North and South Korea met – but what does it really mean?



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There was much public goodwill at the meeting, but there is much yet to be resolved.
AAP/ Korea summit press pool

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

The moving footage of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un provided rich symbolism for the negotiations of the third inter-Korean summit, held at Panmunjom on Friday.

While there was no agreement on any substantive outcomes at the summit, the resultant Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula established a foundation for further inter-Korean engagement and set the scene for the upcoming summit between the US and North Korea.

There has been much media conjecture over what exactly the two parties have agreed to at the Panmunjom summit. It is therefore worth examining the declaration article-by-article to ascertain what is and isn’t on the table.




Read more:
As North Korea builds a season of summits, the stakes on denuclearisation remain high


The Panmunjom Agreement is built around three core articles that identify points of agreement between the two parties, address potential local-level security flashpoints, and call for the negotiation of a treaty to formally conclude the Korean War.

Much of what has been agreed to here is not new, having been restated from previous inter-Korean agreements. However, in the context of the heightened tension that has surround the Korean Peninsula over the past year, this material takes on fresh meaning.

Identifying points of agreement

The clauses of Article 1 build on existing points of agreement between South Korea and the DPRK that were established during the Sunshine Policy period of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.

In calling on both sides to implement existing inter-Korean agreements, Article I attempts to marshal the authority of the previous agreements as the foundation to legitimise this declaration.

Specifically, these include the June 15th Joint Declaration that emerged from the 2000 summit in Pyongyang between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace, and Prosperity agreed to by Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in October, 2007.

Articles 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 call for continued South-North dialogue and the establishment of a joint liaison office in Gaeseong: a quasi-embassy to more smoothly facilitate those interactions than is currently possible.

With the diplomatic success of the joint Korean team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in mind, the declaration calls for another joint Korean team at the upcoming Asian Games.

Article 1.5 calls for the restarting of the family reunion program to reunite family members separated by the Korean War. Family reunions have been a staple confidence-building measures between the two parties, as reunions satisfy a genuine need for the affected families, are good PR and relatively easy to facilitate.

Most intriguingly, Article 1.6 mentions potential work on railway and road corridors across the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This would link not only North and South Korea but also China via the western transportation route from Seoul to Gaeseong and north to Sinuiju, at the Yalu River crossing point.

Establishing infrastructure connections between China and South Korea, through the DPRK, has been a long-held objective dating back to the Tumen River development zone of the early 1990s.

Dampen the security pressure points

Article 2 of the Panmunjom Declaration signals possible security-related confidence-building measures on issues of ongoing irritation between the two. These are lowest-common-denominator actions that both sides can agree to, and signal a greater commitment to cooperation.

While they are easy-win measures, they also address friction points in the day-to-day management of the demarcation line. Preventing local-level flashpoints is particularly important given the pressurised security environment of the past year, when military confrontation looked like a real possibility.

The cessation of “hostile acts against each other” around and across the demarcation line articulated in Article 2.1 does not mean there will be any demobilisation of military forces on either side. Rather, that pinprick provocations such as propaganda battles by loudspeaker across the DMZ and the floating of leaflets into DPRK territory by balloon will cease. These are easy measures for each side to agree to without compromising their security posture.

Article 2.2 revisits the concept of a maritime peace zone in the West Sea around the Northern Limit Line, flagged previously in the October 2007 joint declaration.

The two most serious flashpoints of actual military engagement over the past decade— the sinking of the South’s naval corvette Cheonan, and the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — have occurred in this contested maritime space. If the two Koreas were to stumble into a shooting war by accident, this would be the likely flashpoint.

Article 2.3 calls for military-to-military level engagement. This could potentially keep future flashpoint situations in check, although agreement to talk doesn’t signal much more than a discussion at this front end of the confidence-building process.

A permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula

Stating a commitment to a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War is a feature of previous inter-Korean summit declarations. But in this case, the call has added impetus, as a peace treaty might be the only way forward in an expanded round of engagement that included the United States.

If North Korea refused to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise, there is no other goal toward which negotiations between the three parties could focus.

In Article 3.1, the two Koreas have reaffirmed their non-aggression pact from the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. While the non-aggression clause has been standard fare in joint declarations since that time, this clause has added resonance in the context of the threats of war emanating from the Trump administration over the past year.

Article 3.2 discusses phased disarmament. However, this relates to conventional forces mobilised against each other, and not to nuclear weapons, with the added caveat that other confidence-building measures have been implemented and that “military tensions” (read “the US threat”) have been alleviated.

