Why North Korea Came To The Table
WILOTI (What I Learned on the Internet) — Annals of Mountain Implosions
I have been here in typhoon wracked, human wrecked, Boracay for months now, well past Closure. Amidst a flux that can best be described, within Southeast Asia, as historic in the scope and audacity of prime-tourist-land redistribution. Experiencing a vibe that is one part Gilligan’s Island, one part Prisoner, a jigger of Survivor, very Wilson.
Or as Tom Hanks would have it, Wiiiilson…
Being connected with the elements, the only guest at Lola’s, I am now able to focus on writing as well as music. Last time I had Internet this weak and intermittent was also on Boracay, in 2013, following Typhoon Yolanda. The island seemed far less developed then — maybe five times fewer rooms and a vibe of paradise if you squinted hard. It was the beginning of the Korean and then Chinese construction, package tourism deluge, and the emergence of building sites, trikes, bikes, and uncoordinated concrete as the defining vibe.
In my relative peace and tranquility, I have had time to put my graduate education to use in deciphering the news. Using mindfulness, or what an entire generation misapprehended as Jedi mind tricks, I have trained myself to remain calm despite the feed and ignore anything that takes me from my purpose, simple observation.
So, what is up with North Korea?
“Little rocket man” taunts on twitter notwithstanding, the past two months have involved what has been described as the biggest odd-couple pairing of all time, as US-led overtures to North Korea disarmament took over headlines.
An aha! moment occured to me in late May, pondering the sudden capitulation by the leader of a hermetic, nuke-minded nation to calls for disarmament from a real estate magnate and inveterate turmoil-seeker. A meeting of great minds? Not so. How then did our President go from regurgitating everything he sees on Fox News to a dramatic, unprecedented act of statecraft?
Having lived in Japan for several years and had news of North Korea seep into my bones, I rack my brains for the current state of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program. The country was on the up-and-up, as I recall, up to late last year — ratcheting up tension in seeming lockstep with China, which has been stockpiling petroleum at an accelerated rate and arm-twisting countries across Southeast Asia.
Particularly memorable were Kim’s boasts that his nukes could now reach the Continental United States.
Why, with the US in flux on the world stage and its soft power seemingly dissipating, would North Korea be making major overtures to the United States? Jong and his senior generals would not willingly back down and risk placing the entire nation on a path to what they believe would be certain annihilation. Unless they had already self-immolated.
Okay, let me lay it out there: Internet research has convinced me that nuclear disarmament was a gift handed to the United States on a silver platter when North Korea dismantled its own nuclear program unintentionally.
Let’s back up to September, 3, 2017 when, according to the New York Times, North Korea detonated a sixth underground nuclear bomb that was “by far its most powerful ever.” Estimated as between four to 16 times greater in magnitude than any North Korean explosion set off before, the hydrogen explosion was much stronger than the atomic bombs dropped by the US on Japan during World War II.
At the time, Trump tweeted that options on the table being considered included a demand that all countries cease trade with North Korea. This reeks of sheer bravado, considering that China has long supported the regime’s existence through oil shipments and would likely balk at any ultimatum, given that such a move would potentially deliver massive South Korean and US troops at its doorstep. Unless….
An in-depth piece in the New York Times on September 22 indicated that North Korea had ratcheted up the stakes by threatening the first atmospheric nuclear test by any country in nearly four decades — potentially exploding a hydrogen bomb above ground. (So much for the theory that Kim capitulated because he wanted to star in a “happy ending” video alongside Trump and Dennis Rodman).
So what happened in September following North Korea’s penultimate nuclear test? Something was off from the start, as attested by reports from close observers. For one, the estimated magnitude of the test climbed over a period of days from under 100 kilotons, to in excess of 300 kilotons. The seismic magnitude of the blast, occurring under 3,000 feet of rock, was also steadily estimated upward from 5.8 to 6.3 on the Richter scale.
The next major piece of news came out in late October when Japan’s Asahi TV reported that 200 North Koreans had been killed underground in September, following the collapse of the mine shaft at the Punggye-ri test site. The site lies under Mount Mantap, which is in the vicinity of holy Mount Paektu, an active volcano.
Putting the pieces together, an October 31 article in The Telegraph noted that seismologists had detected signs of underground collapses immediately following the September 3 detonations, which are conducted at a site that has been operational since 2006. In addition, aerial views of surface features showed damage in the form of landslips.
A US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University report posited that the September test had generated major damage within Mount Mantap’s existing tunnel network. At the same time, South Korea’s Meteorological Administration director provided testimony that additional tests might result in a collapse of Mount Mantap and a release of radioactivity into the atmosphere — “a second Chernobyl.”
