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Is Beijing the real actor behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme?

Xi on a state visit to North Korea
Xi on a state visit to North Korea

Is Beijing the real actor behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme?  

South Korea’s Minister for Unification – Lee In-Young – last month called for a moderation of sanctions against North Korea as an incentive to restart denuclearisation talks with the Hermit State.

It is true beyond argument that the sanctions regime has signally failed to influence Kim Jong-un's actions in any material way so far. The reasons for that failure reveal much about what is really going on around the Korean peninsula.

A major reason that sanctions have had no effect is that Beijing is largely (quietly) ignoring them. US satellites have tracked over 500 deliveries of coal, grain, hydrocarbons and other materials to North Korea over the past year. Those are ship deliveries. To them must be added the almost continuous flow of articulated trucks across the Friendship Bridge at Dandong. With long practice of self-sufficiency those deliveries are about all that are needed to meet Pyongyang’s critical shortage categories.  

How North Korea earns its foreign currency

In parallel with deliveries from China, Pyongyang operates a global network of North Korean emigrant workers numbering at around 200,000 people, through a network of front companies and Korean diplomatic posts. The system is close to slavery. Workers, who include construction labourers, loggers in Eastern Russia, the staff of some 10,000 Korean restaurants, textile workers in China and Russia, and even a large number of doctors and nurses, are contracted out for the local “going rate” in countries which include the UAE, Russia, Mongolia and China itself, at rates of around $1.5k per month. The fees are paid to the contracting company or diplomatic mission. The workers sleep on site, and are given enough of their pay to buy food, with a small allowance paid to their families (variously reported at $10-$100 per month). These deductions leave a handsome profit for Pyongyang’s Bureau 39, under the close personal control of Kim Jong-un. In order to be eligible to work in the programme Koreans must be married with children. With their families effectively held hostage against their defection these workers (in reality slaves, for as long as they are abroad) spend three years away. The lucky ones, and the well-behaved, receive to a permit to leave agricultural serfdom in the North Korean countryside and move to Pyongyang. The unlucky ones sign on for another three years. Bureau 39 is also reportedly a major participant in cyber-blackmail worldwide.

With a revenue probably around $2bn per year, Bureau 39 is able to procure what Kim needs for his nuclear programme and other projects through another network of front companies. Some of that cashflow ends up in free-world real estate. No-one in the public domain knows what Bureau 39’s balance sheet looks like, but it is probably Bureau 39 which paid for the non-Korean components of Kim’s ballistic missiles that have turned up on the desk of Hugh Griffiths, co-ordinator of the UN’s Panel of Experts on North Korea. These components, the debris of Kim’s missile tests, are dredged from the Sea of Japan and the Pacific. What goes up must, after all, come down.

Beijing’s nightmare – US forces on its Korean border

Kim’s relative freedom of action is obviously dependent of Beijing’s implicit and very real co-operation. But why is Beijing content to support Pyongyang in the building and testing weapons which look, at first sight, highly destabilising? And why is Beijing also content to have what amounts to a gigantic armed camp of 1mn men and 6,000 tanks on its border? The answer to that question lies a few miles south of Pyongyang.

Join me, please, in a small thought experiment.

Imagine yourself in Washington, in the White House or the Pentagon.

Draw a line across the Floridian peninsula, just above Orlando. Now imagine that the part of Florida below this line has declared itself an independent state, and has invited approximately 23,000 uniformed men and women of China’s People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force to base themselves there permanently. Next imagine that this force includes aircraft fitted to drop tactical nuclear free-fall bombs with dial-a-yields up to 300 kilotons (a dozen Hiroshimas), and that a stock of these bombs is stored in Orlando. Further south, imagine a naval base capable of supporting nuclear submarines capable of tracking and sinking your Trident missile submarines. Finally measure the straight-line distance between these forces and Washington DC, and find that it is 1,000 km.

How do you feel about all that? If you are feeling a little threatened, or even outraged, then you are probably mirroring the feeling felt in Beijing about the presence of the 23,000 men and women of the US forces currently based in South Korea.

Beijing operates with a long memory (one benefit of running a state that is now some eighty generations old). It does not have to reach very far back into that memory to recall the painful fact that its fourteen-year war against Japan (1931-1945) began when Japan invaded Manchuria from, oh yes, Korea. If it digs a little further back into its collective memory it recalls that Korea became a Japanese colony when President Teddy Roosevelt reneged on US treaty obligations to Korea in 1905 and flatly refused to protect Korea from Japanese occupation.

The maths of amphibious operations shows that even very large amphibious forces present no real threat to a large well-armed polity. While US commentators and politicians often talk about “invading” countries (Iran and Venezuela are top picks just now), the truth is that a US Amphibious Ready Group (about a brigade’s worth of troops) is powerless against any opponent larger than a small island, or a defenceless state. Grenada and Panama are do-able. China is not.

To offer a serious threat to a serious opponent your attack must be launched over a land border, and that only after massive preparation and force generation. That’s why, in 1991 and again in 2003, attacks on Iraq could only take place from Saudi Arabia, for example, and then only after eight months of intense prior force generation.

