Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea: The Leper's Defense

It seems that North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon. At this point, until the "sniffer" planes land and their screens are analyzed, the best proof of that in the media is a shallow, magnitude 4.2 earthquake in the same region where the NoKos said they had successfully tested a bomb. The earlier report was of a magnitude 3.5 quake, equivalent to a 550 ton explosion. This could very well have been a conventional explosion designed to be perceived as a nuclear test, but the later upgrading to 4.2 magnitude suggests a weapon in the 1 kiloton range. That's a lot of conventional high explosives to fool everyone else into believing that the North Koreans have successfully detonated a nuclear bomb. The "sniffer" planes are right now patrolling the air around North Korea, trying to pick up any fragments of nuclear material that may have escaped the test site, things not found normally in nature that are definitive proof of a nuclear explosion. Until then, we have the word of the Russians that there has been successful detonation of something in the "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" class of nuclear weapons. The data so far suggests a far smaller weapon than Little Boy, which was 15kT. It's possible the North Koreans are the first to fail their intial fission bomb test, but it's also possible they're successful, and in any event it's disturbing that they want to be seen as such.

Surprising? No. This particular science experiment was first performed over 60 years ago. Given the proper parts, I could probably assemble the most primitive kind of nuclear weapon: one slug of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) slammed into another slug, making a critical mass and a few microseconds later, a nuclear detonation. I don't know enough about the analysis of nuclear test fallout to know if they'll be able to tell whether it was a plutonium bomb or a HEU device, in some ways a plutonium bomb would be worse, since that implies the ability to build an "implosion" device, which is much more sophisitcated but still a 60 year-old achievement. It's difficult to get a pure fission bomb to yield more than 40 kilotons of explosive power, a test above that level would be much, much more worrisome since it would imply a "boosted fission" or thermonuclear bomb.

If history is any guide, the delivery system for a first-generation nuclear bomb is basically, a train. It weighs a couple of tons, barely fits into the bomb bay of a WW II-era B-29, and is a cantankerous piece of hardware. In other words, this is proof of the ability to make a science project explode, but a long way from mounting one of these bad boys on a missile. Many more tests will be necessary before a nuclear weapon can be miniaturized and hardened to take the stresses of a ballistic launch and reentry.

The next logical question is, "What happens now?" Your 24-hour cable channel of choice will provide you with what is happening, but some additional background may be helpful.

The North Koreans field one of the largest armies on earth, at least numerically, but in real terms the greatest impediment to any significant change in the governance of the country is this:

Call it the 'Leper's Defense'. Nobody wants responsibility for the care and feeding of 20 million starving, indoctrinated Communist skeletons, so this would be a war no outside power is interested in winning. By making his country so impoverished and decrepit, Kim Jong-Il has successfully made his country nearly invulnerable. There is very little the North Koreans as a country do well, besides export arms and counterfeit currency. South Korea is fully aware of the difficulties that prosperous West Germany had in absorbing its Eastern bretheren, a decade's worth of economic disruption from which the united Germany has yet to fully recover. Twenty million more peasants in China would likely be a rounding error, but China doesn't want a direct border with South Korea and most likely doesn't want to be seen as the "occupiers" of North Korea, where the children are weaned on nationalism and very little food. The Japanese are the boogeymen of some North Koreans in living memory, despite sixty years of good behavior since, and while they would likely be ready to help with humanitarian aid they wouldn't likely be welcomed in any capacity. Something about their atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s makes them a poor candidate.

As far as the US provoking regime change, North Korea is lousy tank country and the South Koreans have no interest in the US starting a war and imperiling their economy. Seoul is closer to the DMZ than Dulles Airport is to the Capitol Building, and North Korean artillery can shell Seoul and its prosperous suburbs at will, possibly with chemical agents. While the North Korean nukes aren't deliverable per se, they make rather nasty things to leave behind for your enemies to overrun when you tactically retreat. The country of North Korea is very mountainous, favoring the defender and not ideal for the combined-arms (air-infantry-armor-artillery) operations at which the US excels. Even if the US wanted to invade it would take weeks to assemble the equipment and supplies for a protracted campaign. We did the amphibious invasion at Inchon once, I doubt they'll fall for that one twice.

The only option that seems reasonable at this point is a complete land-sea-air embargo of North Korea until there is regime change -- except that we're back to the Leper Defense. Who wants to "win" the care and feeding of North Korea, with goodness-knows how many stay-behind communists operating out of concealed bases? Relatively speaking, Iraq is an easier proposition, both in the conquest and in the post-conquest phase, even with the Islamic insurgency and the incredible amounts of IED-makings stored around that country. The best hope in this situation is that there is a military junta with sympathies to nominally-communist China (as opposed to the insanely Stalinist-Communist dictatorship there now) can take control, and in exchange for dismatling of the nuclear program (and weapons exports) the rest of the world can provide the aid the North Korean people so desperately need, as well as the connection to the outside world they so severly lack. Whether this can happen is beyond knowing, at this point.