Like most of the clauses in the Panmunjom Declaration, the veiled reference to the United States in this article is a good example of the negotiated compromise and coded language of the final text.

Article 3.3 talks to the larger great power context by calling for the participation of the original signatories of the Korean War armistice in negotiating a peace treaty. That objective is complicated by the Republic of Korea not being a signatory to the armistice agreement.

The South was represented by the United States in those negotiations, which acted on behalf of the United Nations forces. South Korea will need to be included as a sovereign signatory to a formal treaty to end the Korean War.




Read more:
Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?


Most media attention has focused on Article 3.4, which calls for “complete denuclearisation” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. This is in addition to the call in Article 1.1 for both parties to work together on implementing the 2005 Joint Statement on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the 13 February Agreement of 2007.

However, this clause does not mean North Korea has committed to denuclearisation as that concept is understood by the Trump administration (CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation”). The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea includes the full nuclear weapons relinquishment of the United States as well – something that is obviously not going to fly in Washington.

In stating that “South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea [my emphasis] are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” this article looks more like a statement of goodwill to Washington with an eye toward the upcoming US-DPRK summit than a substantive commitment.

It will be interesting to see if Moon Jae-in accepts the invitation in the conclusion of the declaration to visit Pyongyang later in the year. That will depend on the outcome of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

What now?

There is little evidence in the Panmunjom Declaration that the South Koreans have attempted to test the waters for an aggressive American negotiating agenda at the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. There was no statement on specifics like a nuclear weapons freeze or missile testing moratorium. Instead, there seems to be more evidence here of an attempt to firewall the Korean Peninsula against an overly aggressive Trump gambit.

A US-DPRK summit based solely around the US-CVID agenda is doomed for failure, as there are no points of convergence between Washington and Pyongyang. A negotiating agenda that includes a pathway to a formal treaty to end the Korean War has a more realistic chance of progress.

The ConversationEither way, with the inter-Korean summit concluded, it feels like we are at half time of a hotly contested, high-stakes game of summits in which the second half action is only going to get hotter.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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As North Korea builds a season of summits, the stakes on denuclearisation remain high


Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

This week’s high-stakes summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un heralds a new period of negotiations in which regional states attempt to manage a northeast Asian security environment that includes a nuclear North Korea.

Several analysts, myself included, have long postulated that a primary objective of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development was to enter a new phase of security negotiations with the United States from a position of increased strength.

Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in a fresh round of summits with Seoul and Washington is a good indicator that it has completed the technical development of its nuclear weapons capability and has a nuclear deterrent ready (or nearly ready) to deploy.




Read more:
War with North Korea: from unthinkable to unavoidable?


Official statements coming out of Pyongyang indicate as much. In a statement on April 20, reported by Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un said North Korea will “discontinue nuclear testing and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” as “technology for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets has been reliably realised”.

The completion of its nuclear development gambit has implications for the timing and direction of North Korea’s summits with South Korea and the United States.

Concessions and confidence-building

With denuclearisation in the rear-view mirror, could we see a pathway toward a treaty to formally end the Korean War? That would seem to be an objective for North Korea, but remains a long way off. It would require a long period of mutual confidence-building to establish the trust necessary to make a treaty possible.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has announced an end to the North’s nuclear testing.
AAP/KCNA

So, what of substance is North Korea willing to concede? Kim’s statement on a nuclear and missile test moratorium, and closing the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, is the most prominent concession made yet.

However, we should be clear that this does not mean North Korea has any interest in denuclearising. Punggye-ri is a superfluous asset if testing is no longer required for technical analysis. The site is also reported to be no longer fit for purpose, having been geologically destabilised by six nuclear tests.

The North will continue to produce fissile material. The oft-cited US Defense Intelligence Agency assessment released last year estimates a stockpile of fissile material sufficient for 40-60 nuclear warheads, increasing at a rate of about 12 warheads per year at current estimated rates of production.

North Korea also has a history of circumventing commitments agreed to in the past. This includes its development of a highly enriched uranium program in contravention of the Agreed Framework in the late 1990s, its violation in July 2006 of the 1999 missile testing moratorium, and its 2008 abandonment of the Six-Party Talks.

Information is the key to international co-operation, reducing the uncertainty that countries have about each other’s actions. It remains unclear what North Korea can offer to assuage American scepticism that it will honour a deal.

On the other side of the table, what is the negotiating goal for the United States? Some analysts worry Trump may be entering negotiations with unrealistic expectations of a denuclearisation deal. There is a fear he will offer too much to North Korea, or that negotiations will fall in a heap when the reality of the demise of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” sinks in.

