Quick Thoughts on Korea

It’s wild, it’s crazy, it just might work?

I’m not going to pretend as if I have supreme confidence in the negotiating skills of President Deals, but one of the vanishingly rare points of optimism with this administration all along has been, perhaps, the chance for some faits accomplis to be revisited, for some of the baggage of old to be revisited. Not in the sense of blowing up the international order, but in rethinking some of the assumptions that have persisted in the postwar and post-Cold War era, for better or worse. I’ll avoid dignifying either of the present regimes with the title of “Muhammad” or “mountain,” but regardless, the twain shall meet.

Well, this is one of those moments. No sitting president has ever met with a North Korean head of state (Carter and Clinton did so, but in their post-presidencies). Donald Trump is perhaps not the most likely of candidates to send on such a vital mission, but you go to negotiations with the one you’ve got, particularly if he insists.

But that aside, an in-person summit represents a real opportunity to shed some of that baggage and to rethink our relationship with the Koreas and the region for decades to come. Kim is likely unserious about denuclearization – at least, that would be my own prior heading into a negotiation like this – and we’ve been equally adamant about not halting our exercise regime nor abandoning our alliance with South Korea. If we can accept these constraints, however, the room to maneuver is significant, and at the very least might lead to confidence building measures.

As Victor Cha ominously concludes in a New York Times opinion piece, this is certainly not a move without significant risk.

Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.

Given that these negotiations would be taking place at the highest levels of government, it is hard to say what comes after a failed session. Is that it?

Of course, this all concedes the idea that talks would even be productive. Cha also suggests, rightfully, that the Trump administration is probably singularly susceptible to flattery and deception on the part of North Korea. He asks what might we be willing to give up, and suggests the possibility of radical change:

A second path might be bolder, and for this reason it might be more appealing to Mr. Trump. This would put much bigger carrots on the table, including diplomatic normalization of relations and even the conclusion of a peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for denuclearization. It would be ironic if Mr. Trump, an avowed hawk on North Korea, adopted this “big bang” approach to diplomacy advocated for years by doves.

But, he says, “the unanswered question going forward is what the United States is willing to put on the table for a negotiation.” This is an open question, not in the least because Rex Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and who will presumably be playing a large role in any upcoming negotations. Pompeo is a man who, as recently as this past Sunday, “said on Fox News that the United States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with Pyongyang. ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said.” This could very well mean that negotiations are dead on arrival. But Pompeo still has to be confirmed, and Tillerson’s lingering until 31 March, so who know what might change in that time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Lewis thinks that Trump and Kim have goals for these talks that are fundamentally at odds.

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

And of course, as he and I would agree, Lewis goes on to say that this would be a bad idea (so let’s call this a better-case scenario). But, he adds, what if that isn’t what Trump does? “What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war.”

As Lewis and Cha agree, this meeting has an immense downside: it might foreclose on any possibility of avoiding a senseless war on the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the steady drumbeat coming from EEOB seems likely to march us in that direction anyways, and so the possibility of a real, dramatic diplomatic breakthrough must be seized upon and prepared for. The possibilities are tremendous, as are the risks.

As John Bolton’s stock rises, and his presence in the West Wing looms ever more likely, it’s more important than ever that we refresh our ways of thinking and what constitutes a “desired outcome.” Before it’s too late.

Third Time’s a Charm, and By “a Charm” I Mean Exactly the Same

DPRK test, actual scale (Not actually) [image: Petey Santeeny]

Following the other night’s North Korean nuclear test, there was definitely enough anxiety to keep observers and analysts up for hours. But there are a couple factors at play allowing me to sleep pretty soundly. Hopefully they’ll help you do the same!

The first is the relatively small yield – yes, it’s larger than the first two tests, but that really doesn’t mean anything. A 10 kiloton (or 6-7 kt or 15 kt) nuclear weapon is nothing to sneer at, but as the world saw with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a weapon of that kind isn’t much more effective than conventional explosives. The firebombings of Tokyo did more damage and took more lives than either nuclear blast in World War II.

They’ve also talked about switching their nuclear fuel from plutonium to highly-enriched uranium, which is weird and kind of a step back. The United States used to use HEU but once we perfected plutonium processing techniques we stuck with that. It’s a much more effective fuel for a multi-stage thermonuclear explosion, and it’s a little weird for anyone to change from plutonium. If true, it could indicate a processing and/or supply issue, but that would be a good sign; it would means that they’re having trouble sourcing fissile material. So they may not even have the raw materials necessary to build many bombs.

