Merkel offers German role in Iran-style nuclear talks with North Korea

Reuters reports: German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a newspaper she would be prepared to become involved in a diplomatic initiative to end the North Korean nuclear and missiles program, and suggested the Iran nuclear talks could be a model.

South Korea on Saturday braced for a possible further missile test by North Korea as it marked its founding anniversary, just days after its sixth and largest nuclear test rattled global financial markets and further escalated tensions in the region.

“If our participation in talks is desired, I will immediately say yes,” Merkel told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in an interview to be published on Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Trump review leans toward proposing mini-nuke

Politico reports: The Trump administration is considering proposing smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons that would cause less damage than traditional thermonuclear bombs — a move that would give military commanders more options but could also make the use of atomic arms more likely.

A high-level panel created by President Donald Trump to evaluate the nuclear arsenal is reviewing various options for adding a more modern “low-yield” bomb, according to sources involved in the review, to further deter Russia, North Korea or other potential nuclear adversaries.

Approval of such weapons — whether designed to be delivered by missile, aircraft or special forces — would mark a major reversal from the Obama administration, which sought to limit reliance on nuclear arms and prohibited any new weapons or military capabilities. And critics say it would only make the actual use of atomic arms more likely.

“This capability is very warranted,” said one government official familiar with the deliberations who was not authorized to speak publicly about the yearlong Nuclear Posture Review, which Trump established by executive order his first week in office.

“The [nuclear review] has to credibly ask the military what they need to deter enemies,” added another official who supports such a proposal, particularly to confront Russia, which has raised the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in its battle plans in recent years, including as a first-strike weapon. “Are [current weapons] going to be useful in all the scenarios we see?”

The idea of introducing a smaller-scale warhead to serve a more limited purpose than an all-out nuclear Armageddon is not new — and the U.S. government still retains some Cold War-era weapons that fit the category, including several that that can be “dialed down” to a smaller blast.

Yet new support for adding a more modern version is likely to set off a fierce debate in Congress, which would ultimately have to fund it, and raises questions about whether it would require a resumption of explosive nuclear tests after a 25-year moratorium and how other nuclear powers might respond. The Senate is expected to debate the issue of new nuclear options next week when it takes up the National Defense Authorization Act. [Continue reading…]

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The risk of nuclear war with North Korea

Evan Osnos writes: The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, so there is no embassy in Washington, but for years the two countries have relied on the “New York channel,” an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to handle the unavoidable parts of our nonexistent relationship. The office has, among other things, negotiated the release of prisoners and held informal talks about nuclear tensions. In April, I contacted the New York channel and requested permission to visit Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The New York channel consists mostly of two genial middle-aged men: Pak Song Il, a husky diplomat with a gray brush cut; and his aide-de-camp, Kwon Jong Gun, who is younger and thinner. They go everywhere together. (The North Korean government has diplomats work in pairs, to prevent them from defecting, or being recruited as spies.) Under U.S. law, they can travel only twenty-five miles from Columbus Circle. Pak and Kwon met me near their office, for lunch at the Palm Too. They cautioned me that it might take several months to arrange a trip. North Korea periodically admits large groups of American journalists, to witness parades and special occasions, but it is more hesitant when it comes to individual reporters, who require close monitoring and want to talk about the nuclear program.

Americans are accustomed to eruptions of hostility with North Korea, but in the past six months the enmity has reached a level rarely seen since the end of the Korean War, in 1953. The crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides. In the six years since Kim Jong Un assumed power, at the age of twenty-seven, he has tested eighty-four missiles—more than double the number that his father and grandfather tested. Just before Donald Trump took office, in January, he expressed a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea, a prospect that previous Presidents dismissed because it would risk an enormous loss of life. Trump has said that in his one meeting with Barack Obama, during the transition, Obama predicted that North Korea, more than any other foreign-policy challenge, would test Trump. In private, Trump has told aides, “I will be judged by how I handle this.” [Continue reading…]

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A nuclear North Korea is here to stay

Doug Bandow writes: North Korea staged its sixth nuclear test. It was probably a boosted atomic rather than hydrogen bomb, as claimed by Pyongyang, and there’s no evidence that the weapon has been miniaturized to fit on a missile. But the test was the North’s most powerful yet. And it follows steady North Korean progress in missile development.

