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Posted July 20, 2019

Byron King

By Byron King

The North Korea Story Nobody's Telling

Trump Defects The headline made you look, eh?

But no President of the United States Donald J. Trump did NOT defect to North Korea; much as his critics might like that idea.

Still, it sure looks like Trump recently cozied up to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump and Kim Jong

Ok, let's do it, said President Trump to Chairman Un.

In the weeks since this picture was taken, Ive yet to see a story that explains the real reason Trump made an unexpected pitstop at the Korean border.

Heres the truth

Why are these two men smiling? Why shake hands across Koreas Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)?

Because they must.

  • North Korea has tunnels full of nuclear weapons, and U.S. and Western intelligence services likely dont know where most of them are.
    • Meanwhile, North Korea has figured out that when you possess nukes, you dont own them as much as they own you.

    Its not Trumps ineffable charm. Its not Kims warm, humanistic feelings time for a deal. Its time for a deal.

    Its time to untangle complex knots. De-escalate. De-risk. De-conflict. Control immense costs that are breaking the bank.

    And each side is doing intelligence work right out in the open.

    North Koreas nuclear weapons are one of the worlds great foreign policy challenges. The dialog must happen, because otherwise the lid is about to blow off the pot.

    Quick aside Long time ago, I was a nuclear weapons officer in the Navy. Its been a while since I did that line of work, but there are things you dont forget. Meanwhile, over the past 30-plus years, Ive read a few books on the subject.

    Of course, right now Im just tending the Whiskey Bar, here. Offering personal opinions Im not speaking on behalf of the U.S. government, its Department of Defense or Navy.

    From what I can discern, North Korea came to the table for a few reasons.

    First, over about 60 years (yes, 60) the North Koreans developed nuclear weapons. Beginning in the late 1950s, North Korea began reconstructing the remnants of Japans World War II nuclear program, much of which was sited in northern Korea. (Quite a bit near the Chosin Reservoir, in fact; long story.)

    The program was costly. For decades, North Koreas government bit the bullet and paid the bill. But recently, the North Koreans realized that theyve painted themselves into a corner.

    Its nice to have nukes, but theyre tough on the bank account. They impose a massive burden on the government and society of whoever owns them.

    With nuclear weapons, you must employ a significant cadre of smart people in your program. Its high maintenance, too; lots of money on top-level schooling and fancy equipment.

    To obtain those smart people, you need a suitable educational system and industrial base filled with similarly smart, talented people to make things happen. Its a big hit to your economy.

    Once you have weapons, you must safeguard and maintain them. You must store the devices, but beyond that you have to hide them. North Korea must hide its weapons in such a way that the activities dont give away the location. So, you have to hide the guards, too.

    How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? Ive seen public reports of a couple of dozen. We should be so fortunate. Ill speculate and say over 100.

    Then, you must maintain the weapons which is not at all easy. In an assembled weapon, the nuclear material aka the physics package is highly radioactive. Radiation degrades other components, such as conventional explosives, wiring, circuitry and more.

    Some nuclear weapon components must be regenerated all the time, while others are stable for much longer. But overall, you need a comprehensive and highly secretive program to account for every molecule of nuclear material, as well as all the innards of your devices. (Its much the same with a program for delivery systems.)

    Beyond the pure technical angle, you have complex internal politics of nuclear command and control. You need another army of smart, loyal people to do that; along with related overseers to keep an eye on the first army. Personnel reliability is a tight circle of accountability.

    So, lets say youre Chairman Kim. You have nuclear weapons. How are they controlled? Who has authority to move them, activate them, release them? Who shares what levels of power? How do you communicate? How secure are lines of communication? Can your people military and/or scientific/political be trusted?

    What events might lead to loss of control? War, weather, whatever What are the fallbacks?

    Which branch of your military stores them? Maintains them? Deploys them? How will your people move them from storage site to firing position? Who creates the target list? Who picks targets?

    While youre doing all this secretive stuff, you still have to hold periodic drills on the entire chain of custody and movement. You have to pulse the system; confirm that people up and down the ladder know their role.

    Outsiders are always watching. So you have to create a system that will work in a wartime environment, let alone deal with routine peacetime intel-gathering and/or hacking.

    Were just scratching the surface. The challenges for development, testing, storage, maintenance and employment go on and on.

    Who does North Korea threaten with these weapons?

    South Korea; but I suspect the North is saving its weapons for other targets.

    Japan; for a long list of historical reasons. Tokyo and other cities.

    North Korean nuclear weapons likely threaten the U.S., but not so much in a We just lost Seattle kind of way. More likely, the strike-model is an orbital explosion off the U.S. coastlines, or overhead the continent.

    The idea of nuking the U.S. is to keep it simple, but effective. Avoid known anti-missile systems and detonate a weapon outside the atmosphere. Itll generate electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The U.S. is wide open to EMP damage; another long story.