A hard cap on North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability could be the new negotiating point. Now that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, constraining the Nort’s nuclear weapons capability is shaping as the most practical goal for the US in terms of its commitments to protecting its regional allies and maintaining the integrity of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In a worst-case scenario, the Trump administration could use the summit as a straw man to mobilise a case for attacking North Korea. The appointment of the ultra-hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser would seem to signal a tough line, given his long record of advocacy for the use of force against the North.

For reasons I outlined at length last year (here, here and here), war on the Korean Peninsula remains a terrible option.

The Moon-Kim summit

Moon Jae-in’s meeting this week with Kim Jong-un is arguably the more important of the two summits. This meeting could help shape the negotiating agenda for the US-North Korea summit later this year.

A successful summit between Moon and Kim will need to produce some substantive points of agreement on key security issues. These include negotiation of a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to smaller confidence-building measures. The summit will allow Moon to “road test” a negotiating agenda, as David Kang has argued, for the later Trump-Kim meeting.

However, a nascent South-North détente emerging from the summit could constrain the US bargaining position. It will be much harder for Trump to play a game of high-stakes brinkmanship with the Kim regime if Kim and Moon have agreed to a clear pathway of confidence-building measures.




Read more:
Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong


The South Korean government will be keen to railroad the Trump administration into an engagement track with Pyongyang. Some within the South Korean establishment see Trump as a loose cannon and his administration as an unreliable variable in Korean Peninsula security.

Trump’s lack of consultation with South Korea during his escalations of 2017, the continued absence of a permanent US ambassador to South Korea, and the lack of a coherent North Korea policy in Washington are seen as evidence that Seoul needs to be more activist in pursuing its own agenda.

Inter-Korean co-operation on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year was successful in dialling down tensions on the Peninsula and closing the window, at least for the time being, on American military action against the North.

The ConversationThe end of denuclearisation politics has opened new possibilities for the direction of the Korean Peninsula. The tensions of 2017 showed us a glimpse of disaster. The summits of 2018 may represent a doorway to a new arrangement for collective management of Korean Peninsula security.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

War with North Korea: from unthinkable to unavoidable?



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US President Donald Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. But he’s in charge, so his views bear analysis.
AAP/CrowdSpark

Kim Beazley, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, University of Western Australia

This is an edited extract of Kim Beazley and L. Gordon Flake’s essay in Australian Foreign Affairs 2, Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder.


One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.

Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.

A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.

The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.

Insecure enemies

What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.

Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.

For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.

The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.

He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.

Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:

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Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.

Man in the middle

It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.

This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.

Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.

Trump is more on song with his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who stated in January:

We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.

Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.

This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.

Battle options

Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?

An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.

However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.

What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.

But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.

Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.

This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.

For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?

Diplomatic alternatives

It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”

There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.

It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.

But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.

The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.

That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.

High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.

Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.

Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?

The ConversationOne senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.

Kim Beazley, Senior Fellow, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia and L Gordon Flake, CEO, Perth USAsia Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why a first strike option on North Korea is a very bad idea



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Unification flags hang on a military fence near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea.
Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Andrew O’Neil, Griffith University

The prospect of South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together under a “unification” flag at this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics signifies a brief respite in tensions rather than being a genuine thawing on the Korean peninsula.

After an initial surge of optimism in response to Pyongyang’s decision to accept Seoul’s offer to march as one Korea, reality has started to bite with the mechanics of implementing the deal.

While welcoming the Pyeongchang initiative, many South Koreans have pushed back against the decision to merge both countries’ women’s ice hockey teams, calling out the sexist nature of the decision (not a single woman was involved in determining the merger).

Meanwhile, citing “insulting” behaviour on the part of South Korean media, the North Koreans have cancelled a joint cultural performance with South Korea, scheduled for next week.

Understandably, the Pyeongchang “thaw” has attracted major headlines. But it obscures the significant possibility that we will witness major conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2018.

The South Korean government has worked hard to engage North Korea in structured dialogue in an effort to defuse the nuclear-armed state’s continued military threats. But there is nonetheless a growing risk that the Trump administration will authorise limited military strikes against the North’s weapons of mass destruction, conceivably within the next few months.




Read more:
The Winter Olympics and the two Koreas: how sport diplomacy could save the world


Despite extracting a commitment from the US that any military action against North Korea is contingent on first gaining South Korea’s endorsement, there is justifiable concern among South Koreans that the Trump administration will act unilaterally if US intelligence assesses Pyongyang is about to deploy an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.