Despite matching Kim Jong-un bluster for bluster, President Donald Trump is doing no better than his cerebral predecessor in halting Pyongyang’s military developments. President George W. Bush had no more success, first targeting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a member of the infamous “axis of evil,” before flip-flopping to negotiate with the current ruler’s father. At least Bill Clinton achieved a temporary freeze of the DPRK’s plutonium program with the Agreed Framework, which ultimately was undermined by both sides.

Despite its relative poverty and isolation, North Korea has confounded the experts and made surprising advances in both nuclear and missile technology. While all projections are conjecture, Pyongyang may become a medium nuclear power with an effective deterrent against the United States.

That doesn’t mean Kim Jong-un intends to wage war on America. Rather, he hopes to prevent Washington from attacking the DPRK. It’s an important distinction. Kim may be evil but, like his father and grandfather, there is no evidence that he is suicidal. They all appeared to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next. Indeed, Kim may hope to extend the dynasty: his wife is thought to have given birth to their third child earlier this year.

Unfortunately, negotiated denuclearization is dead. North Korea has invested too much and is too close to creating a nuclear deterrent. For the nationalistic, isolated and fearful—even paranoid—regime to stop now would be unthinkable. [Continue reading…]

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China agrees UN action, and talk, needed to end North Korea crisis

Reuters reports: China agreed on Thursday that the United Nations should take more action against North Korea after its latest nuclear test, while also pushing for dialogue to help resolve the standoff.

North Korea, which is pursuing its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of international condemnation, said it would respond to any new U.N. sanctions and U.S. pressure with “powerful counter measures”, accusing the United States of aiming for war.

The United States wants the U.N. Security Council to impose an oil embargo on North Korea, ban its exports of textiles and the hiring of North Korean labourers abroad, and to subject leader Kim Jong Un to an asset freeze and travel ban, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t panic about North Korea

Fred Kaplan writes: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is doing a lot of reckless things these days, but he poses no threat to the United States—or at least no sort of threat that we can’t readily handle. If he deploys a nuclear-tipped missile with the range to strike U.S. territory (as he’ll likely be able to do soon), that will complicate national security policy but in a completely manageable way. It won’t mean that he’s about to attack some American city—or that we need to attack North Korea pre-emptively.

In short, it’s time to pipe down about North Korea—not because Kim is benign or powerless (he’s neither), but because the hysteria coming out of Washington these days is overwrought and is making things worse.

There are two reasons not to be so nervous about North Korea’s recent tests of missiles and nuclear explosives. First, nuclear deterrence—the theory that Country X won’t fire nukes at Country Y if Country Y has nukes it can fire back—works. In the annals of international relations, there are fewer theories that have a better track record than this one. Second, we have thousands of nuclear weapons—stationed worldwide, on land, at sea, and in the air—and there’s no way Kim could launch an attack on us without facing an annihilating retaliatory blow. [Continue reading…]

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Wars often result from bellicose rhetoric and bad information

David Ignatius writes: When today’s historians look at the confrontation between the United States and North Korea, they’re likely to hear echoes of ultimatums, bluffs and botched messages that accompanied conflicts of the past, often with catastrophic consequences.

“The one thing that’s certain when you choose war as a policy is that you don’t know how it will end,” says Mark Stoler, a diplomatic and military historian at the University of Vermont. This fog of uncertainty should be a caution for policymakers now in dealing with North Korea.

History teaches that wars often result from bellicose rhetoric and bad information. Sometimes leaders fail to act strongly enough to deter aggression, as at Munich in 1938. But more often, as in August 1914, conflict results from a cascade of errors that produces an outcome that no one would have wanted.