On December 11, 2017, the BBC reported that aftershocks had continued to be detected by the US Geological Survey, and other agencies, in the two months following the nuclear test. With these including “relaxation events” of 2.9 and 2.4 magnitude in early December, experts began to suggest that the explosion and underground collapse might have been powerful enough to create stress fractures in Mount Mantap that could destabilize surrounding mountains. Redistribution of stress related to the radioactive explosion may well have caused the successive collapse of tunnels, among a network that spans hundreds of miles near the Chinese border.
This has been verified in the months since. As reported in the Guardian, on April 26 a study was released by geologists at the University of Science and Technology of China indicating that the entire Punggye-ri test site, by far the largest in the country, has been rendered unusable, given radiation leak risks from testing tunnels and partial collapse of Mount Mantap. A major factor being the “near-vertical on-site collapse towards the nuclear test center” less than 10 minutes after the test. This led to what is known euphemistically as “tired mountain syndrome.” Subsequent seismic events near Chinese border population centers spurred radiation leak fears and office and school evacuations.
The bottom line seems to be that expedited Russian scientist-informed program parameters and cost cutting resulted in a major nuclear accident that is currently contained under North Korea’s largest mountain, approximately 100 miles from the nearest sizable Chinese city. With volcanic and seismic activity a major concern, and stress fractures running through the mountain, North Korea has extremely limited options remaining when it comes to... anything but defense.
Let’s take a glance at the state of China-North Korea relationships leading up to this.
An April 30, 2018, article in The Unz Review notes that China-North Korea relations have been under strain since February, 2016, when financial support of the DPRK was curtailed significantly. Sanctions taken have included ending access to foreign banking and shutting down North Korean companies operating in China. In addition, China stopped importing the country’s major export coal and in early 2017 joined US moves to impose sanctions on North Korea.
So what has been the result of all this? For starters, calls by China for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program two weeks after the blast. An unannounced and unprecedented four-day visit by Kim Jong-un to Beijing in March, as he worked with General Secretary Xi Jinping on creating a denuclearization strategy. This was followed by a late April summit with South Korean president Moon Jae-in that culminated in Kim Jong-un’s meeting with President Trump in Singapore in early June. It also included a face-saving North Korean move to publicly demolish a test site in March.
As the Unz Review article notes, the US-DPRK meeting was likely undertaken with China and Russia’s blessing. This makes sense, assuming that it is seen as being in everyone’s best interests to achieve containment, if not remediation, of a destabilized nuclear test site on a major international border. This is not the desolate steppes of Russia.
China and Russia’s guarantee to Kim would likely follow a past pattern, in asserting that a hypothetical attack by the United States on North Korea would be countered by their efforts to defend North Korea.
For now, as the New Yorker reports, the status quo is a two-page document that commits North Korea to “complete denuclearization,” with the US offering security guarantees to a country with which it is still technically at war. Even with key words to the disarmament process such as “irreversible” and “verifiable” missing, the vaguely worded outcome matches one consistent with an asymmetric power dynamic in place.
While the US-North Korea dialogue may have been initiated with the DPRK’s traditional allies’ blessing, I am not so sure that this situation has not evolved. Focusing on the US could very well be a gambit by North Korea to preserve its core sovereignty, which I believe China would not allow, given General Secretary Xi’s virtually unlimited powers and the intrusive nature of its Asia-wide foreign policy at the moment. Many leaders region wide are unnerved by the planting of a Chinese base in Sri Lanka and on the Spratly Islands, which are not considered part of their maritime territory. The US is still considered a more transparent and thus managable partner, to which international human rights conventions apply.
The present DPRK calculation may be that it is far better to deal with the allied US-South Korea-Japan side of the hegemonic balance than to face the brunt of Chinese/Russian punishment and potentially hostile takeover. Consider how much the average Korean probably hopes to unite and how the US is seen as necessary to achieving this, in the face of regional geopolitical tensions that run back centuries.
My question — why I write, basically — has been why no major articles so far seem to puzzle out this scenario. Perhaps the media has been hollowed out to a far greater extent than is generally perceived.
Update, July 4th. In the New York Times’ most recent piece of analysis How Trump Went From ‘Fire and Fury’ to Dismissing North Korean Nuclear Advances, there is no mention of the nuclear catastrophe eight months ago as part of the geopolitical calculus. There is however a quote of a Trump tweet: “no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months. All of Asia is thrilled. Only the Opposition Party, which includes the Fake News, is complaining.”
Let’s see what comes down the pike from the New York Times. (I haven’t seen one insightful article about the Boracay closure, come to think of it. Could write a whole series on that while I’m here).
•The Damon Arvid blog Endurancewriter.