Given the extent to which we have underestimated the sheer pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development over the past decade, this intelligence assessment might happen sooner than we think. Donald Trump would then face a difficult problem: how to avoid being the president who allowed North Korea to achieve the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear weapons.

Since coming to power, the Trump administration has been deliberating over whether to carry out preventive strikes to degrade Pyongyang’s ability to sprint to the finish line of acquiring a deployable ICBM that can hit the continental US with a nuclear payload.

An increasingly popular assumption is that the price of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can destroy prime targets on the US mainland is higher than risking a second Korean War. And this is not just the musings of a few hardheads in the Pentagon: a growing number of Americans believe some form of military action against North Korea is justified if sanctions and diplomacy fail to achieve denuclearisation.

Most worrying of all, a belief seems to be gathering pace that the US can somehow launch “surgical” military strikes while containing a larger conflict, because Kim Jong-un will not respond for fear of triggering an overwhelming retaliatory response.

There are two basic flaws underlying what one expert has termed “the myth of the limited strike”. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s highly unlikely Kim Jong-un will believe the Trump administration’s assurances that “surgical” strikes are not the opening phase of an all-out US assault aimed at overthrowing the regime.

When the US goes to war, it tends to go full throttle – in recent times, this has translated into regime change (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Why would the leadership in Pyongyang assess that this time around would be any different?

The second major flaw in the argument is that what is portrayed as limited in Washington, and among some armchair strategists supporting this course, will inevitably be seen in Pyongyang as a major assault on North Korean territory and its prized strategic assets.

Even in the scenario that Kim Jong-un actually believed the Trump administration did not intend to implement regime change, as Van Jackson notes, his position as North Korean supreme leader would be untenable domestically if he did not respond with force.




Read more:
Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong


Pyongyang would have a compelling incentive to retaliate early with any nuclear reserve that survived a US first strike. In this scenario, the North Korean leadership would confront a stark choice of either using these weapons of mass destruction to maximum effect or risk losing them in follow-on US precision munition strikes.

As I have argued elsewhere, like all new nuclear powers, North Korea will place a premium on permissive command and control systems that allow authorities to use nuclear weapons whenever they want. This will be reflected in a hair-trigger launch posture if it perceives an imminent threat.

The ConversationWhichever way you cut it, a US first strike against North Korea would almost certainly trigger major war on the Korean peninsula, with a high risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear conflict. While the appalling humanitarian consequences of this don’t need to be spelt out, the strategic illogic of the arguments advocating a first strike must be continually reinforced.

Andrew O’Neil, Dean and Professor of Political Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong



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Over time, the Kim family has become adept at coup-proofing its rule in North Korea.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

As northeast Asia teeters on the brink of a conflict that could escalate beyond anyone’s control, it is more important than ever to be well-informed about North Korea, and move beyond the common caricatures of the country and its leader, Kim Jong-un. This is difficult when many misconceptions about North Korea perpetuate in the public consciousness.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


1. The ‘crazy Kim’ hypothesis

In the 2004 comedy film Team America, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, is illustrative of a popular view of North Korea that both feeds and is fed by the perception that the Kim regime is irrational, crazy and evil.

This caricature is a poor foundation on which to build a North Korea policy.

Proponents of this view point to the Kim regime’s horrendous human rights record and the Orwellian social controls put in place to maintain the Kims at the head of North Korea’s unique authoritarian political system.


Further reading: Human rights in North Korea: the implications of the Kirby report


While the regime’s coercive arms have been responsible for crimes against the North Korean people that could be considered “evil”, this does not suffice as an explanation for why it engages in these practices.

The “why” is important. It feeds information into risk analyses and pinpoints leverage points for strategic interactions with North Korea.

We don’t have to like this logic or agree on its strategic utility to see there is rational strategy at work. We need to locate Kim and his regime within the context of the complex incentives and constraints of North Korea’s interwoven political, economic, cultural and ecological systems.

It is useful to step back from the whirlwind of recent developments to place the current situation in the broader context of North Korea’s regime survival strategy.

The regime’s brutal human rights record is a result of measures to consolidate its internal power.

Over time, the Kim family has become adept at “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when they become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.


Further reading: Game of Thrones in Pyongyang: the execution of Jang Song Taek


The tentacles of the regime’s coercive power reach all the way from institutions to people’s everyday lives through surveillance, social controls and ideological indoctrination. It is a brutal reality that these kinds of oppressive measures are the rational and predictable way politics is practised in authoritarian dictatorships.