World War I is probably the clearest example of how miscalculation can produce a global disaster. As Stoler recounted to me in an interview, each player was caught in “the cult of the offensive,” believing that his nation’s aims could be fulfilled in a short war, at relatively low cost. [Continue reading…]

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For Kim Jong Un, nuclear weapons are a security blanket he wants to keep

Anna Fifield reports: North Korea has taken to the streets and to the propaganda sheets this week to celebrate its latest nuclear test, the huge explosion of what it says was a hydrogen bomb that can be attached to a missile.

With that test, and the recent demonstrations of great leaps in its missile technology, North Korea either now has a deliverable nuclear arsenal or is on the brink of having one. It is no longer a matter of if.

The few lingering questions about the country’s capability may be answered as soon as this weekend. South Korea’s intelligence service reported Tuesday that it had seen signs of preparations to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile that can theoretically reach well into the continental United States.

If history is anything to go by, the timing seems right. North Korea likes to stage provocations on significant dates, and on Saturday the regime celebrates its foundation as a state. On Sept. 9 last year, it marked the occasion with a nuclear test.

But amid the many questions about North Korea’s nuclear program, one is often overlooked: Why? Why is Kim Jong Un so hellbent on joining the nuclear club?

The regime answered that question in its own way Tuesday when its state media reported how regular people and mid-level bureaucrats felt about the nuclear test.

“It is the best way to respond with powerful nuclear deterrent to the U.S. imperialists who are violent toward the weak and subservient to the strong,” Kim Chang Sok, a department director of the Ministry of Coal Industry, was quoted as saying, in words that sounded suspiciously like they came straight from the propaganda machine.

North Korea as a state was formed at the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States drew a line across the peninsula as a “temporary measure.”

But it was solidified during the Korean War, a brutal conflict in which the U.S. Air Force leveled the North, to the extent that American generals complained there was nothing left to bomb.

Ever since, North Korea has existed in a state of insecurity, with the totalitarian regime telling the population that the United States is out to destroy them — again. [Continue reading…]

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How North Korea’s nuclear tests could get even more terrifying

NPR reports: At 2:17 p.m. on May 6, 1962, a nuclear-tipped missile shot out of the waters of the Pacific Ocean and quickly disappeared into the sky. Roughly 12 minutes later and over 1,000 miles to the southwest, it detonated in a blinding flash — creating a mushroom cloud over an empty stretch of water.

The test was of a submarine-launched Polaris A-2 missile. It was code-named “Frigate Bird,” and it was America’s first, and only, end-to-end test of a nuclear missile.

Thus far, North Korea has tested its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles separately. The nukes have detonated in deep underground chambers, while the missiles have flown on “fly-ball” trajectories that take them high into space while limiting their range.

But in the wake of the North’s most recent underground test, and with rumors of another ballistic missile test coming soon, some experts now fear that a Frigate Bird-type test may be coming.

“That would be the ultimate way for North Korea to prove its capabilities,” says James Acton, a physicist and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I very, very much hope we don’t go there.” [Continue reading…]

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Why didn’t the U.S. shoot down North Korea’s missile? Maybe it couldn’t

Joshua Pollack writes: Perhaps no aspect of national defence is as poorly understood as ballistic missile defence. After North Korea’s shot over Japan last week with an intermediate-range ballistic missile, many people wanted to know why it wasn’t shot down. The answers may be disappointing – but hopefully they will also be enlightening.

Focus on missile defence capabilities will only increase after Pyongyang’s claims on Sunday that it had tested a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded on to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The first and most fundamental issue to understand is that developing and operating ballistic missile defence, or BMD, is an extremely challenging undertaking. Some are better than others, but the resulting systems are inherently limited in their capabilities and roles.

