For Your (North Korea) Reading Pleasure

Back in 2011, Jeffrey published the first of what should have been many “roundup” posts: posts that would offer an overview of the “arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation universe.” Sadly, Read Behind never became a regular feature, and the experiment faded into this blog’s collective memory. However, with so many arms-control blogs out there, in addition to various news sources, some of them slightly off the beaten track, we think it might be useful to collect some of the week’s more interesting articles and serve them up for your reading pleasure. That’s one of my roles in the blog — Harry Halem, your new “wonk-tern.”

Now, on to this week’s articles. For some reason, the main theme this week seems to be North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities and U.S. missile defenses.

All Things Nuclear | David Wright reviews North Korea’s missiles… except for the KN-08 ICBM, so often discussed at ACW. The Pentagon has drawn a connection between that missile and the decision to expand the missile defense deployment in Alaska.

FAS Strategic Security Blog | Hans Kristensen reveals that the United States’ nuclear war plan has been updated recently. His guess as to why is as good as anyone’s.

38 North | Jeffrey Lewis and Nick Hansen discuss images of new construction at the DPRK’s plutonium production reactor in Yongbyon. Not mentioned: Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army Kim Jong-un (not quite as good as Guiding Star of the 21st Century, but we’ll roll with it) ordered the restart of the Yongbyon enrichment plant. When did it stop?

The Diplomat | Richard Weitz says that missile defense can strengthen ties between nations. RIA Novosti proves his point, sort of.

Washington Post | Walter Pincus says that nuclear deterrence works on everybody. Good to know.

The Diplomat (again) | Robert Farley says accidental wars are rare, but not so rare that he sounds comfortable.

Bloomberg | In response to North Korean missile moves, the U.S. is redeploying THAAD to Guam.

Asahi Shimbun | In an additional response to North Korean missile moves, the U.S. is deploying Aegis to the vicinity of Guam and Hawaii. Aloha!

Asahi Shimbun (again) | Japan thinks America knows something that Japan doesn’t know about North Korean nukes. Why?

CS Monitor | Kim Jong-un is a man of many titles. Did they forget this one?

We look forward to discussion and debate on the issues raised.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    Bless you, young wonk-tern.

  2. George William Herbert (History)

    Re second Asahi Shimbun article, the wording there is indicative of the conflation of two-point implosion and boosting in the Wikipedia article on nuclear weapon design.

    I really need to fix that article…

    • Bill Arnold (History)

      I’m a little surprised by the Asahi Shimbun article. Is it simply saying that the U.S. wouldn’t share technical information with Japan about boosted plutonium fission devices?

    • SQ (History)

      I think it just reflects a nagging suspicion that the U.S. has some kind of super-duper intel it doesn’t share out of a sense of mistrust.

  3. Cale (History)

    Regarding when enrichment at Yongbyon stopped:

    Under the 13 February 2007 ‘Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement’ agreement came out of the Six Party Talks, the DPRK agreed to “shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment” the reactor under IAEA monitoring.

    On 27 June 2008 the cooling tower was destroyed.

    On August 14 2008, the denuclearisation process at Yongbyon was stopped.

    On 18 August 2008, the DPRK criticised the US for not removing the DPRK from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and criticising human rights standards within the DPRK.

    Shortly after on August 26, the DPRK publicly noted the suspension the Yongbyon denuclearisation process, citing the US’s failure to remove the DPRK from the State Sponsors of Terrorism as agreed under the 2007 ‘Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement’ agreement. The DPRK also noted the Yongbyon facilities would be returned to their original state.

    Between 1 and 3 October, a meeting was held between US and DPRK officials.

    11 October 2008 saw the US remove the DPRK from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

    On or about 12 October, the DPRK resumed disabling Yongbyon.

    (See for the relevant documents)

    • Magpie (History)

      I guess that’s the gag, though: NK has announced that they’re going to fire up the ol’ reactor, presumably to get some fresh fuel for PUREX-ification, only they themselves have mixed that up (in translation?) as enrichment.

      Uranium enrichment at the site has been going on, probably, for some time. It’s funny, though, that the supposedly peaceful (in some NK pronouncements) reactor is now a new source of “enrichment”, which only makes any sense if they’re after more PU. Which everyone knows, of course, but it’s amusing to see them back-handedly / half-arsedly admit it.