2. The ‘irrational Kim’ hypothesis

This also means we should pause before equating North Korea’s human rights abuses with any perceived irrationality in the country’s external relations.

Here one needs to understand the unique logic of North Korean foreign policy. To this end, it sees hard military power as the only reliable means of guaranteeing its security.

North Korea’s foreign policy behaviour generally emphasises the utility of military force as its only credible security guarantee in what it perceives to be a strategically hostile environment. Its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are the ultimate practical expressions of this worldview.

When we analyse North Korea’s behaviour from its own perspective, we can recognise the logic of their actions. That does not mean that we agree with that logic. But it does give us a more informed foundation upon which to respond to those actions.

3. Falling for North Korea’s bombastic official statements

Coverage of North Korea and its nuclear program often seems to take place in a parallel universe, where the overwhelming military power disparity between it and the US does not exist.

The Trump administration’s position appears to view the North Korean leadership as evil and unpredictable, buying into the logic of the “crazy Kim” idea. It sees a clear and imminent threat to the US in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and in propaganda that consistently threatens the US with annihilation.

It is easy to be fearful of the worst-case projections of the “crazy Kim” hypothesis. However, the strategic logic of that position just doesn’t add up.

Korean Central News Agency and associated propaganda organs of North Korea have a long history of threatening the US, South Korea and Japan with destruction. But we should bear in mind that inflammatory rhetoric is a tool of weakness, not strength.

North Korea is a small, isolated and economically weak country surrounded by larger, prosperous and militarily sophisticated powers. Its government has very limited sources of leverage through which to ensure its survival.

Projecting fear through muscular tough talk is one of its tried-and-tested strategies for ratcheting up the risk premium for any external power that might consider attacking North Korea.

When we understand the strategic purpose of this kind of rhetoric from the perspective of regime survival, we can apply the required grain of salt to the level of risk we associate to these rhetorical threats.

This is not at all to dismiss North Korea as a threat, but to interpret that threat in its proper context.

4. Capabilities and intentions are not the same thing

North Korea’s other lever of power projection is its nuclear weapons program.

Here the key point is to emphasise that military capabilities do not automatically equate to the intention to use them. We need more information beyond the raw capabilities of North Korea’s military technologies to perform a thorough risk assessment.

North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches can be understood from the perspective of deterrence.

Analysis of North Korean strategy over a long period suggests its leadership is overwhelmingly concerned with survival, and sees needing nuclear weapons as necessary to secure itself in a hostile strategic environment. A North Korean first-strike against the US or its regional allies would inevitably invite an overwhelming retaliation from the US that would end the regime.

Unfortunately, some media outlets unwittingly misrepresent this context when they show maps of concentric rings illustrating the operational ranges of North Korea’s various different ballistic missiles, without explaining the strategic context in which those missiles are deployed.

For example, while Chicago and Los Angeles are theoretically in range of North Korea’s Unha-3 multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, so too are Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow and Darwin.

Those cities have no strategic value as potential targets for North Korea. However, non-experts could be forgiven for not grasping that from missile range maps alone.

5. Failure to look beyond the Kims

Media coverage of North Korea that focuses on Kim ironically echoes official propaganda from North Korea that equates the leader to the entire country. The reality of North Korea is far more complex.

The gulag system and human rights abuses of the Kim regime are well documented. However, not everyone in North Korea is starving or in a detention camp.

The lifestyles of Pyongyang residents and those of the other larger cities is relatively high by North Korean standards. This functions as an incentive for citizens to follow the rules and do their jobs well.

There are a diversity of life experiences across North Korea, lived by ordinary people who are trying to get on the best they can in the society in which they find themselves.

Those life experiences are being reshaped by dynamic social change processes. Rather than economic sanctions, it has been North Korea’s connection to the Chinese economy that has done more to alter the life circumstances of ordinary North Koreans and the country’s domestic politics.

The continuing marketisation of the North Korean economy has created noticeable changes in popular culture and consumption habits in urban centres. These changes have been funnelled through North Korea’s special economic zones.

The supply chain networks of suppliers and clients undergirding market activities provide an avenue for social organisation outside of official social controls. The rise of a class of nouveau riche North Koreans is changing the dynamics of the nation’s economy and reshaping the relationship between the government and the people.


Further reading: The rise and rise of North Korea’s ‘money masters’


When we lift our gaze beyond the nuclear issue, we can identify other avenues for influencing and interacting with North Korea that could help international actors manage the nuclear threat and reduce the risk of a devastating wider conflict.