Perhaps the most attractive sort of defences simply do not exist today, and quite probably never will. So-called boost-phase systems are designed to stop ballistic missiles early in flight, while their engines are still firing and they are ascending into the upper atmosphere and beyond. At times, the US has contemplated a global network of boost-phase interceptors that would whirl around the planet in low-Earth orbit, but the complexity and the economics of the idea are forbidding. [Continue reading…]

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Bad news, world: China can’t solve the North Korea problem

Max Fisher writes: If China complied with every American request to cut trade, it could devastate North Korea’s economy, which especially relies on Chinese fossil fuels.

But repeated studies have found that sanctions, while effective at forcing small policy changes, cannot persuade a government to sign its own death warrant. North Korea sees its weapons as essential to its survival, and tests as necessary to fine-tune them.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs an East Asia program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, called notions that China could impose costs exceeding the benefit North Korea draws from its weapons “sad and desperate.”

Imagine, Mr. Lewis said, that you are Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and China turned against you, joining your enemies in pressuring you to disarm.

“The last thing you would do in that situation is give up your independent nuclear capability,” he said. “The one thing you hold that they have no control over. You would never give that up in that situation.”

When sanctions aim at forcing internal political change, they often backfire, hardening their targets in place.

In the 1960s, the United States imposed a total embargo on its neighbor and onetime ally, Cuba. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, ruled for half a century, even surviving the loss of Soviet support.

When Americans rage at Beijing for failing to toughen sanctions, Mr. Lewis said, “The Chinese response is, ‘Because they’re not going to work.’ And the data is on their side.” [Continue reading…]

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A third war in sixteen years?

Michael Krepon writes: Donald Trump spirals downward. He has no other place to go. Due to circumstances comprehensible only in retrospect, he became president. The corners he has cut and the deals he has struck will be his undoing. He is temperamentally unsuited to be president and to have sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. In due course, he will be ushered out, the victimizer posing as ultimate victim. Bipartisan sighs of relief will accompany his departure. He will rally what remains of his base, until they, too, will eventually move on, disinterested in whatever shiny object he tries to sell.

The first order of business for American citizens during the Trump presidency is to do everything in our collective power to limit the damage he can do. Since the most harm could result from a preventive war to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons, this aspect of damage limitation must have the highest priority.

Kim Jong Un is doing his part to prompt another preventive war. As provocations go, overflying Japan with a ballistic missile and carrying out another nuclear test are almost, but not yet, chart-toppers. These actions warrant even greater economic penalties, especially from China and Russia, as well as other clarifications of the folly of this young Maximum Leader’s current course. Tit-for-tat military rejoinders to his provocations also merit consideration — but only if they do not prompt conventional warfare and the use of nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Are conservatives more worried about the streetlights going out in Peoria than the destruction of Los Angeles?

Following the latest threats from Pyongyang, Jeffrey Lewis wrote:

The North Koreans also went out of their way to taunt us about electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, I suppose because they think we’re worried about them. I think its laughable to imagine that North Korea would waste a nuclear weapon hoping to knock down parts of the power grid. For my part, I would much prefer the North Koreans waste nuclear weapons trying to achieve an uncertain EMP effect than incinerating cities with real people pushing strollers with real babies. KCNA is really stepping up its trolling game.

This trolling game is, however, clearly working: “Millions of American lives could be at stake as North Korea threatens to attack power grid,” warns Fox News.

The Sun reports: “Homeleand security expert Peter Pry has warned Pyongyang could put a nuclear weapon on a satellite that could be detonated on command over the States.”

What’s strange about these warnings about the dangers of an EMP attack is that they are coming just as North Korea has tested a weapon almost ten times as powerful as the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima — in other words, a weapon whose devastating effects should hardly be a matter of conjecture.

Frank Gafney may provide the answer as to why the EMP fears are getting amplified to such a degree:

The imperative of protecting the nation’s bulk-power distribution system, better known as “the grid,” must now take precedence over other improvements. The U.S. military has known for decades how to “harden” electrical and electronic gear from EMP. These techniques must now be applied on an emergency basis to ensure that the civilian grid – upon which both our armed forces and our population and economy critically depend – is made as invulnerable as possible to enemy action.

