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North Korea

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The Singapore Summit

If the Singapore meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un had been a zero-sum game, then Trump definitely lost. But maybe it wasn’t.

Kim got a meeting with Trump on terms of strict equality right down to the number of flags on display, which is a huge boost for his regime’s claim to legitimacy. He persuaded Trump to end America’s annual joint military exercises with South Korea (and even got Trump to call them ‘war games’ and say they were ‘provocative’, which no US spokesperson has ever done before).

And he got Trump to accept North Korea’s deliberately vague language about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, with no specific reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, let alone any talk of dismantling them. In fact, the agreement they signed talked about “re-affirming” North Korea’s denuclearisation pledge, so obviously no progress there.

This is several light-years distant from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pre-summit definition of the US goal as “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction,” which must happen “without delay.”

There’s no cause for surprise here. Trump is not a great deal-maker; he’s a man who is accomplished at playing the role of a great deal-maker. The reality is more like the contract he signed with Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’, the book that made him famous: 50% of the advance, 50% of royalties, and equal billing on the cover. Schwartz was as surprised and pleased then as Kim undoubtedly is now.

If Trump had had a little more time in Singapore, he could have bought a T-shirt saying ‘My president went to Singapore and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ and taken it home to give to the American people.

He would have needed a bigger apology-gift for the South Korean government, which was blindsided by Trump’s spur-of-the-moment promise to stop the joint military exercises. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” Seoul said in an unmistakably sulky tone of voice. (Seoul’s mistake is to assume that Trump himself knew his “exact meaning or intention.”)

But this was not really a negotiation. It was a show, staged for the benefit of the two main participants, and they both got what they came for. They were bound to get it, since they had the power to define the meeting as either a success or a failure. Naturally, they said it was a success – but that doesn’t mean it was actually a failure.

All this zero-sum game nonsense is irrelevant to what is really happening here, or at least could happen in the months to come: the gradual acceptance by the United States that North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear weapons power, although a small one, and the negotiation of some basic rules for this new relationship between two nuclear powers of radically different size.

Diplomatic and military experts have been saying for years that there is no way that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The whole country lived on short rations for a generation to get them, and Kim is well aware of what happened to dictators who didn’t have nukes, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The experts are right, but they do not see this situation as necessarily a cause for panic. After all, more evenly matched pairs of nuclear powers, like India and Pakistan, or the United States and Russia, have managed to avoid nuclear war for decades. Nuclear deterrence, as Bernard Brodie pointed out more than 70 years ago, works even when there is a huge disparity in the number of weapons possessed by the two sides.

If North Korea has even a marginal ability to destroy one US city with a nuclear weapon, the United States is effectively deterred from using nuclear weapons against it. (Except if the US could count on destroying every one of Kim’s nuclear-tipped missiles in a surprise first strike – but that’s why North Korea will move them around or dig them in deep.)

North Korea is and will remain totally deterred from attacking the United States, because it would be utterly destroyed in a massive American counter-strike. So the deterrence is mutual and relatively stable, barring huge technological surprises or crazy or suicidal leaders.

That is the destination the US-North Korean relationship is heading for, because it is the only one that reality permits. Kim is almost certainly seeking it quite consciously, although it’s unlikely that Trump has ever thought of it in these terms. Indeed, there is some evidence that he is not even clear on the basic concept of deterrence.

No matter. That’s what Trump is heading for, and by the time he gets there he will undoubtedly think that it was his goal all along. There will be more meetings, probably including a Kim visit to the White House, and the two countries will move, slowly and crabwise, towards the mutual deterrence that will define their future relationship.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“There’s…now”; and “He would…intention”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

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”)