      …I am very easily amused, though. Just sayin’.

    • SQ (History)

      Whatever exactly they mean, they’re not mixed up.

      “The General Department of Atomic Energy of the DRPK decided to adjust and alter the uses of the existing nuclear facilities, to begin with, in accordance with the line.

      “This will include the measure for readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor which had been mothballed and disabled under an agreement reached at the six-party talks in October, 2007.

      “This work will be put into practice without delay.”

    • ChrisV (History)

      “This will include the measure for readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor…”

      I have assumed that Uranium enrichment has been going on since 2010 when Dr. Hecker was shown an, apparently, operational hall of centrifuges. It would make sense for the DPRK to keep these running since their supply of Pu-239 is limited.

      The question in my mind is, could “readjusting” mean a reconfiguration of the centrifuges to take Uranium at 20% enrichment up to +90%?

    • Magpie (History)

      ‘Zactly. They offered to switch off uranium enrichment back in Feb last year, but didn’t end up doing it (or at least, they didn’t *say* they’d done it, and didn’t let anyone in to check. that counts has ‘not having done it’ to me).

      And there’s nothing in particular you need to do (as I understand it) to continue enrichment – you just keep feeding the purer gas back through the same process. I’d be gob-smacked if they hadn’t been doing that anyway. They’ve got all the yellowcake they can eat and everyone already hates them – who wouldn’t whip up some HEU if they could?

      I’d do it, and I’m lovely.

  4. SQ (History)

    Cale, it’s very good to have those dates for reference, but just for the record, none of those activities involve enrichment.

  5. Denis (History)

    From the Farley piece on accidental wars: “The appropriate [NoKo] response to concern about catastrophic defeat at the hands of the United States and South Korea would surely be to deescalate the crisis”

    Trying to analyze this situation on the basis of what seems to be an “appropriate response” seems to me to be a particularly futile approach at this point. From my rather limited, but intense, experience in litigation in American courts, it strikes me that the most dangerous opponent is not necessarily the one with the deep pockets and enormous stable of lawyers formulating appropriate responses at each step, but rather the relatively powerless pro se party on the verge of bankruptcy with an ax to grind and his back against the wall.

    These are the ones working beyond the boundaries and constraints of rationality, driven by an emotional pressures to right perceived wrongs at any cost. Divorce cases are the worst, but by no means the only, example. NoKo/SoKo is essentially a divorce case.

    America was a divorce case, too. Arguably righting perceived wrongs at any cost is the theme of the American Revolution and how and why America took on England. In that case, provocations – tea parties, running governors out of town, etc – by the powerless against the powerful could have been read by His Majesty as “These peasants are so pissed off anything could happen so let’s back off.”

    Once one party gets its back against the wall and reaches the “at any cost” stage of retaliation, all bets are off. Well reasoned analyses like Farley’s go out the window. There is no question that the US, UN, and SoKo have pushed NoKo against the wall, for whatever reason. The first issue that must be resolved in any analysis of the resulting situation is determining whether NoKo has reached the “at any cost” point of no return. If so, further pedantic analysis of what NoKo is or is not likely to do is probably futile. The situation becomes too chaotic.

    Unrelated question for you technical folk: A moderately strong solar storm is scheduled to arrive Apr13. Are the communications/control circuits for these systems hardened against disruption? When you’ve got everybody locked and loaded like this, is it technically possible for a solar flare to scramble circuits and end up being the match that sets it all off?

    • Magpie (History)

      “A moderately strong solar storm is scheduled to arrive Apr13. Are the communications/control circuits for these systems hardened against disruption? When you’ve got everybody locked and loaded like this, is it technically possible for a solar flare to scramble circuits and end up being the match that sets it all off?”

      All the military stuff will be hardened up the wazoo, and all the important chains-o’-command in the south will be optic-fibre anyway.

      The risk might be confusion on the civilian side, particularly the media, who might panic. A few small errors could escalate quickly.

      That’s always the risk when you’re brinking.

      Re: Farley’s piece, I think NK has carefully and knowingly set up the conditions for an accidental war.