Translation for Trumpsters: Not only do we need a border wall; we now also need a space wall — and thus a massive increase in defense spending.

All warnings about EMP refer back to a 1962 nuclear test that involved a bomb ten times as powerful as the one just tested:

When the U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific in 1962, it resulted in lights burning out in Honolulu, nearly 1,000 miles from the test site. Naturally occurring electromagnetic events on the sun can also disrupt power systems. A 1989 blackout in Quebec came days after powerful explosions on the sun expelled a cloud of charged particles that struck earth’s magnetic field.

Skeptics generally acknowledge that an EMP attack would be possible in theory, but they say the danger is exaggerated because it would be difficult for an enemy such as North Korea to calibrate the attack to deliver maximum damage to the U.S. electrical grid. If a North Korean bomb exploded away from its target location, it might knock out only a few devices or parts of the grid.

The 1962 U.S. nuclear test, which involved a bomb with a force of 1.4 megatons, didn’t disrupt telephone or radio service in Hawaii, although those who stress the threat say today’s electronic devices are much more vulnerable. North Korea said its hydrogen bomb had explosive power of tens of kilotons to hundreds of kilotons.

Others say that even if North Korea had the technical capability to deliver a damaging electromagnetic pulse, it wouldn’t make strategic sense to use it because Pyongyang could wreak more destruction with a traditional nuclear attack directed at a large city.

A rogue state would prefer a “spectacular and direct ground burst in preference to a unreliable and uncertain EMP strike. A weapon of mass destruction is preferable to a weapon of mass disruption,” wrote physicist Yousaf M. Butt in a 2010 analysis.

Just to be clear again: those experts who downplay the EMP threat are in no sense understating the nuclear threat.

“It is beyond me why we think an enemy would waste a perfectly good nuclear weapon to experiment with a hypothetical EMP when they could destroy an actual city,” arms control expert Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told The National Interest.

“EMP is a loony idea. Once an enemy uses a nuclear weapon—for any reason—it crosses the nuclear threshold and invites a nuclear response. U.S. military commanders would not say ‘Well, it was only an airburst. We should just respond in kind.’ They would answer with an overwhelming, devastating nuclear counter attack. And our nuclear weapons and command and control are designed to operate in a nuclear war environment, not just some puny EMP blast.”

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Cold War lessons in coercive diplomacy for dealing with North Korea today

Michael McFaul writes: Unfortunately, like many national security debates these days, our national discussion about how to address the growing North Korean threat has quickly become polarized between two extreme positions. In one corner, President Trump has threatened a preemptive military strike in response (I’m paraphrasing his remarks into more analytic terms) to new threats from the North Korean regime. In reaction, Trump opponents have advocated the exact opposite — talks with Kim Jong-un. Both of these options are insufficient. In fact, threatening nuclear war or proposing talks are only partial strategies at best, slogans at worst, for dealing with one of our most pressing national security challenges. What we need instead is first a clearly defined objective, then second a smart mix of both diplomacy and pressure — coercive diplomacy — to achieve that national security goal.

Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.

All effective national security policies must start with defining the objectives before pivoting to discussions about how to achieve them. Right now, our objectives regarding North Korea are ill-defined and many. Some, including Trump administration officials, argue for denuclearization. Others seek regime change and reunification. Diminishing the North Korean nuclear program through limited military strikes is a third objective proffered. A fourth camp advocates the removal of Kim Jong-un, or decapitation of the regime. A fifth group advocates a more modest goal — the resumption of talks with the North Korean government. The Trump administration itself sends conflicting messages about its objectives.