The ConversationNorth Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches are provocative. However, we should interpret that threat from an informed perspective based on demonstrable strategic logic, rather than on caricatured misrepresentations of the country’s leadership.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

While the world frets over North Korea, what to do about Iran also causes headaches



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Donald Trump has described Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the ‘worst deal ever’.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.

What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.

And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.

US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.

Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.

Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.

These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.

Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.

Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.

Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.

In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.

Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.

In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:

The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.

Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.

Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.

This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.

This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.

This was never the intention.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:

Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.

Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.

Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.

The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.

Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:

Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.

This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.

In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:

If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.

In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.

Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.

Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.

One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.

New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.

Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:

I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.

From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The ConversationAustralia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

North Korea tests not just a bomb but the global nuclear monitoring system



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Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the CTBTO at a press briefing following the recent suspected nuclear test in North Korea.
CTBTO, CC BY-NC

Trevor Findlay, University of Melbourne

North Korea’s apparent nuclear detonation on September 3 has drawn our attention to a remarkable international organisation that helps detect and identify nuclear tests.

For the Vienna-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the latest North Korean explosion was easy to detect and locate. With a seismic magnitude of 6.1 and a blast yield of 160 kilotons (Hiroshima was around 15), the purported hydrogen bomb test mimicked a major earthquake. It was quickly sourced to North Korea’s nuclear test site.

Confirming that the event was definitely a nuclear test, as opposed to another type of explosion or an earthquake, is trickier.


Read more: King Jong-Un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?


For that we rely on detection of short-lived radioactive isotopes that may leak from the test site, notably the noble gas xenon. The CTBTO has not yet announced such a finding, although South Korean monitors have reportedly detected xenon-133.

Other potential sources of the gas must be eliminated before a definitive conclusion can be reached.

Global network of seismic and radionuclide monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

In the past, such fallout has usually been discerned after a North Korean test, but not always. Much depends on whether the cavity created by the test leaks or collapses.

Nuclear test ban treaty

The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System, which detected the North Korean test, is designed to verify compliance with the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear tests in all environments for all time.

Network of infrasound monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The International Monitoring System comprises 321 monitoring systems worldwide, using four technologies:

  • seismic – to detect tests under ground
  • radionuclide detection – to detect breakdown products
  • hydroacoustic – to detect tests under water, and
  • infrasound – for atmospheric tests.

The CTBTO’s international monitoring system is sensitive enough to detect underground nuclear tests below one kiloton.

Construction of the system began in 1996 and is now 90% complete.

Network of hydroacoustic monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Australia hosts six seismic, two infrasound and one hydroacoustic station, including a large seismic array and infrasound station at Warramunga in the Northern Territory.


CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Data from the International Monitoring System is transmitted to Vienna via a global communications satellite network, mostly in real time, where it is compiled, analysed and distributed to member states. Sixteen laboratories are available for analysing radioactive fallout.

The treaty also provides for on-site inspections to confirm that a nuclear test has been conducted. The system is funded by member states according to the usual United Nations formula based on national GDP.

A difficult, important achievement

As a member of the Australian delegation, I observed the complex preparatory scientific talks on the system at the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva in the early 1980s. It is a miracle of statecraft and science that this collaborative international infrastructure has actually come into being.

The scientists did not get everything they wanted due to political and financial constraints. Some errors were made in the rush to complete the technical specifications. Installation of some of the stations in remote and inaccessible areas has proved daunting.

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The hydroacoustic system, for instance, passed a significant milestone in June when the final station was completed, on France’s Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

After 20 years of planning and construction and the investment of millions of dollars, not only is the International Monitoring System almost complete, but it is functioning far better than its designers anticipated.

It also has unexpected side benefits, such as providing early warning of tsunamis and detecting nuclear disasters. The network successfully detected the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and tracked radioactive plumes from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Nuclear test ban treaty

The test ban treaty itself is not in such good shape. More than two decades after it was opened for signature it is still not in force, rendering the CTBTO only “provisional”. This is due to the requirement that all 44 states with a significant nuclear capacity must ratify it.

Currently 183 states have signed, and 162 have ratified. But 8 of the 44 with a nuclear capacity have still not ratified: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US have at least signed. China says it is awaiting US ratification before it moves.

After a flawed lobbying effort, President Bill Clinton’s administration failed to secure Senate approval for US ratification in 1999. The treaty has not been resubmitted since, despite President Barack Obama’s undertaking that he would try.

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Given President Donald Trump’s apparent focus on emphasising American military prowess, it seems unlikely that he will favour ratification of the treaty.

