Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another Nuclear Power?

The most recent news suggests that the North Koreans have completed a successful nuclear weapons test. [Update: Janes Defence Weekly is saying, uh, no, it probably wasn't successful. More on that issue below.]

What happens next is anyone's guess.

Already, there's some large talk about how this might affect Japan. A lot depends upon what Japanese leaders say in the next few days about the matter. If the Bushies start pushing Japan to begin a nuclear arms race with North Korea, there's no telling where that might lead. My guess is that it would create a fracture in Japanese politics which would be almost impossible to repair. The situation is more complicated than we view it in the West--the Koreas, generally, still harbor long-held resentments toward the Japanese for their treatment of Korea during Japan's occupation of eastern Asia before and during WWII.

Had Japanese leaders made sincere apologies and some meaningful gesture beyond token reparations at some point in the past, Japan might not be part of the North Korean equation today.

But, that not being the case, Japan might well feel it's the object of North Korea's currently apparent belligerence. And, under nuclear threat, once again, the Japanese, out of national pride, might not be inclined to offer entreaties to North Korea, even if it were in their best interest to do so. On that score, it may simply be too late.

At the root of this mess, however, is George Bush's determination to have his own way, however stupid that way might be. The very first transgression against common sense was the Bushies' determination to view all things Clinton as bad. While the Clinton administration dragged its feet on fulfilling its 1994 agreement with North Korea (one which Jimmy Carter forced on them by intermediating in a situation that promised to blow up in unpredictable ways--the Clintonites wanted to attack North Korea--no telling how that might have gone over around the world), the Bushies torpedoed that plan almost immediately after assuming office. They sent John Bolton to threaten the North Koreans, and summarily abrogated the "Agreed Framework," as it was called, by halting heavy fuel oil shipments which North Korea needed for electricity production. They effectively did everything possible to ruin the "sunshine" initiative by South Korea to normalize relations with the north. Then, in January, 2002, George stood up in front of the world and declared (with the help of his born-again speechwriters) North Korea to be part of an "axis of evil."

When rich, messianic, raggedy-assed white folks from the Bush family start barking about evil, you're going to sit up and take notice, especially if you've been called out by one of them. Now, not many Americans realized that Bush's painting a target on Kim Jong Il's back was all about justifying the breach of the ABM treaty and continued funding for the NMD system--something that the Bushies had been pushing for all they were worth while al-Qaeda was busy planning attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Without a threat from North Korea which could be inflated to unrealistic proportions, there was little reason to pursue ABM schemes requiring indefensible amounts of money. Even after 9/11/2001, the Bushies kept trying to shove a cattle prod up Kim's ass, because the National Missile Defense system was not yet installed and the Bushies needed to have Congress worked up about it.

So, what happened? The Bushies got what they wanted--an installed missile defense system that military contractors wanted, which works, um, maybe not so good, after all--and a greater threat from North Korea than the one for which they'd planned. Whether by accident or intent, that's the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, let's not underestimate the damage North Korea can do, but, also, let's not forget who and what they are. For those Americans with not much understanding of its history (or where the hell it is), it's a country living in a long-distant past. It's a tiny country trying to maintain a Stalinist government more than fifty years after Stalin himself no longer has any ability to consume any of the planet's oxygen, and this in the face of it sharing a border with a prosperous capitalist circus directly to its south composed of people with a culture, language and history common to its own. North Korea is so anachronistic, in the 21st century, that it defies description and understanding. Even the Chinese, North Korea's only erstwhile ally, can't get them to bend from a system which has impoverished them for decades. The economic and political situation in North Korea is virtually impossible for Westerners to fathom. The country is illogical, desperately poor and repressive, and there seems to be no explanation for the fierce and intractable loyalty of North Korea's leaders to a system which has even impoverished them and left them to be viewed by the rest of the world as petty tyrants.

If it simply were a matter of individual tyranny, its military would have taken over the government with the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father. That didn't happen, and that it didn't, whether by virtue of allegiance to ideology or indoctrination, says a great deal about the insularity of the country. For that reason alone, the Bush administration's interference with South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's reengagement policy is the greater crime in all this. Only by steady and careful engagement and demonstration of good faith could the leadership of such an isolated country be gradually led to entertain alternatives.

Bush and friends, though, thought they could change the world to their liking in eight years. Perhaps they have done that, but their notions of what the world should be like are not to the world's betterment. We're all the worse off for their impatience, and that much closer to war.

On the matter of whether North Korea has been successful or not, despite Janes' pronouncement, my guess is we'll have to wait and see for the data to come in. Most people seem to be basing their assumption of failure (a fizzle yield of 0.55Kt) on an unclassified paper done in 1989 by Lynn Sykes and Goran Ekstrom of Columbia Univ. as a check on the ability to do remote seismic verification of compliance with the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which limited underground tests to a maximum of 150 kilotons.