All of these must be set aside for now. While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal. The North Korean leader rationally believes that possession of nuclear weapons helps to deter threats to his regime, including first and foremost from the United States. No amount of coercion or diplomacy will ever convince him otherwise. Foreign induced regime change or leader decapitation also is not a realistic goal. Tragically, the North Korean dictatorship has demonstrated real resilience in the face of famine, sanctions and international isolation. American efforts to strengthen internal opposition have not produced pressure on the regime. Assassination or decapitation, even if it could be done (and I am skeptical) would not compel the next North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the effect would be the exact opposite. And nothing more will rally North Koreans to defend their government than such an action. Nor should resumption of talks be the goal of our efforts. Talks are the means to achieve other objectives, not the objective in and of itself.

Instead, our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Early arms control during the Cold War (SALT) slowed the acceleration of nuclear weapons acquisition, creating the predicate for eventual weapons reduction in later negotiations (START). The same sequence must be embraced now with North Korea. The objective of freezing North Korean nuclear and missile programs would enhance American national security as well as the security of allies. This objective is also obtainable. [Continue reading…]

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What to do about North Korea?

 

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Kim Jong Un’s destructive power has grown in tandem with the rest of the world’s powers of denial

Jeffrey Lewis writes: The North Koreans are boasting [about having built a two-stage thermonuclear weapon], but I see no particular reason to doubt them. The resulting explosion was large enough to be a thermonuclear weapon and, as I have written elsewhere, six nuclear tests is plenty to develop such a device. Still, it would be nice to have some official confirmation. Let’s hope U.S. sniffer aircraft get a great big whiff of Kim Jong Un’s barking spiders and can tell us precisely what he had dinner.

I am seeing a lot of people saying: so what? A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. What does it matter?

Well, obviously a larger nuclear weapon does more damage. Go ahead and check out Alex Wellerstein’s Nuke Map. Drop a 30 kiloton bomb on Trump Tower, then drop a 300 kiloton bomb there. Larger yields help compensate for less accurate missiles. If your goal is to consume Manhattan in a cleansing thermonuclear firestorm with missiles that have accuracies on the order of a kilometer or so, a couple hundred kilotons is going to be a lot more credible of a threat.

The North Koreans also went out of their way to taunt us about electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, I suppose because they think we’re worried about them. I think its laughable to imagine that North Korea would waste a nuclear weapon hoping to knock down parts of the power grid. For my part, I would much prefer the North Koreans waste nuclear weapons trying to achieve an uncertain EMP effect than incinerating cities with real people pushing strollers with real babies. KCNA is really stepping up its trolling game.

But there is also a deeper meaning here, a theme that I keep returning to over and over again. We have struggled, over and over again, to accept North Korea’s stated goal of possessing a thermonuclear weapon that can be delivered against targets in the United States. The North Koreans spent all summer talking about how its new missiles were designed to carry a “large sized heavy nuclear weapon.” But when I told people that meant a thermonuclear weapon, a lot of them laughed. We’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that wars are things that happen in other places — that we can “take out” tinpot dictators with little or no risk to ourselves. The idea that the North Koreans could retaliate, that they could threaten us here in the United States, is something that U.S. officials have openly described as “unimaginable.”

The thing is, you don’t have to imagine it, at least not any more. [Continue reading…]

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South Korea’s defense minister suggests return of tactical U.S. nuclear weapons

The Washington Post reports: South Korea’s defense minister on Monday said it was worth reviewing the redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula to guard against the North, a step that analysts warn would sharply increase the risk of an accidental conflict.

But in New York, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “begging for war.”

And even as concern over Korea deepened following North Korea’s huge nuclear test Sunday, South Korea’s defense ministry said Monday that Pyongyang might be preparing to launch another missile into the Pacific Ocean, perhaps an intercontinental ballistic missile theoretically capable of reaching the mainland United States.

President Trump and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, spoke on the phone for 40 minutes Monday night, Korean time — some 34 hours after the nuclear test and more than 24 hours after Trump took to Twitter to criticize Moon’s “talk of appeasement.”

