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.

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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.

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



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


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


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

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

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



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North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner where the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.

There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


War

If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.

There are high risks in any military action against North Korea. There are essentially no good options for compelling it with force. As recently departed White House adviser Steve Bannon said:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.


Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish


Squibbing it

If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.

America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.

North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.

Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.

North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.

Sanctions

If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.

This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.

This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.

Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.

Trade war with China

If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.

Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.

There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.

However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.

Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.

Nuclear freeze

In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.

When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.

The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.

But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.

The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.

A peace agreement

If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.

Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.

At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.

Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.

A marker of US decline

There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.

Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.

The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

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

As it launches another missile, we must realise there are no easy options for dealing with North Korea



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Reuters/KCNA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.

  • North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.

  • The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.

  • Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.

  • North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.

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Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?

Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.

  • First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.

  • Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.

In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.

The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.

There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.

Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.

As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.

China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.

From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.

These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.

The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.

Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.

The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.

Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.

What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.

The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.

The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.

The ConversationIn any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.

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

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

North Korea tells Australia it is acting suicidally by joining war games


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The North Korean regime has lashed out at Australia, describing its participation in current military exercises with the US and South Korea as “a suicidal act of inviting disaster”.

The North Koreans also targeted Malcolm Turnbull’s recent statements when he said that if the US came under attack from North Korea, Australia would be involved in its defence under ANZUS.

Turnbull hit back on Monday at the Pyongyang statement, saying North Korea had no regard for the welfare of its own population, the security and good relations with its neighbours, or international law.

Australia has about 25 Defence Force personnel involved in this week’s regular Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games. The Australians have command-and-control responsibilities.

The North Korean statement from a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, reported by the state news agency KCNA, described Turnbull’s remarks about ANZUS as “reckless”.

Meanwhile, it said, Australia’s defence minister and “the military brass hat” had officially announced Australian troops would participate in the joint military exercises.

“Not long after the Australian prime minister had stated that they would join in the aggressive moves of the US, even referring to ANZUS which exists in name only, the Australian military announced that they would dispatch their troops to the aggressive nuclear exercises of the US.

“This is a suicidal act of inviting disaster as it is an illustration of political immaturity unaware of the seriousness of the current situation,” the statement said.

It said the “great irony is that the Australian premier, who had once condemned the military option for confrontation of Trump that it will have destructive consequences, made U turn in his stand at the admonition of the US, taking no account of Australia’s own interests”.

Australia had followed America into the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the “war on terrorism”. “But heavy loss of lives and assets were all that it got in return”, the statement said.

“The Australian government had better devote time and energy to maintaining peace of its own country, instead of forgetting the lessons learned in the past and joining the US in the moves for nuclear war.

“Countries like Australia that join the military adventure against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], blindly following the US, will never avoid the counter-measures of justice by the DPRK,” it said.

Turnbull said Australia called on all countries “to redouble their efforts”, including through implementing Security Council resolutions, “to bring North Korea to its senses and end its reckless and dangerous threats to the peace of our region and the world”.

Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, last week said Australia had played a small role in the exercises since 2010 and “given their regularity and history, they should not be seen in any way as a provocative exercise”.

The exercises, which date from the 1970s, have perennially roused North Korean anger. They come this year amid the extremely high tension between the US and Pyongyang. North Korea has said that with the current drill the US is “pouring gasoline on fire”.

The drills, involving land, sea and air, run from Monday until August 31, with tens of thousands of defence personnel from the US and South Korea participating.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said “this right now is an exercise to make certain that we’re ready to defend South Korea and our allies over there. And because of the specific circumstance, we want it to be a … heavy command post exercise.”

The ConversationHe said North Korea knew it was a fully defensive exercise “whatever they may say for public consumption”. “We’re very transparent in what we’re doing just to avoid miscalculation.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/8ppnw-6fcd65?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Cyberspace aggression adds to North Korea’s threat to global security



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People participate in a Pyongyang mass rally held at Kim Il-sung Square.
KCNA/Reuters, CC BY-ND

Joe Burton, University of Waikato

Claims that North Korea could fire nuclear weapons at the continental US present a serious threat to global security. But its hostile activities don’t end there. North Korea has also become an aggressive cyber power, regularly using cyber attacks to advance its interests.

