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North Korea

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A Different Kind of Tweet

“The president has absolute authority, unilateral power to order the use of nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Blair. The nuclear codes are “the length of a tweet. It would take them one or two minutes to format and transmit that directly down the chain of command to the executing commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.”

While serving in the US Air Force in the 1970s, Blair was a launch control officer for Minuteman ICBMs. Weekly dry runs down in the capsule, turning the keys that would send 50 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on their way, has led to profound reflection in many of the people who did it. It led Blair to found Global Zero, a group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons entirely.

Blair was being interviewed in connection with the controversy that has erupted in the US since President Trump’s August tweet threatening to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if Kim Jong-un threatened the United States again. Does he actually have the unillateral power to do that, and if so should it be taken away from him?

Senator Ed Markey and 13 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would require Trump to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before launching a nuclear first strike. Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor, explained that “We are concerned that the president is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests.”

The bill will never get past the Republican majority in Congress, but it did lead to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week that examined the president’s power to start a nuclear war. As you would expect, various generals rolled up to say that everything is under control. But it wasn’t very reassuring.

The star witness was Robert Kehler, a former head of US Strategic Command, who said that in his former role he would have followed the president’s order to carry out a nuclear strike – if it were legal. If he doubted its legality, he would have consulted his own advisors – and he might have refused to do it. One senator asked: “Then what happens?” Kehler replied: “I don’t know.”

The current head of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten, had another go at it on Saturday. He told the Halifax International Security Forum that he and Trump have had conversations about such a scenario and that he has told Trump he wouldn’t carry out an illegal strike. (Under international law, using nuclear weapons first is almost always illegal.)

“If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen. I’m going to say, ‘Mr President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’” Hyten said. “And we’ll come up with options with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.”

But Trump doesn’t have to consult General Hyten, or any of his own military advisers, before ordering a nuclear attack on North Korea – or Iran, or anywhere else. He just puts the launch codes into the ‘football’ that an aide always has nearby.

As Bruce Blair pointed out, it would only take a couple of minutes for the launch orders to cascade down the chain of command and reach the “commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.” It’s even possible that none of the people on duty who would have to execute the orders would be generals.

The generals would get the order too, of course – but as Blair says: “If they felt that it was a really bad call or illegal, and they wanted to try to override it, they could try to transmit a termination order, but it would be too late.” Trump really could make a nuclear first strike on North Korea all on his own. On this vital issue, there is no “adult supervision”.

This bizarre situation dates back to the early days of the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had ‘launch-on-warning’ policies because they feared that an enemy first strike could destroy all of their own nuclear weapons and leave them helpless. “Use ‘em or lose ‘em” was the mantra, so the US and Soviet leaders both had the authority to launch their missiles in minutes.

Later on both countries buried their ballistic missiles in underground silos or hid them in submerged submarines so they could not lose them in a surprise attack. They no longer had to launch on a warning that might be false: if there really was an attack, they could ride it out and retaliate afterwards. But the US never took back the president’s ‘instant launch’ authority. That was an oversight that needs to be rectified.

It would be a simple matter to restrict Trump’s unilateral launch authority to situations where there is hard evidence that a nuclear attack on the United States is underway. Simple in legal and technical terms, that is. In political terms, very hard if not impossible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“This bizarre…rectified”)

Trump: the Reagan Gambit?

Last Sunday I wrote a piece on the political crisis in Venezuela. Then on Wednesday I wrote an article on Donald Trump’s hyperbolic language about North Korea. But it never occurred to me that the next article would be about Trump, North Korea AND Venezuela. I forgot about the Reagan Gambit.

In October, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan had a little problem. A massive truck-bomb had killed 241 American Marines in their barracks at Beirut airport. That was more than a quarter of the total American force deployed as “peacekeepers” to Lebanon – a deployment that had already become controversial in the United States. So Reagan had some explaining to do.

In another part of the world entirely, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada, pop. 90,000, had another military coup – a coup within the coup. A radical pro-Cuban politician called Maurice Bishop,who had overthrown the elected government, was executed by his fellow revolutionaries over some minor differences of opinion. A pity, perhaps, but of no more importance to the rest of the world than Grenada itself.

The Cold War was running quite hot in this period, so although the island had no strategic value the American right was getting upset about Russians and Cubans building an airport on Grenada. In the normal course of events this would probably not have led to an American invasion, but Reagan badly needed a political distraction.

On 25 October, precisely two days after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the US military began a full-scale invasion of Grenada on Reagan’s orders. It was one of history’s most one-sided battles – only 19 Americans killed, although the US handed out 5,000 medals for merit and valour – but it did the trick.

A friend said to me at the time that Reagan had gone home and kicked the cat, which was true enough, but conquering Grenada didn’t just make him feel better. There’s only room for one lead story at a time, and Grenada pushed Beirut aside in the US media. When Reagan quietly pulled the remaining Marines out of Lebanon four months later, few people even remembered to ask what those other Marines had died for.

