Much Learning in Two Weeks in Korea

by Stephen M. Saideman

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions–most of the folks I met were “cautiously optimistic” about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the “ruthlessly pessimistic” camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to “denuke” in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the “Libya Option” seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen).

So, folks are having an epiphany–negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren’t giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:

American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm’s way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery….

Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:

  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don’t have a common understanding of “denuclearization.”  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.


  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to “massive pressure” from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can’t get the Nobel Prize.
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations–perhaps freezes of NK’s weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.

So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?


Old Deterrence Logics Still Apply

by Stephen M. Saideman

Reading Andrew Coyne’s piece on North Korea and the need for Canada to join the American Ballistic Missile Defence System reminded me of lots of old deterrence theory stuff.  The piece raises good questions about the reliability of the key actors, especially Trump, but confuses what is necessary for deterrence.  Still, there are some problems that we need to think about.

The big problem in the piece is that Coyne thinks that the American commitment to defend its East Asia allies is now largely unbelievable with the North Koreans developing the ability to strike the continental US (and Canada).  It is true that the US, under several Presidents, has failed to deter the North Korean effort to develop both nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.  But deterring their effort to develop some deterrence and deterring an attack on allies are two different things.  Coyne is right to point out that extended deterrence (don’t attack my allies or else) is less believable than regular, vanilla deterrence (don’t attack me or else).  The threat to start or expand a nuclear war is problematic in either case, but seems a bit more believable if it is in retaliation for a big attack on the homeland.

The key is that for deterrence to work, the side being deterred (North Korea in this case for the moment) does not need to be certain that a counter-strike would happen.  They just need to think that there is some possibility of such a response.  Why?  Because the costs of nuclear war are so very high, if one does the probability math (probability of x times value of x), the prospective costs of attacking first are simply too high compared to the status quo (.01 times infinity = infinity) …. as long as the status quo is bearable (which is why we have to stop threatening regime change).  We do not have to convince North Korea that a retaliatory strike is certain if North Korea attacks South Korea and/or Japan, but that it could happen.  The placement of US troops in South Korea is far more about being a tripwire to raise the probability of the US responding than actually defending South Korea in a conventional attack.

Again, one might say that this is not sufficient, but the key to nuclear threats is that classic Schelling phrase: a threat that leaves something to chance.  One does not have to threaten, for instance, total nuclear annihilation of North Korea crosses the Demilitarized Zone–one just has to threat to start a process that might lead to things getting out of hand and ultimately leading to nuclear war.  This was the old extended deterrence logic for Europe and Asia during the cold war.

Certainty?  That is for allies.  That is, the tripwires and all the rest over the years are mostly aimed at reassuring allies.  The enemy is deterred by a modest chance of the US responding, of sacrificing Chicago for Bonn or now Seattle for Seoul.  The allies?  They are very nervous and require a great deal of assurance.  Ballistic missile defense both in the region and in the US might assure them somewhat–that the US can stick around and meet its commitments knowing that it is protected.

Except for one thing: BMD may be at best a coin flip.  We have lots of uncertainty about whether the efforts to invest in destroying missiles in flight have produced anything remotely reliable.  Again, that is ok from a deterrence perspective–uncertainty is not bad.

While I think that joining the US BMD program makes sense, my reasons do not center on the NK nuclear threat.  The US would try to stop an attack on Vancouver or Toronto since they are very close to American cities whether Canada is in or out of the BMD program.  And North Korea is not going to be gunning for Calgary or Edmonton.  North Korea barely notices Canada, and, given its small supply of nuclear arms, it will not be aiming at Canada.  The BMD arguments I buy have more to do with building a robust NORAD that addresses a variety of threats in the 21st century, and strengthening a key US-Canadian institution in these uncertain times.

While we should all doubt Donald Trump, I am far more worried about his starting a process that leaves something to chance via a small strike at North Korea’s missiles or at its leadership than I am about his not responding to a North Korean attack.  Yes, we are now deterred from attacking North Korea, but that has been true since it developed the capability level Seoul with its artillery.  Yes, we have much to worry about, but then so does Kim Jong Un.  If he wants to survive, he will avoid a process that might lead to escalation.  The costs of being wrong are just too high.

Starting the year with a bang: the DPRK’s nuclear test

By Jez Littlewood

North Korea – or more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – has announced a fourth nuclear weapons test. It claims the test was of a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb (H-Bomb) which, if true, would represent a qualitative leap in its capabilities.

From the limited information leaking out so far from official and unofficial sources most analysts doubt the test was of a H-Bomb given seismic monitoring suggests a lower yield than that expected from a thermonuclear weapon. Indeed, the US is indicating the test has not altered its own assessment of the capabilities of the DPRK. However, no one knows at this stage. Nor is the test a “surprise”, out of the blue or unanticipated. Activity was detected in September 2015, and the possibility of a H-Bomb was explored by Jeffrey Lewis’ mid-December piece on 38 North: “a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, [but] it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.”

So what does the test mean? Put simply, we do not know although past practice from the DPRK on nuclear testing has usually been about signaling to adversaries and demonstrating prowess at home. There are both domestic and international aspects to nuclear testing.

Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Solving a problem always requires that you know what the problem is in the first place. With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094, this is a good time to ask: what does the world (or at least the United States and Europe) want from North Korea? In other words, what’s the foreign policy goal here?