It might be inconceivable to us that the US would, or could, ever deliver a major land attack on China, and it probably is, but Beijing’s long survival as an independent polity (and its near annihilation by Japan in the 1930s) have taught it to think the unthinkable when considering strategic risks. So when Beijing looks at US forces in Korea, it sees a significant strategic weakness.  

Beijing cannot ignore the threat of Regime Change

Invasion is probably not the largest problem. Beijing is aware that the US has a long history of seeking regime change (with or without the use of military force) and that it also has a deep hostility to and fear of the rule of China’s Communist Party, stretching back to 1949. Most regime changes rest on the use of some military force (Libya, Syria, Panama, Iraq) and effective military operations require nearby bases and facilities. US forces in South Korea are uncomfortably close.

It is also worth remembering that China’s north-eastern border with Russia was violently adjusted as recently as 1860, a blow that Beijing is now openly talking about correcting. While we think of modern borders as settled, in some parts of the world they are not. US forces in South Korea bring a significant source of unpredictability and risk to Beijing’s eastern strategic calculus.

If this is a correct analysis of the risk profile seen from Beijing, what actions would follow? Beijing knows that it cannot remove US forces in South Korea with threats, and that it has nothing that it would like to trade in exchange for a voluntary removal. So until some other strategy can be found, allowing Pyongyang to devote a very large part of its GDP to the maintenance of a million-man army between China and US forces in South Korea is a relatively painless way of building an impenetrable fence between US forces and China.

A fence is fine, but might not last for ever. While Kim Jong-un’s grasp on power in North Korea looks both absolute and secure, the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany are that situations which look permanent and stable can unravel with terrifying speed. A reunification of the two Koreas might appear impossible to us today, but China’s “long perspective” is looking a generation or more ahead, and can see a time when Kim’s regime does indeed collapse, with the richer south taking control of the impoverished north (the unification of the two Germanies being a precedent). If that happened while US forces were still based in Korea then China would wake up one day to find the US soldiers actually looking over the river to China from a newly unified Korea.  

Nuclear weapons as a powerful crowbar

For a long time Beijing could see no obvious way around this problem, but my thesis is that Kim’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles has now offered a route. I believe that Beijing is using North Korea’s ambitions as a lever to remove US forces from South Korea.

The first step in the strategy has been to position Kim in the mind of the American voter as a dangerously unstable man. “Job done”, if the US mainstream media narrative is any guide. Most Americans are seriously frightened of Kim Jong-un.

The second step has been to allow Kim to build and test larger missiles with ever greater ranges, while simultaneously supporting him in the project to build ever smaller and lighter nuclear warheads with larger yields.

We need some nuclear maths here. The range of a ballistic missile is a function of two inputs – the fuel load at one end, and the weight of the payload at the other. The maths of nuclear war dictate that a city-killing bomb must yield around a hundred kilotons to have its desired mental deterrent effect. A simple fission warhead has a practical maximum yield of about 30 kilotons (for various technical reasons). Hiroshima and Nagasaki – cities built mostly out of wood, were flattened by 20-30 kilotons. Cities built in brick, steel and concrete are harder to kill. A more recent yardstick can be found in the Beirut fertiliser explosion, which yielded a ground burst roughly equivalent to 3 kilotons. The effect on Beirut’s port was devastating, but the city lives on.

To up the yield you need to start playing around with fusion technologies to build a “hydrogen”, or “thermonuclear”, weapon. While fission tech is so well known that you can download the schematics of a bomb from the internet, fusion tech is the opposite – only a handful of countries have developed true fusion bombs, and they guard the exact designs jealously.  

Boosted Fission - a poor man’s hydrogen bomb

There is a simpler half-way house to high-yield bombs – a tech called “boosted fission”. Normal fission bombs blow themselves apart very quickly as they detonate, stopping further fission and so wasting the potential yield of their nuclear core. For examples, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima yielded only 1.8% of its energy. Nagasaki yielded about 15%. To up the yield from your uranium or plutonium core you need to boost the amount of material which undergoes fission, and you can do this by injecting about five grammes of tritium gas into the fission core just before detonation.

When a tritium-enhanced core detonates the fission energy immediately fuses the tritium to generate a storm of high-energy neutrons. These boost the amount of the fissile core that actually gets to fission before the bomb blows itself apart. Boosted fission multiplies the fission yield by a factor of about five. The UK’s first “hydrogen bomb” test was in fact not a hydrogen bomb but a boosted fission bomb. The beauty of boosted fission is that a boosted fission warhead is only as heavy as a simple fission bomb – a few hundred kg – increasing the range of a given delivery vehicle, but delivers a 100-kiloton burst.

Pyongyang’s most recent underground warhead test in 2017 generated a yield estimated by multiple seismic monitoring stations at around 120 kilotons. With its boosted fission bomb proven, for the first time Pyongyang can present a credible threat to “kill” a continental US city.