And now Donald Trump, stumbling deeper each day into an confrontation with North Korea over nuclear-armed ICBMs he swore that Pyongyang would never get, may be looking for a way out. So on Sunday, he said: “We have many options for Venezuela – and by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option.”

He said it although nobody had asked him if he was planning to invade Venezuela. (It hadn’t occurred to anybody that he might.) And he said it from his golf course in New Jersey. (Reagan made his Grenada decision on a golf course too). And it certainly did take North Korea out of the news for at least one or two cycles.

He then offered a classic Trumpian non-justification for threatening to use military force in Venezuela: “This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

So be on your best behaviour, all you other governments in Latin America and Canada, or he might come for you too. But is he actually planning to invade Venezuela, a fairly well-armed country of 30 million people?

Trump has already given President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered regime a propaganda gift by strengthening its argument that its opponents are all traitors and American spies. Does he realise that an American invasion of Venezuela would trigger both a bloody civil war and a prolonged anti-American resistance movement?

Probably not. He knows that Venezuela is a superpower in the “Miss Universe” universe, but he will not have read the full briefing paper unless they remembered to put his name in every paragraph (and he may have caught onto that trick by now).

It would be nice if this threat about Venezuela were evidence that Trump knows he is in over his head with North Korea and is looking for a face-saving way out, but it’s not likely to be true. It’s much more likely to be just another example to his scattershot approach to dealing with a problem: create as many other problems as possible, and the pressure will come off.

Ronald Reagan knew he had walked into a hornet’s nest in Lebanon, and just needed
to create a diversion while he found a way of getting American troops out of the Middle East. It’s not clear that Trump even understands that he is in deep trouble, and that he is at risk of starting a nuclear war in order to prevent one.

Stream-of-consciousness decision-making is unfailingly interesting, if you are using “interesting” in the sense of the faux-Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But in real life, that’s the last place you want to live.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He then…people”)

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

12 February 2014

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

When Mordechai Vanunu, a humble Israeli technician who worked for years at Israel’s secret nuclear site at Dimona, spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons in 1986, very bad things happened to him. He was lured from safety in England for an Italian holiday by a woman who was an Israeli secret agent, drugged and kidnapped from Italy by other Israeli agents, and imprisoned for eighteen years (eleven of them in solitary confinement).

When Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, said last month that that Israel has both nuclear and chemical weapons (you know, like the nuclear weapons that Iran must not have and the chemical weapons that Syria must give up), nothing bad happened to him at all. He is protected by the Important Persons Act, the unwritten law that gets powerful and well-connected people off the hook in every country.

They didn’t even go after Burg when he said that Israel’s long-standing policy of “non-disclosure (never confirm or deny that it has nukes) was “outdated and childish.” But even ten years after Vanunu finished serving his long jail sentence, he is not allowed to leave Israel, go near any foreign embassy, airport or border crossing, or speak to any journalist or foreigner.

Vanunu defies the Israeli authorities and speaks to whomever he pleases, of course. But he really can’t get out of the country, though he desperately wants to leave, and his decision to live like a free man gives his watchers the pretext to yank his chain by arresting him whenever they feel like it.

The Israeli government’s excuse for all this is that he may still know secrets he might reveal, but that is nonsense. Vanunu hasn’t seen Dimona or talked to anybody in the Israeli nuclear weapons business for 30 years. What drives his tormentors is sheer vindictiveness, and he may well go on being punished for his defiance until he dies – while Avraham Burg lives out his life undisturbed and offers occasional pearls of wisdom to the public.

So here are the “secrets” that Vanunu and Burg revealed, in rather more detail than Burg chose to give and in a more up-to-date form than Vanunu could give from personal knowledge.

Israel has a minimum of eighty and a maximum of four hundred nuclear weapons, those limits being based on calculations of the amount of fissile material that it has enriched to weapons grade. The best guess is that the total is around two hundred warheads, most of them two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs).

At least some dozens are “tactical” weapons designed to be fired by 175 mm and 203 mm artillery pieces at ranges of 40-70 km. The remainder are meant to be delivered by missiles or aircraft, and Israel maintains a full “triad” of delivery systems: land-based missiles, sea-launched missiles, and aircraft.

The missiles are mostly Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Europe and most of western Asia. Since 2008 Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have also been entering service, with a range that would allow Israel to strike any inhabited point on the planet except some Pacific islands. Both can carry a one-megaton warhead.

Why such remarkably long ranges, when Israel’s avowed enemies are all relatively close to hand? One speculation is that this is meant to encourage caution in other nuclear states (Pakistan? North Korea?) that might at some future time be tempted to supply nuclear weapons to Israel’s near enemies.

The maritime leg of the triad is highly accurate cruise missiles that are launched from underwater by Israel’s German-built Dolphin-class submarines. These missiles constitute Israel’s “secure second-strike” capability, since it is extremely unlikely that even the most successful enemy surprise attack could locate and destroy the submarines. And finally, there are American-made F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft that can also carry nuclear bombs.