The two agreed to remove the limit on allowed payloads for South Korean missiles — something Seoul had been pushing for — as a way to increase deterrence against North Korea, according to a read-out of the phone call from South Korea’s Blue House.

They also agreed to work together to punish North Korea for Sunday’s nuclear test, including by pushing for tougher sanctions through the United Nations.

In a later phone call, Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to the same conclusion, Reuters reported. [Continue reading…]

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Did North Korea test a thermonuclear bomb?

Ankit Panda reports: Hours after the test, North Korea’s Korean Central State Television (KCTV) broadcast a statement claiming that the device tested was a two-stage, thermonuclear bomb designed for use with North Korea’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, which was first tested earlier this summer, on July 4.

The claim and test followed a release in North Korean state media of images showing Kim Jong-un inspecting a never-before-seen compact nuclear device that resembled a two-stage Teller-Ulam design thermonuclear bomb, with two slight protrusions suggesting a primary fission stage and secondary fusion stage. The design of the device was markedly different from a design that North Korea first revealed in February 2016.

North Korea claimed that its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in 2016 also involved a thermonuclear device — or hydrogen bomb — but most experts doubted that it had tested a fully staged device. Instead, North Korea’s 2016 devices were widely thought to be a boosted fission device. Independent analysis of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has noted the production of materials, including Lithium-6, which could be used in a thermonuclear bomb.

North Korea’s claim would suggest that it tested the specific device seen in the images released on September 3. Verification of the kind of device North Korea tested — specifically, whether it was a fully staged thermonuclear bomb — would require the collection of radionuclides released by the detonation into the atmosphere. That would require the underground nuclear test to have “vented”; North Korea has been remarkably successful at restricting venting for its tests to date.

Eight minutes after the detonation on Sunday, however, both USGS and CEA reported a secondary seismic event that was reported to be a cavity collapse at the test site. USGS reported a magnitude of a 4.1 for that event while CEA ran an earlier report that was then retracted suggesting a 4.6 magnitude event.

A collapse at the site following what may have been a considerably larger bomb may not have been unexpected, but, depending on the geology of the site, the incident could have allowed for unintended venting at the test site. (A collapse may be verifiable by independent analysts via satellite imagery.) Given North Korea’s success with venting prevention during previous tests, however, even a partial collapse may not allow for sufficient atmospheric release of the kinds of signatures that would be necessary to verify Pyongyang’s claims about its weapon design. [Continue reading…]

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Trump must stop lashing out at allies if he wants to rein in North Korea

Time reports: Following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sunday morning, which triggered a 5.7 magnitude tremor that shook buildings as far away as northeastern China, the world rounded on the pariah state with unified opprobrium.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the test “absolutely unacceptable,” while China’s Foreign Ministry “strongly condemned” it. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced Kim Jong Un’s “cruel and evil dictatorship.” Russia urged “all interested parties to immediately return to dialogue and negotiations as the only possible way for an overall settlement of the problems of the Korean peninsula.”

Donald Trump also joined the chorus, tweeting that North Korea’s “words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.” But then the U.S. President immediately turned on Washington’s closest regional ally, not to mention the frontline state in any possible conflict: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” he tweeted.

Trump’s outburst is hard to read given that South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday agreed to ramp up hosting of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile batteries following North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches. After Sunday’s estimated 120 kiloton nuclear test, which the regime claimed was a missile-ready hydrogen bomb, that deployment is poised to be ratified domestically. Although Moon was indeed elected in May upon promises to put THAAD under review, and urging dialogue with the North, Trump’s charge of appeasement is hard to justify. As such, the tweet was another of Trump’s capricious utterances on social media that put allies as well as enemies on edge.

“You’ve got this massive crisis and the President of the United States is basically undermining the alliance,” says Prof. Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. “It’s appalling. Rather that standing in solidarity with Moon Jae-in he’s badmouthing him.” [Continue reading…]

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