Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

Homer rides the bomb

There’s been so much interesting communication surrounding North Korea’s possible H-bomb test that I decided to save it all up and cover it in one long, rambling, semi-coherent post.

You’re welcome.

Firstly, was it an H-bomb? Probably, strictly speaking, not. It should have been far bigger if it really was an H-bomb, whereas in fact, this test appears to have been slightly smaller than the previous one. There’s a good reason that most countries prefer to test their H-bombs at sea.

According to analysts, this was not the only WMD-related bit of trickery on display either. It seems that recent videos of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches may have been strategically edited to make them look more impressive than was, in fact, the case.

In short order, the 24-hour rolling Chinese whispers media turned this into North Korea “faking video footage” and then into “North Korea ‘Hydrogen bomb’ test was FAKED using footage of old Scud missile launch, experts claim“.

Meh. These are journalists writing to a deadline. You can’t reasonably expect them to understand that a nuclear bomb is a different thing from a missile (crash course: the latter can potentially be used to transport the former), and that North Korea tested both in quick succession.

However, while we’re on the subject of maximising the intimidation factor of possibly underwhelming weapons, this is worth listening to. Some guy has converted the seismic signatures of the North Korean nuclear tests into sound files, and they’re incredibly eerie to listen to. If you need reminding why this should scare the hell out of us, have a listen.

But why did North Korea choose to test its bomb now? Well, anti-regime news outlet, the Daily NK, reckons it was to give Kim Jong Un a legitimacy boost ahead of the forthcoming WPK Party Congress, and various other writers – plus Russiahave pointed out that North Korea really has very little to lose by continuing nuclear tests, what with no other country being prepared to go upside Kim’s head with anything more than token sanctions (we’ve covered the symbolic vocabulary of international sanctions here before). However, it seems to be Andrei Lankov who has really nailed it.

Not only does he point out that any from-scratch nuclear programme requires much testing as a matter of course, (any idiot can build a bomb – here you go – building a better bomb, however, requires huge amounts of test data), but he notes:

The diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.

Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.

However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.

Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.

Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.

The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.


(We’ve also covered the fact that North Korea’s various state organs increasingly seem to be working at cross-purposes, and speculated on the possibility of an autocracy without an autocrat before.)

This certainly seems consistent with North Korea’s post-test diplomacy, which has focused on the argument that the nuclear programme is a necessary defence against US threats. In one of his increasingly frequent interviews, Ambassador to London Hyon Hak Bong pointed out relatively mildly that “We develop nuclear weapons not to threaten the world with war but to protect our independence. We want peace, but our nation has been victimised for centuries by one invader and then another.”

Meanwhile, in an oddly touching follow-your-dreams piece in the Pyongyang Times, a local university student wrote about how the nuclear programme can be understood as a victory for juche (“self-development”).

In a rather more forthright declaration, KCNA announced that “strategic patience” had been “completely defeated” and cited Iraq and Libya as examples of the fate that awaits nations that don’t have a nuclear deterrent. And, well, the least you can say is that they’re not actually wrong…

Interestingly, China seemed to back this argument up via a Xinhua thinkpiece, which was more or less equally pissy with both sides, criticizing the US and the DPRK in roughly equal proportions.

South Korea, for its part, returned to a tried and tested riposte: blasting K-pop across the DMZ at ear-shattering volumes, this having been proven to drive the North Korean leadership into a steaming rage. This time around the hits include Apink’s “Just Let Us Love” and G-Friend’s “Me Gustas Tu”, which is rather sweet. North Korea responded by air-dropping flyers calling President Park a bitch.

The US response, by contrast, veered half-heartedly in several different directions before settling into pffft-let-the-next-guy-deal-with-it indifference.

The initial response, tweeted in the immediate aftermath is quite impressively disinterested:

Which is moderately interesting in itself. We’ve apparently reached a point at which the appropriate response to an H-bomb is ennui. Say what you like about modern civilisation, but we’ve come a long way since the 60s.

As one Twitter user commented:

With time it became apparent that something more was needed. The aforementioned additional sanctions were rolled out, to the eternal Soviet cynicism of Lankov:

In the next few weeks we will see a repeat of the same cycle we have seen so many times over the past 10 years.

The UN security council will have an urgent meeting that will introduce sanctions targeting North Korea. Such sanctions will allow politicians to explain to their voters that they are punishing a rogue regime in all ways imaginable – for instance, depriving the leadership of Hennessey cognac and Godiva chocolate. Credulous voters will agree and feel placated, but in actuality, such measures will make little if any difference.

Even if sanctions were to inflict damage on the North Korean economy – which has exceptionally low dependence on foreign trade – the only victims will be common North Koreans, who will just suffer more.

Of course, the top leadership might lose access to champagne, but in their eyes, this is a small price to pay for escaping the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.


Also, one of the Guam-based B52s was given a bit of an airing, though Van Jackson pointed out that this gesture could well end up being misinterpreted:

What’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.

But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.

One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”

Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:

“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”

Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.

Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.

But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability.


This was swiftly followed by a new OPLAN stating that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the US will strike North Korean nuclear and missile bases.

US RoK oplan

Also, a plan for a joint US-RoK exercise simulating a nuclear attack on the North.

Unfortunately, all this good work was immediately undone when President Obama omitted to mention the nuclear test in his State of the Union Address. According to the White House this was to avoid giving North Korea “attention” (It being well-known that North Korea disappears if you don’t look directly at it. Always use a pinhole camera or special goggles.)

Naturally, this being Obama’s last SOTU, he wanted to end on a high note and not bring downer subjects like North Korea into the equation. The South Koreans did not see it that way, however, with the Chosun Ilbo producing a we’re-not-angry-just-disappointed op-ed entitled “Obama Speech Shows He Cares Little About N.Korea”.

Almost immediately, several opinion pieces came out hinting more or less openly that South Korea should acquire a deterrent of its own, despite this idea being so taboo that the Daily NK felt obliged to preface its own article with a trigger warning.

In the end, however, the South Korean government settled for dropping some pretty heavy hints about deploying the US-made THAAD missile defence system on its territory, an idea that China hates enough that the threat alone was apparently enough to convince it to throw its support behind additional UN sanctions.


One thought on “Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

  1. Pingback: Trouble | hardmoshi ~

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