There are a number of reasons to use the paper only as a rough guideline for what likely happened in North Korea. From my reading of the methodology of that paper, the estimates for yield are based on a simple formula that assumes the test resembled those done by other nuclear powers (bore hole into hard rock). Right now, I'm guessing that that's not a suitable assumption, because the geology of the area hasn't been described adequately in the press. As well, the early reports indicated that the North Koreans used an existing mineshaft into a mountain. No telling how that might affect seismic readings, as variables such as depth, orientation, composition, relation to the water table and size of the mineshaft are not immediately known. Blasts below the water table in soft rock tend to show lower than expected magnitude for seismic body waves. Another measure of yield can be done by examination of two types of surface waves (Love and Rayleigh waves), but that data may take longer to generate and compare from a number of seismic stations. Finally, there's not many datum points for very small blasts (that information apparently is still classified) because yields determined hydrodynamically at the event site have not been published, even though the U.S., over the years, has done a fairly large number of small-yield tests.

If there is leakage from the site, more information may be gleaned from that release of radionuclides, but, it may take days for those to be carried through the air to a point where they can be collected without creating an international incident.

A last consideration is the nature of implosion weapons. From existing available evidence, North Korea has been intent upon stockpiling bomb-grade plutonium, and they apparently do not have the infrastructure in place to do significant physical isotope separation (such as by a gas centrifuge cascade). This would limit North Korea to building implosion weapons with the fuel chemically separated from spent fuel rods. The most common assumption is that, as with most countries testing their first weapon, North Korea would aim to detonate a simple proof-of-concept weapon with sufficient bomb fuel to guarantee fission, something like the first implosion weapon built by the U.S. (the weaponized version was "Fat Man," which was used to destroy Nagasaki). For such a bomb to be considered a success, its yield would be nominally in the range of 10-20Kt. A half-kiloton yield would, therefore, definitely point to a failure.

What changes this assumption is the fact that North Korea, from the best estimates, doesn't have very much bomb fuel available. Its long-term storage of fuel rods is poor, the spent fuel rods themselves show some signs of damage consistent with problems with reactor operation, etc. They might have as little as 25-30Kg of usable plutonium, enough to make a few (3-5) smallish weapons. Now, the convenient aspect of implosion weapons (from the viewpoint of the designer) is that fission can be achieved with much less than the optimum amount of plutonium. Bombs can be made smaller. (In fact, the U.S. has made very small plutonium weapons, down to equivalent yields of perhaps 20-30 tons of TNT.) All that is necessary is to uniformly squeeze the plutonium enough so that supercriticality is achieved (the point at which uncontrolled fission begins). This presents new problems for the designer, but the basic operation of the bomb is similar to larger versions. Therefore, it is possible that North Korea intentionally made its first test smaller than expected to conserve its small stock of bomb fuel. Given the variables previously mentioned, it could have aimed for a 1Kt yield and come fairly close to that figure, and if it succeeded in that, a somewhat larger bomb would actually be easier to make by comparison.

Right now, though, the evidence does point to North Korea not attaining its goals, and if it did not, it is the first known country in the history of nuclear weapons development to have failed on the first try. If it did fail, all the factors mentioned above bear on the reasons for that failure. Virtually every aspect of North Korea's nuclear program moves in slow motion compared to those of other countries--North Korea has been working toward nuclear weapons for over thirty years. Its second small reactor was completed in 1984, tested in 1985 and still did not begin power operation until about 1987. The combination of abject poverty (North Korea's GDP is not much over $20 billion/yr for a population of now about 20 million) and a decrepit Stalinist bureaucracy may be the central reasons why North Korea is not quite the threat that the Bushies have described it to be. Its imports are about twelve times its exports, and the internal situation there is pretty dire. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report in 2005 said:

The North Korean economy is one of the world's most isolated and bleak....

During the 1990s, the inefficiencies of North Korea's centrally planned economy, especially its promotion of state-owned heavy industries, along with high military spending--as much as 30% of GDP--joined with drought and floods to push the economy into crisis. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet bloc meant the loss of Russian aid, export markets, and cheap oil. Trade with the former Soviet Union dropped from as much as $3 billion to the current $45 million per year. This added to disastrous domestic economic conditions in North Korea. Food has been so scarce that North Korean youth are shorter than those in other East Asian nations. Since 1998, the military reportedly has had to lower its minimum height requirement in order to garner sufficient new recruits. Life expectancy has been contracting.

Let's not forget, too, that this possible failure comes hard behind a confirmed failure of a recent Taepo-dong 2 missile launch, and that the most recent variants of that missile, even with successful launches, have not (despite much propaganda to the contrary) come near the range necessary to become a threat to U.S. territory. North Korea's almost inevitable technical problems have given the Bushies many opportunities to intercede diplomatically, to encourage the "sunshine" dialogue between the two Koreas, to nudge the North Koreans away from military programs which have overburdened their already unhealthy economy. Instead, Bush has been trying to run a red-hot poker up the ass of the North Koreans at every opportunity.

As technologically backward as North Korea's military programs may be, they're a model of efficiency compared to Bush's brand of diplomacy. Bush's apparently personal dislike for Kim Jong Il has prompted him to resist all of North Korea's efforts to talk one-on-one with the United States. In the meantime, the political atmosphere grows more poisonous, and North Korea learns a little more about building nuclear weapons. Even failures are instructive, if one is paying attention and is willing to acknowledge one's mistakes.


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