The term “Hermit Kingdom” was coined in 1882, by William Elliot Griffis.
It has most frequently been used in reference to North Korea since the partition of Korea at the end of the Korean War – (although technically, there is only an armistice, not an actual peace agreement in place). Hermit Kingdom, describes, to paraphrase the definition given in Wikipedia – any nation that has been walled off, either by force by a dictatorial regime or by collective assent, from the rest of the community of nations.
Hermit Kingdoms, as exemplified by the dynastic rule of the three generations of the Kim family, carry with them an inherent set of risks. Prominent among them are the gravitational forces of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences of a closed loop in terms of scientific achievements devoid of expert consultation and prone to catastrophe.
Kim Jong-Un, the present hereditary leader of North Korea as well as his father, Kim Jong-Il, were of the belief – on the surface a reasonable one, that if their regimes could acquire a potent threat of a nuclear arsenal, their rule would be ironclad for generations to come. No outside force could topple their tyrannical grip on power if the price for such an attempt, would be a nuclear retaliation – even if suicidal, which of course, it would inevitably be.
That was the calculus behind the aggressive development of launch missiles and testing of nuclear devices in North Korea in recent decades and at an accelerated pace in the last several years. The effort was only ostensibly stalled by some accords forged from the “Agreed Framework” negotiated by North Korea and the United States, during the Clinton administration.
At the time, the DPRK violated the letter and spirit of the treaty, by enriching Uranium into weapon grade material surreptitiously. In 2002, North Korea admitted to having done so. The United States, its allies in the region and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), already knew this was the case, so it would not have availed North Korea to pretend otherwise.
Even so, there were virtually no consequences for the government of Kim Jong-Il in violating the agreement and openly defying international opposition to the ongoing nuclear weapons program. All that ensued from their defiance was stepped up joint U.S. / South Korean military exercises. Beyond that, the U.N., in 2006 began imposing a fairly anemic and poorly enforced raft of sanctions on the DPRK.
It was not until two years ago, February, that the Obama Administration began in earnest, a unilateral policy of sanctions approved by Congress, known as the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. To oversimplify matters, here we are today. In a series of recent reports, I outlined the activity of the government of Kim Jong-Un to advance North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
For the last few months, there has materialized, what appears to be a cessation of the earlier bellicose rhetoric going back and forth between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un – replaced by reports of planned meetings between the two and their respective governments.
Additionally, there was the apparent thaw, during and after the Winter Olympics, between North Korea and their southern neighbor.
No new missile launches have taken place, nor anymore nuclear tests since then.
Did Trump bully Kim and his regime into a submissive posture? It would be brilliant maneuvering if true. But, alas – it is too good to be true, as the gap between Trump’s boasts and reality always proves to be. What’s really behind this?
Here’s where the unintended consequences of the Hermit Kingdom syndrome come into play. Stephen Chen, writing in the South China Morning Post, reports that North Korea’s nuclear tests last September, resulted in the collapse of the military’s exclusive test site, the Punggye-ri site located beneath Mount Muntap in the northwest of the country.
Chen disclosed that a research team from neighboring China, concluded the collapse occurred following the detonation of North Korea’s most powerful thermal nuclear warhead in a tunnel about 700 metres (2,296 feet) below the mountain’s peak.
Led by Wen Lianxing, a geologist with the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, the team conducted an analysis of data from 2,000 seismic monitoring stations and have reported to the Chinese government that the result of the fracturing and subsequent cratering of the mountain above the test site (below image), presents a strong likelihood of a fallout leak, threatening to spread radiation outward from the site. “It is necessary to continue monitoring possible leaks of radioactive materials caused by the collapse incident,” Wen’s team said in the statement.
North Korea has been a client state of Red China for the entire run of its existence. It has served as a ‘devil doll’ – an arms length antagonist and a menace by proxy towards America’s allies in the region. Moreover, China maintains a “mutual defense treaty” with the DPRK, whose terms state that China is obligated to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.” But there is a limit, a breaking point to just about any marriage that has outlived its advantages.
There is every reason to suspect that Kim’s recent secretive trip to China two weeks ago, the first known visit to Beijing of his reign as “Heavenly Leader”, was a visit in response to a summons by Chinese President Xi Jinping and principally for the purpose of Xi calling Kim on the carpet for the nuclear disaster at Punggye-ri.
Kim’s declaration just five days ago, that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA – may not have been an initiative he had any role in crafting. Whatever happens in North Korea, you can be assured, that China is either dictating it – or exercises final veto power over it.
All of this sheds new light and insight on Trump’s naïve statements about Kim’s pronouncement.
North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
Now that the DPRK’s established test site is not only useless at this point, but the Chinese almost certainly put the kibosh on Kim’s entire nuclear and missile development (to avoid further potential embarrassment) – it is obvious that Kim is bluffing at international diplomatic poker with an empty hand.
Making Kim’s declaration even more dubious and suspicious is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is still at this point, by no means fully mature. Kim has issued a lot of statements about the program that are reminiscent of the sort of absolutist, but unproven rhetoric that Donald Trump habitually indulges in.
After last November’s launch of a Hwasong 15 prototype – a missile with the theoretic capability to attack the continental United States, Kim boasted that it marked “the completing [of] the state nuclear force…on which the great might of putting the strategic position of the DPRK on a higher stage was given birth.” He also asserted that it “was capable of carrying [a] super-heavy nuclear warhead and attacking the whole mainland of the US.”
Jonathan D. Pollack, Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies and John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, says in a recent policy paper:
“North Korea has yet to prove definitively that it possesses an intercontinental capability. Despite all its missile tests and the obvious advancement of its nuclear weaponry, crucial tasks pertaining to systems integration and operational testing are far from complete. There is no evidence that North Korea has ever “mated” a warhead to a missile, and simulations and ground tests offer insufficient proof. As matters stand, additional missile tests will be required to demonstrate that North Korea has a reliable delivery vehicle with a prototype warhead able to survive reentry.”
Whether Kim could successfully launch a nuclear tipped missile is far from certain – and some experts would say, highly unlikely, given that a nuclear missile program, in the sense of how scientists view them, never actually reaches a static level of completion. The ostensible notion that Kim would unilaterally put it all on ice at this point, is ludicrous.
The Post’s Chen, quotes Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based academic who studies North Korea’s nuclear program, as saying that it was highly likely that Pyongyang (North Korea’s capitol), had received a stark warning from Beijing. “The test was not only destabilising the site but increasing the risk of eruption of the Changbai Mountain,” a large, active volcano at the Chinese-Korean border, said Hu, who asked that his university affiliation not be disclosed because of the topic’s sensitivity.
It has been pointed out that Trump is positioning himself to declare – following the tentatively scheduled meetings with Kim next month, that he has concluded the most monumental “deal” of his lifetime, and singlehandedly reduced the risk of nuclear war.
In doing so, the enthusiasts of this scenario, see the triumph of Trump in ratcheting up his worst in modern history approval ratings; turning around the fortunes of the GOP in the mid-terms and changing the national subject of Mueller’s investigation of him and his involvement in collusion, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
All of that first assumes that Trump can actually even manage a successful negotiation to begin with. There is a serious likelihood that since Trump is freelancing with all of this – that it will be as successful as a man acting as his own attorney in a high stakes court proceeding. Trump is not the “4-D Chess” player some of his supporters imagine him to be. His behavior to date, has rendered that preposterous.
But what we have just learned here about the motives behind Kim’s abandonment of the nuclear missile program – pulls the rug out from under the Trump “nuclear dealmaker” trope entirely. The Reality TV presidency of Donald Trump is still on track for cancellation.