    Other targets for North Korea? May as well say it Beijing. Shanghai. Hey, China supposedly has a thumb on North Korea; but North Korea has the ability to push back.

    With the foregoing in mind, heres why Chairman Kim wants to meet President Trump.

    The weapons and delivery systems are developed, and they work. Theyre costly, in terms of people and funding, but also immensely valuable.

    Historically, North Korea negotiates in return for payola. They figure out what the other side wants U.S., South Korea, Japan and then demand big amounts for any of it.

    Kim is ready to make the best of things. Primarily, he and his nuclear people likely want to find out what the U.S. knows about the North Korean program.

    Naturally, U.S. intel follows public information, such as publications, or scientific and industrial visits. And on the secret side, the U.S. has spy satellites overhead, and aircraft and ships offshore, sucking signals from the ether.

    But Does the U.S. know where the North Korean have all their mines, mills, factories, labs, personnel compounds, warehouses, etc. for the entire nuclear value chain?

    I dont doubt that we know many things. But I truly doubt that we know it all. Not even close.

    The North Koreans have several public sites for nuclear systems; reactors, labs, test sites, deployment sites. They showcase them to visitors, such as foreign scientists, journalists and international inspectors.

    But what about hidden locales? Where are they? And if the U.S. knows any of these elements of secret and well-concealed sites, Kim and his people surely want to know how it leaked out.

    Heres an aside Youve probably seen the space imagery of North Korea at night. The place is dark, right?

    Earth From Space

    North Korea at night. Courtesy NASA.

    The conventional explanation is that North Korea is dark at night because the country is poor. Theres insufficient power generation. No streetlights. Not enough light bulbs.

    Perhaps. But try this explanation

    North Korea is dark at night because thats when the country diverts its national electric grid to spinning centrifuges and producing nuclear materials.

    In fact, this is how the U.S. created quite a bit of its nuclear weapon material stockpile. When I visited the U.S. National Laboratory at Oak Ridge, a few years ago, one engineer told me that in the 1950s and 60s, there were times when that single site in Tennessee sucked down over one third of all U.S. electricity East of the Mississippi, almost every night, making nuclear metal.

    North Korea could very well have a similar industrial program that uses the nations electricity at night-time. Theres your dark nation.

    For any negotiations with North Korea, the key question for the U.S. is Where are the tunnels, and whats inside?

    And if you are North Korea, the issue is, what does the U.S. know and how does the U.S. know it?

    Lets say that U.S. negotiators sit down with their North Korean counterparts. The U.S. side says, Lets talk about you giving up your weapons.

    The North Koreans say, Very well Which weapons do you mean?

    The U.S. side has just walked into a negotiating trap.

    Do we start listing sites and specifics to the North Koreans? If so, they now begin to know what we know, because we just told them. Theyll go back and figure out how the information got out.

    Much the same thing happened with U.S.-Soviet arms control discussions in the 1970s-80s. The lead Soviet negotiator, Marshal Nicolai Ogarkov would meet with U.S. negotiators and got a dump on what the U.S. knew. Then, he would go back and change Soviet methods of hiding and testing weapons and capabilities.

    Back to North Korea If the U.S. side says too much, then the North Koreans will understand what the U.S. knows and doesnt know. They will act accordingly. Indeed, negotiations might be over at that point; no deal.

    Heres North Koreas predicament. At the outset, anything they lay on the table is to their disadvantage. So, every piece of information is a bargaining chip. Theyll offer something only if the U.S. side offers some concession in return.

    The primary North Korean reason to speak with the U.S. side is to find out how much the U.S. and/or South Korea knows, and then determine how the information leaked out.

    The U.S. side wants to avoid giving away how little it knows, and by what methods and sources it knows what it does.

    As for Chairman Kim and President Trump? The two are smiling in the photo at the top of this article. They want to set a good tone and send a signal to the world.

    But when negotiators for each side sit down to talk, the fundamentals remain what they truly are.

    The U.S. must remain keenly aware of what it actually knows, and how it knows it; while also remaining cognizant of the vast unknowns in its intel packages. Whats in those tunnels?

    The North Korean negotiators likely dont even know the full extent of their countrys nuclear program. Theyll be surprised at some things their U.S. counterparts tell them. Theyll run back to the generals for guidance.

    Deep down, for North Koreas people, its all about protecting their countrys secrets.

    When Trump and Kim shook hands at the DMZ, it wasnt really about world peace or such.

    It was really about how much of North Koreas nuclear program is down inside those tunnels.

    What will the North Koreans tell us? What can we learn?

    For both sides, these are very dangerous and expensive questions to ask, let alone to answer.

    On that last point, I rest my case.

    Thats all for now. Thank you for subscribing and reading.

    Best wishes,

    Byron King

    Byron King

    Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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