Asia’s Nuclear Future

Katie Putz, editor of The Diplomat, asked me to write an article looking at potential nuclear proliferation in Asia. The Diplomat is an online magazine that focuses on foreign policy issues in Asia. If you are interested in Asia, it’s worth subscribing.

The article is the April feature: Asia’s Nuclear Future and is behind the paywall.

I tried to look at the issues from the point of view of the countries involved, rather than an Americentric approach of What It Means For Us. I included Iran, and things look a little different there when you focus on Asia.

My bottom line is that I don’t expect any new nuclear weapons nations in the near future, but the situation is very fluid.

Several states in Asia have motives to proliferate, inspired by complex regional conflict dynamics and domestic ambitions alike. North Korea tests missiles. China builds up its nuclear arsenal and patrols the South China Sea aggressively. India, Pakistan, and China contest borders. Iran ratchets up its uranium enrichment. The mix of nuclear and non-nuclear nations and the complexity of the conflicts in Asia can make nuclear weapons look attractive.

On the other hand, Asia has nuclear weapon free zones too. The Treaty of Bangkok covers Southeast Asia, and Central Asia has its own treaty against nuclear weapons.

Japan and South Korea could build nuclear weapons relatively quickly, probably within a year. Iran seems to find the threat of building nuclear weapons most useful for its negotiations. Myanmar and Taiwan look like long shots. The temptation of nuclear weapons is always there, but so are the downsides of making oneself a target and the expense and opportunity costs of a program.

Figure caption: This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is a ballistic missile in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, on March 19, 2023. North Korea says that its ballistic missile launch simulated a nuclear attack against South Korea. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Credit: Korea Central News Agency/ Korea News Service via AP and The Diplomat.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Nukeporn!

I’m going to Trinity Site today. It’s one of the two days in the year that you can visit the site of the first atomic bomb detonation. So here are some nuclear pictures and videos for your amusement.

The National Security Archive has obtained several nuclear-related videos.

A U.S. B-52 bomber flies in low over “Soviet” territory in a declassified dramatization of a U.S. nuclear strike.

Kim Jong Un showed off his nuclear arsenal – or part of it; we don’t know – last week. NK News has lots of photos.

I’ll try to get some photos at Trinity Site. They won’t be like either of these.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

That Saudi Yellowcake Plant

The New York Times has a couple of photos and links to others of sites that may be the yellowcake plant alleged to have been built recently in Saudi Arabia by China.

They are cautious about the claims.

American officials said that the Saudi efforts were still in an early stage, and that intelligence analysts had yet to draw firm conclusions about some of the sites under scrutiny. 

Read More

LALALALA Redux

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump was in the throes of a love affair with Kim Jong Un, I advanced a theory of his behavior. He wanted the photo-ops and signatures and the sense of a nuclear nonproliferation deal, but was incapable of making a deal, in his words. His incapacity lay in his ignorance about how treaties are negotiated.

At some point, my North Korea watching colleagues maintained, Trump would have to recognize that his photo-ops had no effect whatsoever. Would he freak out against the unfaithful “Little Rocket Man”? Would he admit failure? No problem, I said. His continuing response would be “LALALALA I can’t hear you.”

How would he proceed from those photo-ops, as North Korea was continued to accumulate fissile material and build weapons, even test missiles? When North Korea issued statements insulting Trump and the people working for him? When there were no talks to develop a path towards Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Complete, Verified, and Irreversible Disarmament (CVID) and variants on that theme? When North Korea explicitly said that no way would that happen?

Read More

North Korea’s Christmas Present

Back in May, I argued that Donald Trump’s tactic toward North Korea would be to pretend he didn’t hear what was happening as long as he could. I call the tactic “LALALALALA I can’t hear you” and tweet that with news that Trump is keeping it going.

It’s a dangerous tactic, and a number of my national security colleagues have been raising concerns about it. Kim Jong Un has set a deadline of the end of the year for…something. He hasn’t said exactly what, but he has been testing missiles, and his officials have been making unfriendly statements. Kim has said that he is not waiting for the end of the year and has a “Christmas present” for Trump.

Trump’s response so far: LALALALALA and a couple of “Rocket man” tweets. He continues to say that his good friend Kim would not violate the “strong deal” they agreed on in Singapore.

The Singapore statement commits neither North Korea nor the United States to any actions. At most, it might be said to be a statement of principles. And it contains the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which, to North Korea, means a vague future in which the United States leaves South Korea so that the North feels safe enough to give up its nuclear weapons. Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, use the phrase to mean that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons before they will even discuss lifting sanctions.

The phrase has historically been used in its North Korean meaning, so they have the better of that argument.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been threatening the South Korean government. In late November, he demanded that South Korea pay five times what it has been for the presence of American troops in that country. In response, South Korea threatened to end intelligence cooperation with the United States and Japan, but backed away from that threat. Although Trump has focused more on his impeachment since then, his demand for more money from South Korea is consistent with his misunderstandings of how alliances work and their benefits to the United States. If he continues to insist on that payment, he will lessen his leverage for negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea has been testing missiles throughout the year. They recently did an engine test that could be for an ICBM that could reach the United States or for a satellite launch. The test was different in a number of ways from earlier tests, but satellite photos of the site don’t contain enough information to fully diagnose it.

All these threads could dovetail in the next few weeks. The negotiations with North Korea are going nowhere, although Special Envoy Stephen Biegun has optimistically suggested he’s ready to meet. North Korea has said that that time has passed. They are getting ready for what they hope will be an impressive weapons test, more likely missile than nuclear.