More immediately threatening is the return of periodic Republican attempts to defund the CTBTO. These are usually beaten back on the grounds that the US benefits greatly from the worldwide monitoring that only a global system can provide, notwithstanding impressive US national capabilities.


Read more: What earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


As it has in the past, the Australian government should make representations in Washington in support of CTBT ratification and preservation of funding for the system.

Paradoxically though, even if the other seven holdouts ratify, the one country that continues to conduct nuclear tests into the 21st century, North Korea, can stymie entry into force forever. Its accession to the CTBT should be part of any negotiation with North Korea on its nuclear program.

The good news is that the global monitoring system continues to go from strength to strength, providing reassurance that all nuclear tests, including those less brazen than North Korea’s, will be caught.

The ConversationThe CTBTO’s verification system provides hope that science can quietly triumph while political solutions elude us.

Trevor Findlay, Senior Research Fellow Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What the West gets wrong about North Korea’s motives, and why some South Koreans admire the North


B.R. Myers, Dongseo University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 – of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb – prompted a flurry of Western media think pieces attempting to explain the past and predict the future.

Most left out important aspects of the current crisis, says analyst B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic expert on North Korean propaganda and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.

In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.

You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?

A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.

In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.

If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.

Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.

You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?

Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.

But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.

And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.

Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”

While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?

That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.

You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.

I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.

In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.

How likely is a war?

I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.

On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The ConversationAlso, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.

B.R. Myers, Professor of International Studies, Dongseo University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When it comes to North Korea, China is happy to make Trump squirm



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Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks at the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
Reuters

Pradeep Taneja, University of Melbourne

The sixth and latest nuclear test by North Korea on September 3 has once again put the spotlight on China. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked China to do more to rein in the nuclear weapons and missile development by its neighbour and treaty ally, but to no avail.

In fact, China may have already lost most of its direct influence on North Korea through past unsuccessful attempts to control the rogue state’s behaviour. It does still have more leverage on its neighbour than any other country because it supplies most of the oil to North Korea, which in turn fuels Kim Jong-un’s military and industrial machinery.

But China is unlikely to completely cut off crude and refined oil supplies to its troublesome ally. This is because it believes it is unlikely that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and delivery systems any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders in China this week that the North Koreans would “rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program”. This echoes former Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose country defied international sanctions to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians now believe it would be almost impossible to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons without a comprehensive settlement with the US.

There was a time when China did enjoy considerable influence over North Korea. Special trains bearing the country’s leader frequently chugged into Beijing to a warm welcome from Chinese leaders.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was taken to China’s capitalist enclave of Shenzhen and its other bustling cities, such as Shanghai, on his seven visits to China as leader. These were intended to inspire him to take a leaf out of China’s book and launch his own market-friendly economic reforms. But he politely refused to toe the line while still accepting China’s economic and diplomatic support.

Kim Jong-un has gone a step further in rebuffing the Chinese leadership. Since becoming North Korea’s leader in 2011 he has never visited China, not even when it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war by hosting a grand military parade in Beijing in 2015. Not surprisingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also not visited Pyongyang.

Some Chinese scholars privately blame their own government for North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.

It is believed that, in an effort to persuade its estranged ally to desist from developing nuclear weapons, Xi had sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang with a message that China would no longer abide by the security provisions of its 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea. Instead of buckling under pressure, Kim Jong-un decided to accelerate his nuclear weapons program because he could no longer rely on China’s support.

Whether or not China is indirectly responsible for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, it is still the only permanent council member to have the ability to make life really difficult for the Kim regime. China could do so by fully enforcing UN sanctions and cutting off oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the most we can expect from China, in addition to the measures it has already taken – for example, stopping coal imports – is a reduction in oil supplies. The Chinese leadership does not want to do anything that could bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime and, in the process, provoke its leader to lash out at China.

In any case, a partial reduction in oil supplies is unlikely to have a significant impact on North Korea’s behaviour. It would probably make up the shortfall by smuggling in oil on the high seas.

No doubt China’s relations with Pyongyang have deteriorated to such an extent that China finds its behaviour unacceptable and insulting. Chinese people are also tiring of the shenanigans of Kim and his cronies. This is evident in commentary on Chinese social media, which the Chinese government is trying to suppress lest it projects its leaders as ineffective.

China has always been loath to adopt or support measures that could trigger a collapse of the North Korean regime and send millions of impoverished Koreans flooding into China’s northeast.

China also does not want to see an end to North Korea’s status as the buffer between China and the American presence in the southern Korean peninsula. It fears a premature reunification of the two Koreas under US influence. A unified Korea could bring American troops to China’s doorstep.