The other part is a little up in the air and I’ve heard competing claims, but nothing I’ve read so far confirms (despite Pyongyang’s claims) that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon – which would be a prerequisite for mounting it onto an ICBM. It’s one of the most difficult steps in the technological scale of nuclear science and requires increasing reaction efficiency. The small gain in yield this test provided makes me think that they definitely haven’t reached that step yet. I’m also not positive on the physics – and it might just be a coincidental concurrence rather than cause – but I believe the only miniaturized, i.e., ICBM warheads in existence are thermonuclear, and a failure to demonstrate that technology definitely means something.

So, in short, I’m not worried yet. They can’t build very many bombs; the bombs they can build aren’t especially powerful; they have no missile with the range to reach the United States and even if they did they haven’t miniaturized a warhead sufficiently to mount on it; and their only means of delivering one of the few extant bombs is by bomber, which exist in low numbers and also don’t have the range to hit the US, much less reach here undetected. So we’re all safe over here for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know that this really changes anything strategically even in the region. We’ve known, the South Koreans have known, and the Japanese have known; it’s common knowledge that North Korea has some nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t led to regional proliferation or a move to oust the Kim regime or anything like that. I don’t see “just another test” making a dramatic difference on that front. Dr. Farley probably says it best: “Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States.”

Yeah, great job there, Pyongyang.

High Technology in the Hermit Kingdom

The Main and Academic Buildings at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

38North (the US-Korea Institute at SAIS blog) has been producing some fantastic reporting lately, and today came out with an article on the new Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which opened in October.

Its very existence is a contradiction in terms. It is a pool of 160 of the best and the brightest computer and engineering students in North Korea, proud graduates of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University. Perhaps most out-of-character for the tightly sealed country, these students will eventually be allowed free access to the internet. At first, only email capabilities will be granted, but eventually their access will open up and students able to venture beyond the Guang Myung internal North Korean intranet.

PUST itself is backed and funded by evangelical Christians, but steps are taken to ensure that no proselytizing takes place on campus. The university is also in negotiations and talks with the Department of Commerce and South Korean agencies, clearing everything from the names of schools to the curriculum itself. PUST’s cooperation is deemed necessary to securing new technology and avoiding dual-use restrictions on tech imports.

School officials have voluntarily cleared curricula with the U.S. government, which has weighed in on details as fine as the name of one of PUST’s first three schools. The School of Biotechnology was renamed the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences because U.S. officials were concerned that biotech studies might be equated to bioweapons studies, says Park. North Korean officials, meanwhile, forbid PUST from launching an MBA program—a degree too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “So we call it industrial management,” Park says. “But the contents are similar to those of an MBA.”

The school hopes to have 2,600 students by 2012, visiting faculty, and all the other accoutrements of a successful modern research university. But they will also have some unique challenges to North Korea:

Kim Chaek University of Technology had around 500 Pentium 4’s and 5’s connected to the system. He estimates that nationwide, tens of thousands of computers of all types are now linked in. However, it’s not clear how effective Guang Myung is outside Pyongyang, where clunky routers funnel information to ancient machines—remember 386s and 486s? Another major woe is an unstable electricity supply that regularly fritzes electronics. Lee, who has visited North Korea 15 times, says that when he asks what scientists need most, they request laptops, whose power cord adaptors and batteries can better handle electrical fluctuations.

Signs of openness? An attempt to forcibly drag North Korea into the 21st century? A smokescreen for weapons-grade technology imports? Or just an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of a few lucky North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, on the whole, whether this is a good or bad development. The students attending PUST will have more access to knowledge and the broader world than ever before, and depending on whether their contact with ‘normal’ North Koreans is limited, could possibly spread the gospel of the free world. Then again, developments and breakthroughs made at PUST could very well have military implications, despite all assurances to the contrary (indeed, how could Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong Un resist?).

If this really “might nudge the country’s tattered manufacturing-based economy toward an information-based economy,” that should be good for North Korea in the long run. But then again, we’re still feeling the agony of our shift from one to the other, and for a country like the United States that transition was not an easy one to make. I suspect it may be even more painful for the DPRK.