Last month, a threat intelligence firm, Recorded Future, reported that North Korea may have been using New Zealand’s internet networks as proxies to launch cyber attacks worldwide. The New Zealand government’s Communications Security Bureau is assessing the veracity of these claims.

The report suggests that North Korea may have both a physical and a virtual presence in New Zealand. It raised the possibility of a network of “patriot hackers” using New Zealand cyber networks to pursue the aims of the North Korean regime.

North Korea’s history of cyber attacks

Cyber attacks have become a wide-ranging tool in the arsenal of authoritarian governments to coerce and intimidate foreign governments, to subvert democratic processes, and to impose costs on their adversaries.

In North Korea’s case, this pattern of activity stretches back many years. North Korea is estimated to have an army of 6,000 hackers, engaging in malicious cyber activity regularly.

In March 2013, hackers linked to North Korea attacked South Korean banks and media agencies, causing widespread disruption. In November 2014, cyber attacks against Sony Pictures followed the release of the film The Interview, which caricatured and mocked the North Korean leader.

The attack led to the release of personal information on thousands of Sony employees and the cancellation of the film’s launch. The incident quickly escalated into a serious diplomatic dispute between the US and North Korea.

In 2016, a Bangladeshi bank became the victim of North Korean hackers. Reports said that US$81 million were lost through compromised financial transactions.

Most recently, the WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected computers in more than 150 countries, has been linked to the Lazarus group of hackers, which has links to the North Korean regime. This suggests North Korea is now using state-sponsored hackers to help raise revenue for a country starved of access to international markets and funding.

Cyber attacks further threat to nuclear security

Analysis of North Korea’s activities often misses the connections between cyber and nuclear security. North Korea’s nuclear program has itself become a victim of cyber attacks.

A report in the New York Times in March this year revealed that the Obama administration ordered a campaign of cyber subversion aimed at North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. It mirrors the now infamous Stuxnet attacks directed against Iran in 2010.

In the absence of progress on North Korean disarmament, delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapon programs through cyber attacks has become a feature of US strategy. It’s a strategy that may yield short-term results, but presents significant escalatory dangers.

Proliferation risks

Cyber attacks pose increasingly serious risks to classified nuclear information, the security of nuclear facilities, and the integrity of the components that nuclear arms and missile technologies rely on.

Last year, the UK government was warned that its trident nuclear submarine program was vulnerable to cyber intrusions. The think-tank report Hacking UK Trident: A Growing Threat argued that a cyber attack directed against the submarines could:

… neutralise operations, lead to loss of life, defeat or perhaps even the catastrophic exchange of nuclear warheads (directly or indirectly).

In June this year, the US government reported multiple cyber breaches of its own nuclear installations. This followed similar revelations about attacks directed against South Korea’s nuclear reactor operators Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co Ltd in 2015.

Another concerning aspect of the cyber-nuclear nexus is that hacking could facilitate the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology to other aggressive states and non-state actors.

Reining in North Korea

The growing connections between nuclear and cyber security are changing the strategic balance between nuclear powers in subtle and undetermined ways. Approaches to dealing with the North Korean regime must treat these issues as related.

So what can be done about North Korea’s aggressive use of the internet? Unfortunately, just as with its nuclear program, there few good options. Sanctions imposed on the regime for its cyber activity, such as those following the Sony hack, have proved ineffective at changing the regime’s behaviour.

China and Russia may have a role to play in persuading Kim Jong-un to “play nicely” in cyberspace, but both countries also have a long history of malicious cyber operations.

There are examples where states have given up destructive weapons programs. These include Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and the more recent Iran deal. However, the difficulty of verifying whether offensive cyber programs have been dismantled presents a major obstacle.

Cyber armies operating from a virtual realm can easily be hidden. Given that punishing the North Korean regime for its behaviour has not yielded results, it may be time to start thinking about a range of positive inducements to bring the country back into the international community, including offering diplomatic talks without precondition.

The ConversationRewarding North Korea for its errant behaviour may be unpalatable, but the combined danger of its nuclear and cyber capabilities would appear to warrant a significant shift in strategy.

Joe Burton, Senior Lecturer, Institute for Security and Crime Science, University of Waikato

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