That capability alone should hardly be news to an average American. Russia has had the capacity to kill many hundreds of US cities with genuine hydrogen bombs for well over two generations, as has China. Neither of those capabilities generates headlines or promotes systemic fear. But Kim is different: his toxic combination of capability and “insanity” is what scares the average American voter. Nuclear deterrence only works if all the decision-makers are rational and calm. Americans believe that Kim is neither.  

Deterrence does not work on the mad, bad and dangerous

With a man perceived as irrational, impulsive and psychopathic the possession of city-killing power immediately places that power right at the top of the “to worry” list. And that is where North Korea found itself in 2017 after its successful boosted fission test.

The next question is whether, and to what extent, North Korea was able to develop this combination of weapon and delivery system without Beijing’s help and consent. Recall that North Korea’s economy, including the work of Bureau 39, is dependent on food and hydrocarbons supplied by China. The nuclear programme adds tritium to the shopping list. Tritium (a heavy isotope of hydrogen) does not grow on trees. Since it decays rapidly into helium it cannot be stored for any length of time and therefore does not exist in any usable quantities in nature. That means it has to be manufactured, in the core of a nuclear reactor by bombarding lithium with a very large quantity of neutrons for a long time. The process is painfully slow – a single small reactor can produce enough tritium for one weapon per year. There is little chance of buying tritium even on the black market – because of its weapon potential tritium is one of the most tightly controlled and monitored substances on the planet.  

Water, water everywhere, but never a drop of tritium

North Korea’s nuclear reactor programme is thought to be capable of producing tritium, though only in minute quantities – about one gramme per year per MW of capacity. The 5-MWe reactor at Yongbyon is one possible source. A second possible source is an elderly (1965) “pool type” research reactor also at Yongbyon. This latter fell out of use when it ran out of its Russian-supplied fuel, but in 2012 North Korea acquired a new fuel processing plant (from China) to build fuel rods with less-enriched uranium. When we allow for the obstacles to tritium production (processing losses, lack of prime reactor core space, reactor down-time, fuel shortages and other problems) North Korea’s tritium production capacity would barely allow for one boosted fission bomb per year, if that. It is entirely possible that the real source of North Korea’s tritium is Beijing – for reasons I will come to next.

Beijing’s strategy is not just to worry Americans: what it wants is a result – the removal of US forces in South Korea. One route to that goal is to provoke the “average American” to ask: “Why are we in South Korea anyway? We can't see any vital reasons to be there, but being there makes us a target for a madman with a city-killing missile which we can't stop. So let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”

In 2018 Beijing’s strategy came close to fruition. September 2017’s warhead test was followed two months later by a successful long-range missile test. Missile tests need some interpretation. A ballistic missile is launched with a finite quantity of fuel containing a defined quantity of energy. If you aim the missile “high” that energy is consumed attaining height, not range. If you aim the missile “long and low” the same energy carries it a great distance at a lower peak altitude.

A Russian or American ballistic missile attains its maximum range by flying at around 200 km above the earth’s surface. Kim’s November 2017 missile reached an altitude of 4,500 km. In short, it burnt most of its energy attaining height rather than range (but still flew 1,000 km laterally). Aimed long and low, with a peak altitude of only 200 km, the same missile becomes an intercontinental missile with a range (depending on payload) of up to 13,000 km – putting the whole of the continental USA in range.  

Donald saves the world – so so well

The combined effect of the two tests (bomb and missile) was exactly what Beijing wanted. They prompted Donald Trump to declare that he had to solve “North Korea”. After initiating contact – the first time in US history between leaders of the two states – he met Kim in Singapore. At that meeting Trump agreed to cease all exercises by US forces in South Korea, in exchange for a trivial and meaningless concession on test facilities by Kim. Suspending exercises does not sound like much but armed forces are like athletes – without regular exercise they quickly lose their potential power. Ending exercises, if sustained for long enough, is the first step on a logical path to withdrawal, given sufficient time.

The strategy was working, until Beijing ran out of time in November 2020 with Trump’s defenestration. One of President Biden’s first decisions last month was to end the exercise embargo, and major exercises are now scheduled for March 2021. Beijing is back to square one, but not completely. Future warhead and missile tests will re-ignite fear on USA Main Street, and that fear will bring the US military presence in South Korea inexorably back to the political agenda. Beijing is not looking for a single act of withdrawal, just a steady loss of political will in Washington to place Main Street in Kim’s line of fire, causing a drip-feed reduction in US forces in South Korea until they eventually wither away into a token presence. As always with Beijing, there is no hurry.  

Now Beijing must Biden its time

In the meantime, with North Korea living largely on Beijing’s willingness to ignore sanctions, there is little risk of Kim going rogue and firing a missile on his own. There is no evidence in the public domain of the amount of Chinese control over warheads, missiles or tritium, but it seems to me inconceivable that Beijing would not make effective control the price of its continued support of Kim’s regime. If it is indeed in charge then it would be following two key precepts of Sun Tzu – “When near, appear far. When strong, appear weak”.

If this analysis is correct then we should expect a new warhead test some time during the next year or two, closely accompanied by a missile range demonstration. Main Street and the Mainstream Media can be relied upon to trigger a new yen to withdraw US forces from South Korea. China is likely to get its way in the end.