      As he writes: “Thus, if North Korea successfully convinces the U.S. and the ROK that war is inevitable, it is almost irresponsible for the latter not to launch a pre-emptive attack that would disrupt North Korean preparations.”

      …and they’re trying SO hard to convince everyone. Again (again again) it’s like they’re asking – begging, even – for a little war. I don’t think they’re being irrational, and if they wanted a big war they could start it any time.

      Mad props to the US, though, who have played their role wonderfully. Calm and measured, no bluster, no wild threats, supportive where needed, and using the kind of understated threats that only the overwhelmingly superior force can afford to make. I think maybe I’m just now forgiving you for GW Bush…

      Go forth, ye folk at State, and make no war!

  6. Homer Williams (History)

    Are there any web sites out there that consider the damage that would be caused by either a nuclear attack by North Korea or the destruction of a South Korean nuclear reactor using conventional weapons? I find the discussions on this and other blogs fascinating, but I have seen precious little consideration of the possible effects of either the use of a single nuclear weapon by North Korea on South Korea or the effects of the destruction of a nuclear reactor in the South by the North, let alone the larger consequences that would rapidly ensue from any such action.

    Given the chaos caused by nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan, not to mention the very chilling consequences of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I find this reluctance to discuss the consequences of using weaponry that creates a nuclear disaster quite puzzling. The only report that seems to come close is the recent Nautilus evaluation of the North Korean “Fire-Thrashing” propaganda piece.

    My knowledge of the physics and engineering ends of the nuclear issue are pretty much limited to this blog and others like Nautilus. However, I have had a deep interest in Korea for 4 decades now, and I would very much appreciate a realistic appraisal of the number of individuals who would be wiped from the earth or seriously injured by the processes being discussed in such detail here.

    • SQ (History)
    • Magpie (History)

      I think detailed speculation over nuclear strikes is fairly rare because, so far as anyone can tell, they’re not directly relevant. That is, NK almost certainly has enough conventional weaponry to flatten Seoul, causing an arbitrarily vast – that is, unacceptable – number of casualties. It’s not a scenario anyone can risk. It is a ‘sufficient deterrent’ for most scenarios.

      In other words, by the time NK nukes are going anywhere, we’d already be sitting on a monumental human disaster. Focus is best directed, IMO, on not getting to that point in the first place.

      NK wanted nukes so they can push – and now they’ve got ‘em, they’re pushing (what’s made this especially spectacular is that they’re pushing at the same time SK is pushing). They can afford to do that because have a second-line of deterrence, now. So they can play brinkmanship with a lot more confidence. If their present game of poke-the-bear blows up in their mixed metaphor, if things escalate way beyond what they’re probably aiming for, they might be in a position where they have to use that artillery against Seoul or lose it to pre-emptive counter-barrages (yes that’s a thing! Shoosh). Either way, they might end up either having their bluff called or removing their threat.

      You don’t want to have to kill all your hostages.

      If that does happen, though, now they’ve got nukes to play a last card to stay in the game. If Seoul has suffered ten thousand dead, and all the good spots to put artillery in north Korea have been bombed down to the bedrock, they can still call for everyone to be cool, let’s be cool. Like the Fonz. Because, you know, we *might* be able to nuke Japan. So. Everyone. Let’s all calm down, ok?

      But none of that works if they go a step too far, if they bomb a reactor or *use* a nuke, the assumption will be that they’ll go for broke no matter what so we’ll have to suck up the damage and just kill them as fast as we can.

      They can’t use a nuke. Ever. Can’t do it. It’s suicide. They know that. We know that. The only way it’ll ever happen is some complete and utter screw up somewhere along the line – crazy troops, confusion, rebellion, serious and dedicated invasion. But none of that is especially useful to build plans around. We got Aegis-and-friends, we’re not going to invade, and that’s about as much as we can do. Sure, if NK has a 10% chance of getting a nuke to Tokyo or Seoul it’s an unacceptable risk and it works as a deterrent, but on the other hand, even the worst case may have a 90% chance of doing nuthin’ but signing The Latest Kim’s death warrant.

