Nearly every major news outlet around the globe covered the Saturday announcement by North’s Korean Central News Agency that it will cease underground nuclear testing, halt test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nor use the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Northeast North Korea at face value.
Kim’s words have also played well in some political circles – especially the engagement-centric South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in. US President Donald Trump also seems overjoyed at the news, though a bit more skeptical.
But what exactly do those concessions so magnanimously made ahead of the Kim-Moon and Kim-Trump summits actually mean? Simply stated, there is less than meets the eye. It is important to note that the wording employed in the report was chosen by Pyongyang itself, not by any translators.
‘No testing’ does not mean ‘no bomb’
With regard to ceasing underground nuclear tests, that has been a self–imposed suspension since last September when the North evaluated its most recent – and most powerful by far – nuclear test. Pyongyang had previously announced there was no further testing needed since it had completed developing its “treasured sword.” Clearly, North Korea has “the bomb,” and not merely the “Little Boy” or “Fat Man” World War II variety.
Even though what Pyongyang last detonated is several orders of magnitude less powerful than the first hydrogen bomb detonated by the US, Kim claimed it is already compact enough to fit atop his missiles, something the US could not claim for its first hydrogen bomb. Some analysts doubt that the North’s bomb is a true, two-stage thermonuclear weapon. Even so, what the North has is at least a “boosted” atomic bomb and, with a yield thought to be perhaps as much as 150 kilotons, likely is a full-fledged hydrogen bomb.
More to the point, nothing Kim stated at North Korea’s 3rd Plenary Meeting on April 20 can be taken as a promise to denuclearize. Furthermore, since this statement was voluntarily made before the upcoming Kim-Moon and the Kim-Trump summits, it is not a negotiated point and the suspension of testing could therefore be ended at will. It is merely a freeze that could quickly thaw.
When an ICBM is not an ICBM
As for no intercontinental ballistic missile launches, understand that the statement does not include testing of short- or intermediate-range ballistic missile; this means Japan and South Korea are still vulnerable. The phrasing of the KCNA announcement that referred to missiles was “the development of super large nuclear weapon and [their] delivery means.”
By changing the definition of what a missile is intended to accomplish, the North would consider itself free to pursue other avenues of rocket motor testing – including launching a rocket that it claims is not intended to deliver weapons. After all, nothing in the KCNA article covered satellite launches.
Kim launched two satellites in 2012. One launch failed to achieve orbit; the other resulted in some non-functioning object being placed into space. Both were seen by analysts as thinly disguised tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, for much of the technology to heft an object into orbit is dual use.
One satellite was to be an “earth remote exploration satellite” gathering geospatial data across the globe – targeting intelligence, in other words. The other was to be positioned in geostationary orbit – that is, constantly over one spot above the equator, thus giving missile guidance telemetry capability across a large range of territory.
In light of Kim’s declarations that his nuclear and missile programs are complete, these satellites would represent the final step in completing a reliable world-wide delivery system for the North’s nuclear – or possibly even biochemical – weapons.
No room for more boom
Shutting down the Punggye-ri test site, another of Kim’s so-called concessions, was actually a necessity. Mount Mantap, under which all of Pyongyang’s nuclear detonations have occurred, has been over-used and is in danger of collapse. Satellite imagery shows that the mountain has suffered landslides and has visibly shifted.
Furthermore, reports late last year claimed that a tunnel there has collapsed, causing the death of up to 200 workers. Another report stated that people from the Punggye-ri area were prohibited from coming to Pyongyang due to fears of radiation sickness being spread.
Conclusion? The Punggye-ri test site had to be abandoned. The “concession” to not use Punggye-ri going forward was forced upon the North by facts of chemistry, physics and geology. What was not addressed is whether the North intends to develop another nuclear test site.
Cards played, words unsaid, promises broken
It is clear that what Kim has offered as cards to play at the upcoming summits between Kim and Moon, and then between Kim and Trump either: (1) have already been played and thus are of no value; or (2) cover only selected aspects of the concerns surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. There are so many holes in the statements, that what was not said is more important than what was.
Another great concern is what price the US will be asked to pay for whatever they eventually get out of Kim. An old adage comes to mind: “When one wants a deal badly enough, what one gets is a bad deal.” As for what concessions the US will be required to make, it is a case of caveat emptor.
Skepticism is warranted since Pyongyang has reneged on practically every agreement it has ever signed. North Korean promises are written in disappearing ink.