The other very interested observers at this point are the Iranians, who are 5-10 years behind the North Koreans (we hope) in assembling of nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons. How the world responds to North Korea will give Iran tactical information about how to proceed with their own nuclear program. A drastic and effective world response that results in the overthrow of the North Korean government and Kim Jong-Il swinging from a lamppost is unlikely to encourage Iran to further pursue their nuclear ambitions, though deterrence is unlikely short of the US incinerating the North Koreans with nuclear weapons. That MIGHT get their attention, depending on how much stock they put in the supernatural abilities of the Twelfth Imam.

On the plus side, a couple of things are now clear. "Engagement" and the "Sunshine Policy" of the South Koreans is now shown to be bankrupt. Why the world needed further proof that you can't buy off a dictator forever is a mystery but here's the proof, yet again. The lack of utility of international bodies like the UN and IAEA when engaging a regime that doesn't respond to shame, isolation and sharply-worded communiques is also now apparent. Russia and China's responses to the North Korean test may cause them to reconsider their support for Iran's nuclear program, and it's possible that the Europeans will also realize that engagement has its limits with governments who are willing to talk while their centrifuges spin, then demand when their weapons are complete.

Interesting times.

In the near term, expect Japan to repeal Article 9 of its Constitution forbidding offensive war. Japan has a large nuclear industry and extensive rocket technology, they'll be nuclear-armed within a decade if the Kim Jong-Il regime persists. South Korea's civilian government is a relatively new thing, most of South Korea's history has been as a military dictatorship. It's unlikely that the South Korean military will tolerate anything it sees as a half-hearted response to North Korea's nuclear provocation. The sun has most likely abruptly gone down on the Sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea, and if it hasn't there is high likelihood of a military coup there. This development is unlikely, in my opinion, to result in a South Korean invasion of North Korea. South Korea is relatively rich and prosperous, and has little to gain in an invasion, though if they chose to do it I imagine the US would help.


1. UN does nothing of substance.
2. US siezes North Korean ships at sea under the Proliferation Security Initiative.
3. Barring regime change, another North Korean nuclear test within a year.
4. Outisde chance of a complete embargo until regime change.
5. The media and the DNC will declare this test the result of failed foreign policy by the Bush Administration, and Bill Clinton will say that everything was fine on his watch, and that he came closer to killing Kim Jong-Il than any President before or since.


shimmy said...


What would you say about the possibility that this administration and its allies in East Asia are concerned, but not as concerned as they are with long term China. And such a NKorean test serves them in allowing them to further militarize ostensibly for NKorea.

Darren Duvall said...

Long-term, IMO, China has tremendous domestic problems that it may choose to solve in the foreign sphere, which I guess is the main concern.

But at this point, the US Navy alone could wreck the most valuable parts of China in under an hour, sink their single and decrepit SSBN and, if done preemptively, reduce their nuclear strike capability to something the NMD system could handle. China knows this. Japan knows this. South Korea knows this. They have some road-mobile ICBMs that might be hard to track down, but that's why we have a limited NMD system. So long as our goals don't include taking and holding Chinese territory, our present military is very capable of crippling China, and China's ability to move men and materials is subject to the discretion of our nuclear submarine captains. They can't project force worth a hoot, basically.

In 20 years, China may actually be a near-peer competitor in the military sense. If it turns out that the real reason to "provoke" North Korea now is to get Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to militarize, this would be the first time the United States has seemed to think that far ahead, IMO. While I would like to believe the US is playing a deep game of chess with China in this regard, I think that gives the State Department way, way too much credit. It's hard to implement policies that outlast Presidential /terms/, much less decades.

If China wants to jack with us, they can stop buying dollar-denominated debt. If we want to jack with China, we can do it with trade and monetary policy. When subtler instruments like this are available, why use the crude tool of the military? My thought would be that anyone so interested in a long-term strategy against China would pick tools that are more subtle and less direct.

I could be having a George Smiley moment, though.

Anonymous said...

The Russians by there own admission have lost track of 100 or so suit-case weapons which would yield about the same as observed in Korea today. I heard it suggested that this could be one of those. ~DD

Darren Duvall said...