      As long as The Latest Kim has a shot at staying alive, he’ll hold those nukes to his chest. He has to. The threat is worth a million times more than the deed.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “NK almost certainly has enough conventional weaponry to flatten Seoul”

      North Korea has very little conventional artillery that can even reach Seoul. There is a widespread belief, abetted by ill-founded commentary in the press and blogosphere, that Seoul is so close to the DMZ that ordinary howitzers and the like can cross the gap. This is absolutely false.

      Only the largest, highly specialized conventional artillery weapons in the North Korean (or any other) arsenal, can reach Seoul from the north side of the DMZ, and then only the northern suburbs of the city. This analysis suggests that North Korea could kill as many as 80,000 South Korean civilians in the first week of a conflict, but only by devoting the whole of their long-range artillery force to the single-minded pursuit of that task and only if they achieve complete strategic and tactical surprise. These are not particularly likely assumptions, and even this worst-case scenario leaves most of Seoul wholly untouched.

      As for, “They can’t use a nuke. Ever. Can’t do it. It’s suicide. They know that. We know that.”

      Says who? The North Korean leadership hides in bunkers deep enough that only an earth-penetrating thermonuclear weapon, a whole lot of ordinary nukes, or an infantry brigade digging in to the tunnels, could seriously threaten them. And the debate so far, has been conspicuously lacking in even semi-official claims that US/ROK doctrine involves either H-bombing Pyongyang or marching infantry brigades into that hellhole.

      Mostly, there’s lots of hot air about how the Norks are such primitive screwheads that we can “easily” defeat them, without any discussion of how or any apparent willingness to consider the cost. All too often, I see it almost taken for granted that on account of the primitive screwheadedness we can and will defeat the Norks without having to use our own nuclear weapons, thus demonstrating both our material and our moral superiority.

      So I, at least, don’t know that. And I don’t know that they know that. I somewhat suspect and greatly fear that, if it comes to war, we will “defeat” North Korea in one of the ways that doesn’t involve H-bombs or invading armies, does make us feel good about our quick, clean victory, and thus doesn’t involve the actual death of the North Korean leadership.

      But even if it were guaranteed suicide, I would not find that reassuring. Lots of people commit suicide, knowing full well what they are doing. High on the list of people who commit suicide are people who face imminent unpleasant death, and people who face imminent loss of fame/power/fortune followed by imprisonment are also likely candidates. What, exactly, are you hoping or expecting will be the long-term future of the Kim Dynasty?

    • Magpie (History)

      Re: artillery – I’m counting missiles. They certainly would.

      Tens of thousands of South Korean deaths is politically impossible for anyone to intentionally risk – if NK makes a threat against Seoul as a way of demanding a cease-fire from a limited escalation – to recover from a miscalculation or accident that their current brinkmanship is courting – it’ll work.

      I might have confused with my jocular tone – I was talking in the order of tens of thousands of deaths. That’s plenty.

      Re: digging out Da Kim: without Chinese support, there’s no way their military will survive long in a real war. Uh… I’ll put money on it, if the shooting starts.

      All they’re positioned to do is *enough* damage to make was with them unpalatable, and they’ve done really well to have even that much. Who cares if he’s in a bunker? He’s got to come out some day, and when he does he won’t be in charge any more. Even if no-one invaded, the destruction of the NK military is going to make it mighty hard for him, personally, to survive.

      Saddam survived the fall of his country, too. How’d that work out?

      He’s got room to move, sure – there are plenty of points at which we’ll agree to back down – but flinging nukes is well beyond any of those. To repeat: if one nuke hits one city, the order-of-magnitude of the threat is no longer greater than the actuality + resolution. The threat, then, no longer has enough value to deter.

      If he fires one nuke, the assumption MUST be that he’ll fire another some day. At that point there is no option but to remove him – the cost of doing so, although high, is less than the cost of permitting him to remain.

      Re: suicide – that’s entirely my point:

      1. He won’t use nukes unless we come after him personally.

      2. We’re not going to do that because he has nukes.

      3. So he’s not gong to use nukes (on purpose).

  7. Homer Williams (History)

    Thanks SQ.

    NUKEMAP is quite sobering even considering all of the imponderables (height of blast, large number of high-rise buildings, time of day, precise location of ground zero, topographic features, and so on).