So, while China’s leaders probably dislike Kim Jong-un as much as the Americans do and want an end to his reckless behaviour, they are unlikely to heed Trump’s calls to help him bring the tyrant to his knees, even if they could.

The ConversationChina is happy to make Trump squirm and appear to his own people and the world as feckless. But it will be watching the American moves very carefully and do anything to avoid war on the Korean peninsula. That could have serious ramifications for the region and the world, and impede China’s own seemingly inexorable rise as a great power.

Pradeep Taneja, Lecturer in Asian Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What ‘sniffer’ planes can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear tests



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Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix “sniffer plane” used to monitor radioactive emissions from nuclear bomb tests.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Kaitlin Cook, Australian National University

On Sunday, North Korea claimed it had completed its sixth nuclear test – a hydrogen bomb.

This test was performed underground by the notoriously secretive regime. So, how can the international community know the state news agency was telling the truth?

The 6.3 magnitude tremor tells us there was an explosion Sunday. But to know this was a nuclear test, we have to detect the signature of a nuclear explosion.


Read More: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


Nuclear weapons either produce energy through nuclear fission (fission bombs) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs). In both cases, nuclear reactions with neutrons cause the uranium or plutonium fuel to fission into two smaller nuclei, called fission fragments. These fragments are radioactive, and can be detected by their characteristic decay radiation.

If we detect these fission fragments, we know that a nuclear explosion occurred. And that’s where “sniffer” planes come in.

Nuclear fission and fusion.

Enter ‘sniffer’ planes

Since 1947, the United States Air Force has operated a nuclear explosions detection unit.

The current fleet uses the WC-135 Constant Phoenix. The aircraft fly through clouds of radioactive debris to collect air samples and catch dust. By measuring their decay, fission fragments can be detected in minute quantities.

The crew are kept safe using filters to scrub cabin air. Radiation levels are monitored using personal measuring devices for each crew member.

A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron taxis in on the flightline.
US Airforce/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Sniffer planes like Constant Phoenix can be rapidly deployed soon after a reported nuclear test and have been used to verify nuclear tests in North Korea in the past.

This year, Constant Phoenix has reportedly been deployed in Okinawa, Japan and has had encounters with Chinese jets.

On the ground, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) operates 80 ground-based monitoring stations across the globe that constantly monitor the air for fission products that have dispersed through the atmosphere.

Japan and South Korea operate their own radiation monitoring networks. These networks will also presumably be looking for signatures of the latest North Korean test.

CTBTO radiation monitoring system.

What can fission fragments tell us?

When a nuclear test occurs underground, the fission fragments are trapped except for noble gasses.

Because noble gasses don’t react chemically (except in extreme cases), they diffuse through the rock and eventually escape, ready to be detected.

In particular, some radioactive isotopes of the chemical element xenon are useful due to the fact these isotopes of xenon don’t appear in the atmosphere naturally, have decay times that are neither too long nor too short, and are produced in large quantities in a nuclear explosion. If you see these isotopes, you know a nuclear test occurred.

Something happened during this test that has people excited — there was an additional magnitude 4.1 tremor around eight minutes after the initial tremor, according to the United States Geological Survey. Among other things, this may indicate that the tunnel containing the bomb collapsed. If this happened, then other fission products and other radioactive isotopes could escape as dust particles.

This might have been accidental or deliberate (to provide proof to international viewers), but in either case, we may learn a lot, depending on how fast the sniffer planes arrived and how much dust was released.

For example, by looking at the probability of seeing fission fragments with different masses, the composition of the fission fuel could be determined. We could also learn about the composition of the rest of the bomb. These facts are things that nuclear states keep very secret.

Crucially, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, we could suggest whether or not the bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

What can’t they tell us?

The amount of information a sniffer plane can determine depends on how much material was released from the test site, how quickly it was released (due to nuclear decay) and how rapidly the sniffer plane got into place.

But fission fragment measurements probably can’t tell us whether the bomb tested was small enough to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). After all, it’s easy enough for North Korea to show a casing in a staged photograph and blow up something else.


Read More: North Korea panics the world, but ‘H-bomb’ test changes little


Whether or not North Korea has a thermonuclear device that is capable of being mounted to an ICBM is a question weighing heavily on the minds of the international community.

The ConversationSniffer planes and the CTBTO network will be wringing all of the data they can out of the debris in the atmosphere to help the world understand the nuclear threat from North Korea.

Kaitlin Cook, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Nuclear Physics, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.