A further complication has just appeared. China and Russia have drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution that proposes that the Security Council lift sanctions on North Korean exports of seafood and textiles. It also proposes lifting the ban on North Korean workers abroad and would terminate a 2017 requirement that all North Korean workers be repatriated by next week. If the resolution goes to a vote, it will put the US in a difficult position. If the US vetoes, we are the bad guys. If we allow it through, the result is worse than the offer Trump refused at Hanoi.

Trump and Pompeo have shown no sign of movement from the position that North Korea must disarm itself of its nuclear weapons before they will even talk. What Biegun has said so far does not contradict that.

How long can Trump continue with LALALALALA I can’t hear you? We may find out in the next two weeks.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Lalalalalala I Can’t Hear You

Donald Trump has long believed that he could eliminate nuclear weapons from the world. He is the greatest negotiator ever, and he doesn’t understand why those wimpy diplomats can’t just heave a hearty “Fuck You” across the conference table and walk out, which would induce the other party to come around.

The administration’s approach to foreign policy is driven by Trump’s ignorance and greed, but with an inertial component of conventional policy development by the permanent government employees who remain at lower levels, and a layering of political appointees with their own agendas, some of which dovetail with Trump’s, some of which are more or less conventional foreign policy, and some that are quite idiosyncratic. Read More

Trump Negotiates

Because Donald Trump does not provide reliable readouts of his meetings with Kim Jong Un, we must stitch together bits of information as they trickle out. There’s enough now to provide a picture of Trump’s negotiating style.

Jessica Tuchman Matthews summarizes that style in an excellent overview of the Hanoi meeting between Trump and Kim.

Shortly after the success of The Art of the Deal (1987) made Donald Trump a supposed expert on negotiation, he lobbied the George H.W. Bush administration to put him in charge of arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. The position went instead to Richard Burt, an experienced diplomat and arms control expert. When the two men met at a New York social event, Trump pulled Burt aside to tell him what he would have done—and what Burt should do—to start off the negotiations. Greet the Soviets warmly, he said. Let the delegation get seated and open their papers. Then stand up, put your knuckles on the table, lean over, say “Fuck you,” and walk out of the room.

…Trump thinks that what works is the unexpected. His goal is to put people off balance, which allows him, he believes, to get his way. This explains his otherwise baffling calls for US policy to be “unpredictable.”

After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, the United States and North Korea provided conflicting reports on the reasons for the breakdown. It appeared that one side or both asked for too much. The amount of time the two leaders spent together suggested that rejection had been rapid, with no effort at working through alternatives. Read More

The Donald Trump Worldwide Threat Assessment

This morning’s Presidential tweet storm confirmed a trend I’ve discerned recently.

I’ve had a running (good-natured) argument with other nuke nerds on Twitter about the President’s delusions with regard to North Korea. His tweets and much of the administration action and speech, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s, seem to revolve around an assumption that Kim Jong Un is ready to give up his nuclear weapons.

However, every official statement from North Korea says otherwise. Kim sees those nuclear weapons as the foundation of his country’s security from meddling by outside powers. North Korea has long used the word “denuclearization” to indicate a state in which they no longer fear attack and thus can give up their nuclear arsenal.

This disjunction is dangerous. It appears that Kim is playing Donald Trump, and Trump is responding. It may mean that Trump will give up alliances with South Korea and Japan for meaningless actions from North Korea. It may mean that at some point he will recognize the disjunction and feel that he has been betrayed by Kim and will allow John Bolton his desire for a war. Read More

Secrecy Isn’t What It Used To Be

Results of CIA investigations continue to be leaked. Concern was expressed at this norm-breaking. The norms exist for a reason, though. The CIA’s reason for existence is national security.

The President of the United States is acting in conflict with the recommendations of his national security agencies and in conflict with national security. Sending troops to the border for political effect. Sharing another nation’s highly classified intelligence with an adversary. Bragging about a plane that he believes is invisible. Failing to visit the troops in war zones. And more.

This is a conundrum for the national security agencies. The internet and the availability of information are changing their roles too.

Information once of limited availability is now on the internet. Some are free, some for sale. Overhead satellite photos, court documents, historical archives, social media that inadvertently shows significant features. Read More

Links – October 27, 2018

The Khashoggi Affair – A summary of Trump interactions with the Saudis and some good questions. Background on Turkey’s role by Graham Fuller and Aaron Stein. It’s time for the US to take a stand against the destructive bond that Donald Trump has with Saudi Arabia. Some of the things that might be done.  What Congress might do.

Why withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty is a bad idea, and a possible alternativeJohn Bolton’s role in the decision. EU statement. Interview with Richard Burt, who negotiated arms control treaties under Ronald Reagan.

Interview with Sig Hecker on recent developments with North Korea.

Mapped: The Absent Ambassadors.

Russia is coming back to Afghanistan.

How much does Russia spend on nuclear weapons?

The Bullying Swagger – from me in Pakistan Politico.

Jeffrey Lewis highlights a problem that I continue to deal with in Trump’s America: There is policy analysis, and then there is how Trump makes decisions.

This is exactly how a nuclear war would kill you. How a nuclear war might start and what it would be like.

The misunderstood roots of international order – and why they matter again.

Joachim Roenneberg has died. He led the mission to blow up Norway’s heavy water plant in 1943, when Germany occupied Norway. That heavy water could have helped the Nazis develop an atomic bomb. BBC. New York Times.