Israel probably tested its bomb in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 in cooperation with apartheid South Africa, which was also developing nuclear weapons (subsequently dismantled) at that time. The test was carried out under cover of a storm to escape satellite surveillance, but a rift in the cloud cover revealed the characteristic double flash of a nuclear explosion to an American satellite, Vela 6911.

This was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbids open-air nuclear tests, but the United States did not pursue the matter, presumably in order not to embarrass Israel.

The United States did not help Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place (France did that), and even now Washington does not really approve of Israel’s nukes, although it tolerates them in the interest of the broader alliance. But why, after all these years, does Israel still refuse to acknowledge that it has them?

The only plausible answer is: to avoid embarrassing the United States in ways that would make it restrict its arms exports to Israel. But realistically, how likely is that to happen? The US Congress will ensure that Israel goes on getting all the money and arms it wants no matter what it says about its nukes, and it is high time to end this ridiculous dance around the truth.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 12 and 13. (“Vanunu…it”; and “Israel…Israel”)

The North Korean Purge

15 December 2013

The North Korean Purge

By Gwynne Dyer

Purges in Communist states have rarely stopped with the execution of one senior Party member, especially when he has been tortured into “confessing” at his show trial that he was planning to stage a coup using “high-ranking military officers” and other close allies.

“I didn’t fix the definite time for the coup,” Chang Song-thaek, the former number two in the hierarchy of the world’s last totalitarian state, said at his trial. “But it was my intention to concentrate (my allies in) my department and in all the economic organs in the cabinet and become premier when the economy goes totally bankrupt and the state is on the verge of collapse.”

It’s most unlikely that Chang was really planning a coup, but all of his suspected allies and associates in his own department and other parts of the government, plus any senior military officers suspected of less than total loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, are in grave danger. Only two of Chang’s aides have been killed so far, but hundreds or thousands of other people thought to be linked to him may suffer the same fate.

This is unquestionably the biggest internal crisis in North Korea since the early years of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the current dictator. Challengers to the Kim family’s monopoly of power have often been killed, but this is the first public show trial in North Korea since 1958.

It’s also the first time that the regime has publicly admitted that there are rival factions in the senior ranks of the Workers’ (Communist) Party. It’s hard to believe that this will not be followed by a wider bloodbath among the leading cadres along the lines of Stalin’s purges in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s in China. It’s harder to understand what is driving the current upheaval, but some plausible guesses are possible.

When Kim Jong-il, the father of the current ruler, was dying, he chose Chang as the man who would ensure a smooth transfer of power to his son. (Chang was married to the elder Kim’s sister, and was therefore presumably loyal to the family.) Chang acted as chief adviser to Kim Jong-un, who was only 28 and quite inexperienced when he inherited the leadership in 2011, and his manner sometimes seemed quite overbearing.

At the same time, Chang was the principal advocate within the regime for an economic opening on the Chinese model to rescue North Korea from its crushing poverty. To achieve that goal, he first had to wrest control of the country’s leading industries from the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the entire economy. This naturally made him an enemy in the eyes of the military establishment.

So we can speculate that Kim Jong-un, as he gained confidence in his own abilities, grew increasingly hostile to the dominating influence of Chang, who was more than twice his age. He would need allies before he moved against Chang, and many military officers were glad to oblige.

On this reading of events Kim wants to get rid not only of Chang but of the entire generation of older military and civilian leaders who secretly regard him as an upstart. His objective would be to replace them wholesale with younger men who owe their positions directly to him. Or maybe something else is at the root of all this turmoil: we simply don’t know.

What we do know is that there is great turmoil in North Korea, a nuclear-armed country with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Most people assume that at some point in the future the regime will collapse, and some well-informed people worry that the collapse could come quite suddenly and quite soon. Interestingly, almost nobody wants that to happen.

Most North Koreans don’t want it to happen despite the dreadful conditions they live in, because a lifetime of propaganda has convinced them that South Koreans (and everybody else) lives in even worse conditions than the citizens of the Workers’ Paradise.

Most South Koreans don’t want it to happen because they would then have the duty of rescuing 24 million North Koreans from dire poverty. In theory they want unification, but there are only 50 million South Koreans to bear the burden, and it would take a generation of sacrifice to accomplish that task.

Neither North Korea’s Chinese neighbours nor South Korea’s American allies want it to happen, because the collapse of the Pyongyang regime could bring them into direct conflict. As a recent study by the Rand Corporation pointed out, it would cause a race between Chinese troops and South Korean and American troops to take control of North Korea’s territory.

The Chinese would be determined to keep American troops away from their own border with North Korea. The South Koreans and their American allies would feel compelled to go to the aid of a North Korean population that was probably facing starvation by then. And both sides would be racing to gain control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before something terrible happened.

In such circumstances, a collision between Chinese and South Korean/American forces is all too easy to imagine. Kim Jong-un is a very nasty piece of work, but a lot of people are praying for his survival.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“At the same…establishment”; and “Most North…task”)