years, what would US public reaction be to 20 or 30 thousand dead in a matter of days? How would we reinforce? How long would it take? What are casualty estimates for the two Koreas? Would first use of nuclear weapons by the US be considered if sufficiently compelling intelligence of a NORK attack was received? What is US nuclear doctrine contra NORK? B2s dropping B61 Mod 11s in laydown mode on the NORK gunline? Countervalue strikes or just counterforce? How would China react? What will happen to the world economy if one of the biggest DRAM suppliers is smashed?

    I honestly don’t have a handle on these questions, and no real idea of where to start looking to educate myself.

  • John Watson

    Interesting article on this by the Epoch Times: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/17430/

    June 4 the Reason for North Korean Nuclear Test
    Iran must not have been ready

    “I must confess that I was surprised to hear that the Stalinist regime in North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, especially when it occurred to me where we are on the calendar (the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is next week). Until yesterday, I had always assumed it was the Iranian mullahcracy who would conduct a test at this time. I can only assume that the mullahs just weren’t ready yet…”

    The article makes a point that what the North Korean dictators do probably has a lot to do with the Chinese communist party. It wouldn’t surprise me that the antics of the North Korean leadership are just puppet manipulations of the even-more-sinister Chinese communist regime.

  • John Watson –

    It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I can’t quite believe it. First, the anniversary of Tienanmen isn’t nearly as important as McGuire seems to think. It isn’t anything like close to bringing down the Chinese regime – and even without the distraction from KJI, international pressure on China over it would be minimal. Second, and more importantly, if KJI et al are puppets of the Chinese regime they can’t be happy about it, and China would know that. Any nuclear weapon that Kim develops is as much about getting out from under China’s thumb as out from under anyone else’s. I can’t stretch my imagination far enough to get to a scenario where China is happy about North Korea having the bomb – ESPECIALLY if controlling Pyongyang is one of Beijing’s policy goals. Granted, it wouldn’t alarm them nearly as much as, say, Japan with the bomb would, but it’s still something Beijing would rather avoid … = they can’t possibly be encouraging Kim to do more tests.

    I agree that things China sincerely wants stopped in North Korea can probably usually be stopped – and so I admit I’m mystified why they’re so quiet about this. But I really can’t imagine that it’s because Tienanmen’s anniversary is so crucial that it’s worth the payment of a Korea that’s that much closer to controlling a precise nuclear arsenal to distract people from it. It seems more likely to me that this just showed up on China’s doorstep at the same time it showed up on everyone else’s, and China’s comparative silence is explained by the fact that they have comparatively less to fear and are content to let the West make all the first moves. Best money is still on the cause being some regime instability in Pyongyang.

  • Joshua: I agree that things China sincerely wants stopped in North Korea can probably usually be stopped – and so I admit I’m mystified why they’re so quiet about this

    I am not so sure as to the extent of China’s ability to control NK’s behavior. It is probably far greater than that of the West, but it surely is not unlimited. And can you really imagine China publicly siding with the West against NK? Whatever objections they might have to NK’s nukes (and I’m sure they have them), they are likely to voice them quietly and directly to NK. How successfully is another question (see above).

  • Alisa –

    Agreed – I spoke too hastily. If China is wielding influence with North Korea, it doesn’t do it publicly, so the only way we would ever know would be indirectly. I would add, though, that the fact that China, on principle, never publicly sides with the West against North Korea means that when they pointedly fail to take North Korea’s side publicly Pyongyang gets the message.

    As for how much influence China has – what I wrote was: “I agree that things China sincerely wants stopped in North Korea probably usually be stopped.” I repeat this to emphasize that nothing in my statement implies any kind of massive influence. No one – probably not even Kim Jong Il, actually – has total influence over North Korean military policy – certainly no foreign power. But China has a lot more tools in its arsenal than we do – not the least of which is a more direct ability to supply local party cadres with food/medicine/etc., which seriously undermines Pyongyang’s power in the country.

    In any case, the point of my comment overall was just that it’s hard for me to believe that the current round of tests was done at Beijing’s behest – or even with its blessing – and certainly not because it’s worried about the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen demonstrations.
    China may be content to let the West deal with North Korea’s nuclear program for now – but I can’t imagine that Beijing is any happier about the program than we are overall.

  • Subotai Bahadur

    David Gillies @ 2207 hrs.

    The key, as always, is the will of the American government and elites. Not the people, but the elites. The people are out of the loop, and if they ever get back into the loop, there will be a new government and elite class.

    That said, we have the capability and plans, supposedly, to reinforce, not yet degraded by the administration. [no bets a year out] Full deployment is supposed to take 90 days, but forces would be arriving within 24 hours. I would be horribly surprised if our SpecOps people were not active in that same time frame north of the DMZ. Note that currently most American forces are well south of the DMZ due to the drawdown of recent years. The land war will be mostly a ROK affair, however our contribution to the air war will be there in a very short time.

    The ROK has the misfortune of having a goodly chunk of its civilian population residing in the middle of the FEBA. They are going to take casualties in the hundreds of thousands in the first hours. Cannot be helped. However, I rather suspect that the ROK army will be rather emphatic in their efforts to prevent that. They can be an impressive lot, with an intensity and focus appropriate to the task.

    Logistics is the key to stopping the Norks, and they are kind of in the position of Generalfeldmarschal Walther Model’s Army Group B during the 1944 Ardennes Offensive. Any hope of victory depended on weather preventing Allied air support, and capturing American supplies. If hostilities do break out, we can expect preliminary attacks to limit our ability to intervene in the air. Those attacks necessarily will NOT be limited to the Korean peninsula. At that point other parties will be involved. [Imagine the mood of the Japanese if North Korean commando forces attack air bases in Japan.] If the Norks use nukes, all bets are off. Especially if by that time the Japanese also have decided that they have to go nuclear.

    The key question will be, the will of the American regime. I am not sanguine about their willingness to defend American interests or lives, let alone those of our allies; absent overwhelming domestic compulsion.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Paul Marks

    Recent events do make President Barack Obama’s plans to cut back on missile defense look even more absurd they were already.

    And the concentration on China should remind people that it is People’s Republic of China (not weird beards in Afghan hills) that is the real long term threat to the United States – military doctrine (all parts of it) must be based on that. And that includes what weapons systems are supported. The job of the United States armed forces is to protect the United States from serious rival powers (not to conduct ill defined police actions in places of no strategic value) – and NO China does not “depend on exporting goods to America”, policy based on such a fallacy is folly.

    As for Korea:

    Do not underestimate the Republic of Korea – it has the economic means to pay for its own defence (against North Korea – China is another matter). And I believe that the Grand National Party of Korea has the will to do what must be done.

    The question is do they have the time?

  • Relevant to some discussion above – China has put a temporary freeze on government relations with North Korea. The same article claims that they’re open to discussing a UN resolution censuring the regime for nuclear tests. That’s got to have Pyongyang’s teeth rattling! Though of course any resolution China actually signs will be pretty toothless – probably they’ll end up co-drafting it and then abstaining from the vote.