As UNSC 2094 makes clear, the short answer is to get North Korea to end its nuclear weapon program. This would mean to stop testing nuclear weapons, verifiably dismantle any nuclear bombs it has already built, stop producing fissile material, accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (since it withdrew in 2003) and for good measure, stop testing and developing long-range ballistic missiles. South Korea has held this up as a policy goal since 1992 and President Park Geun-hye reiterated it this week. The United States also supports this goal, and since the second round of the Six Party Talks, getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon activities has become most countries’ and commentators’ default goal. The need to “denuclearize” North Korea has become common wisdom.

Is it a realistic goal though? Even if nuclear weapons are impractical and using one would invite regime-ending retaliation, it is very likely that Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapon program as its ace-in-the-hole. While denuclearizing North Korea seems to be everyone’s preferred goal today, only a decade ago the United States government debated – among other options – making regime change its chief goal. This is not lost on Kim Jong-un or his national security advisors. Demanding that North Korea discard its nuclear weapons means that Pyongyang loses the ability to play a dangerous brinksmanship game, where it ratchets up tensions and creates a risk that things will spiral out of control, ending in a nuclear calamity. While North Korea would still have a potent arsenal of conventional (and chemical arms) if it gave up its atomic bombs, these pale in comparison to the threat (even if it is purely psychological) that nuclear weapons carry.

It is also important to remember that nuclear weapons did not magically appear in North Korea one day. North Korea’s nuclear weapon program was gestated and born in a threatening security environment. While North Korea is responsible for practically all the violence along the peninsula in the last decade, we should never lose sight of the massive material imbalance between South and North Korea, let alone North Korea and the United States. Getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons without solving the underlying incompatibilities in South Korean, American, Chinese, and North Korean interests (throw Japan in there too, if you like) is a long shot, and frankly, probably not realistic.

I’ll conclude this post by noting that states reverse their nuclear weapon policies all the time. The empirical record is very clear on that. However, it is also very clear that the longer a nuclear program stays intact, the more autonomous is becomes within the state, and the worse a state’s relations are with others, the lower the likelihood of a policy reversal becomes. If there was a time to go all out and try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapon policy, it was in the early 1990s, which is exactly what South Korea and the US tried. That policy track fell apart ten years ago. Denuclearization has been tried, and it has failed. It might be time to redefine the problem and look for new solutions.

Simon Palamar

Ph.D. Candidate

What does North Korea’s Third Nuclear Weapon Test Bode for the Future?

Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear bomb test this past Tuesday, February 12. As usual, the United Nations Security Council denounced North Korea’s behaviour. It goes without saying that world opinion is cold towards North Korea at the best of times. Being the only country to test nuclear weapons since Pakistan and India has not burnished Pyongyang’s reputation.

However, the Security Council’s reaction was quite predictable. More interesting is the question of whether this actually changes anything in northeast Asia and the rest of the Pacific?

The technical details of the test matter in this case. Seismic evidence suggests the explosive yield was considerably larger than the 2006 and 2009 tests. This is important for North Korea, since nuclear tests are not purely political acts. They are important technical exercises, and for North Korea’s weapon engineers, whose 2006 and 2009 tests may have yielded “fizzles” (explosions that missed their yield targets), Tuesday’s explosion (which may have been as half as powerful as the Nagasaki bomb) was an important achievement.

More important to the rest of the world was the size of the device and whether it was made from plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

North Korea’s official news agency (KCNA) claims the test was “of a smaller and light A-bomb unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power.” While Pyongyang was remarkably open about the failure of its April 2012 Unha-3  space launch vehicle/ballistic missile test, getting the truth out of KCNA news reports is generally akin to reading tea leaves. However, last December Pyongyang did successfully launch an Unha-3 rocket. This means that Korean miniaturization claims should be taken seriously. Building a nuclear explosive is one challenge. Building one small enough to fit atop a ballistic missile is another thing, and a fairly serious engineering challenge. So far, there is little (if any) public evidence that North Korean engineers have managed that task. But if and when they do, it will mean that North Korea has something approaching a fully militarized nuclear capability. This will certainly raise anxieties in Japan and South Korea, and will probably prompt calls within the US to take a harder line with Pyongyang. At this point North Korea’s claims that they’ve miniaturized their nuclear weapon designs is a serious signal that they are trying to do so, but isn’t evidence that they’ve been successful.

The second technical issue is: what was the bomb made of? North Korea has a limited supply of weapon-usable plutonium, as the 5 MW reactor and plutonium separation facilities at Yongbyon have not been operating for years. North Korea probably had no more than 40 kg of separated plutonium before the February 12 test, and, if the weapon that was exploded on Tuesday was made of plutonium, they now have at least two kilograms less. That would be welcome news, since every gram of fissile material they blow up in tests gives them one less (albeit tiny) bargaining chip at the negotiation table.

If the weapon was made of uranium this is more concerning. It will give us some idea about how well developed North Korea’s centrifuge program is, and it could suggest plans to build a larger arsenal. Given the lack of international monitoring of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, it is difficult to precisely assess how much uranium Pyongyang is enriching. While North Korea’s uranium enrichment program has been public knowledge for a while now, Pyongyang has claimed that it is meant to fuel civilian light water nuclear reactors. If the weapon proves to be a miniaturized bomb, then we can tentatively conclude that North Korea is well on the way to having a deliverable nuclear weapon. Continue reading