Suitcase nukes are very, very high-tech weapons. Basically, you need the very least amount of fissile material, the highest-activity neutron source, and a spectacularly well-timed detonation. There are some high-energy parts in those bombs like polonium and tritium that decay rapidly and must be replaced regularly. Polonium, for example, only has a 138-day half-life, and tritium only has a 12-year half-life. Without these neutron sources (polonium needs a beryllium tamper around it to make neutrons), you don't get a real bang.

Basically, without regular maintenence a backpack nuke is a midly radioactive paperweight. That North Korea managed to rehabilitate one would not be overly surprising, but that they would test one first would be VERY surprising.

In likelihood, I would rank the possible explanations in this order:

1. Fizzled implosion bomb.
2. HE-only test.
3. Successful small-yield test for a boosted-fission device, without thermonuclear component.
4. Backpack nuke test.

SWAG, of course. :D

Anonymous said...

Your didn't meantion China at all in your prior predictions. It will be interesting to watch their part in all this.

Darren Duvall said...

I didn't mention China in part because I don't know enough about the domestic political considerations to make a guess about where they see the risk-benefit ration falling.

The question comes down to whether the US has the means, and more importantly the willingness, to "make" China do something like close the border with North Korea. Even if that's the official policy, you're depending on the the faith and credit of local party bosses to manage the border sealing, and communism and corruption share more than just the same two first letters. What it would take is PLA units known to be loyal positioned on the border to make an embargo stick.

The unknown possibility is the cabal of officers who see China's way forward in the last 20 years as better for North Korea than the isolation and deprivation of the last 50 years in North Korea. Whether those people exist is the question. China will not be encouraged by Japan going nuclear, but there are enough economic ties between the countries that Japan may be able to influence China without resorting to becoming a nuclear power. North Korea is trying to apply pressure to the Japan-China-South Korea axis, by manipulating the horrific memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- a pretty sadistic move, IMO.

The best response is an unblinking stare and refusal to comply with the upcoming series of North Korean demands. Passive-aggression is occasionally a useful tool, if you can back it up with aggressive aggression when the other party lashes out.

As this is a dress rehearsal for Iran's nuclear coming out party, it's rather important to get this one right, right now.

Troy M. Stirman said...

Excellent post and thought- provoking analyses all the way around. Thoughts on your predictions...
Prediction #1:
This will ALWAYS be the case!

Prediction #4:
The US has used this tool numerous times, it's past time to utilize it again.

Prediction #5:
Too true- and it's already starting. Clinton would rather grope/fondle/kiss than eliminate
political threats. None of his "wag the dog" antics has ever eliminated a real threat. But he makes lots of noise- which he and cohorts continue to do.

As for suitcase nukes- I'm not completely satisfied that these are mass-destruction capable. The size limitation for enough reactive material and the triggering mechanisms in place seem to eliminate most fabrication solutions and even if possible, most humans would not be able to properly carry such a thing for any distance due to the bulk/weight. However, if we are talking about a device that is capable of delivering a toxic agent (radioactive dirty bomb, or chemical agents such as ricin, anthrax, and purified small pox,) then these certainly fit the bill for 'mass destruction' and would do great harm. This is one reason why the general media seized on the "no weapons of mass destruction" mantra in Iraq. They believed the definition of that phrase was limited to nuclear only. Not true- chemical labs- mobile and stationary, were found and eliminated almost from week #1 of the Iraq invasion. These labs were proven to produce agents that were "missile-ready", and Saddam had missiles clearly aimed at neighboring countries for just such an opportunity to try them out!

Darren Duvall said...

Suitcase nukes are real, but they're pretty rare. The US had one called the W54, with another version of the same physics package (don't it sound cool when you call it that?) called the SADM, or Special Applications Demolition Munition. They were man-portable, the SADM weighed 57lbs all-up. Not a bad weight-to-blast ratio, considering that the W54 was tested to a yield of 18 tons of HE. By comparison, the Oklahoma City ANFO bomb was reported as 1-2 tons of HE. When you add in the radiation effects of having 4kg or so of plutonium and fission products scattered around, that's a rather nasty device.

Troy M. Stirman said...

You've obviously done your homework- it's pretty scary to contemplate a package that 'small' with that much power- yikes!

Keep that pen handy, my friend. You do it justice!


Anonymous said...

A ready point that China would not like to see a nuclear Japan which wouldn't be huge leap for them. But you also have to consider that they have more to lose by a decisive smack down of NKorea than the US. Millions of starving refugees along their northern border, a US and SKorean presence in NKorea... I think China knows the guy has got to go, but a much slower transition. Not sure which is more important, keeping the buffer, or keeping the NKoreans in NKorea. ~D