Foal Eagle
August 7, 2017 12:10 PM   Subscribe

How frightening. Trump still in office in 2019.
posted by Splunge at 12:24 PM on August 7 [11 favorites]

The first thing you learn when you're an American servicemember stationed in the Republic of Korea is that when war happens, you're dead. You're a tripwire with a camera attached -- all that you're there for is to maybe slow down a North Korean infantry attack on the off chance they're dumb enough to do that, but mostly it's because the Kims have always known that tens of thousands of dead Americans means they personally are dead, full stop, within a day.

A lot of people get very drunk on their first night in-country.
posted by Etrigan at 12:27 PM on August 7 [22 favorites]

How encouraging. Both America and N+S Korea are still around in 2019.
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:28 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

But what happens after that? South Korea, presumably, rebuilds fairly quickly. A decapitated North Korea, however, would be a problem, both for them and China (neither wants a flood of starving refugees and/or soldiers without a chain of command streaming across its borders). I'm guessing the US wouldn't be interested in occupying it and building a Japan/West Germany in its place. Would China take charge and set up a puppet state, hopefully with the leadership on a shorter leash this time, or would the South absorb the North into a unified Korea (something the Chinese would be loth to accept)?
posted by acb at 12:50 PM on August 7

I'm guessing the US wouldn't be interested in occupying it and building a Japan/West Germany in its place.


South Korea is the West Germany analogue.

Would China take charge and set up a puppet state, hopefully with the leadership on a shorter leash this time, or would the South absorb the North into a unified Korea (something the Chinese would be loth to accept)?

Honestly, I don't think the US-ROK alliance would survive if the US shot first. After the war ends, the bitterness towards the US would be massive.

China would probably want to administer the North, but that wouldn't go very well with the Koreans there or the South Koreans. A Unified Korea would be more palatable to China if the US no longer had bases on Korean soil, and... really, if that alliance falters?
posted by anem0ne at 12:57 PM on August 7

I note no mention of Russia in this. Presumably they're quickly acting to solidify control of key Baltic states and at least the eastern part of Ukraine while this is occurring?
posted by Existential Dread at 12:58 PM on August 7 [4 favorites]

Because no discussion of Korea being nuked is complete without refocusing the discussion around white Europeans.
posted by anem0ne at 1:09 PM on August 7 [10 favorites]

Even in a story about Koreans, people gotta try to make them the sidekick.
posted by anem0ne at 1:10 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]

the economist publishes fanfic now?
posted by entropicamericana at 1:15 PM on August 7 [6 favorites]

But what happens after that? South Korea, presumably, rebuilds fairly quickly.

My best guess is rapid reunification followed by a cratering of the Korean economy that makes the German unification economic troubles look like a spilled drink at a Saturday picnic. The Chinese economy groans a bit under the weight of humanitarian aid and refugees by the million crossing its border, but hangs in there fairly well.

This is then followed by riots and frequent murders in China and SK of NK refugees, precipitating a worldwide diaspora of NK refugees that, again, equals or exceeds any single refugee crisis seen in the last couple decades, including Syria.
posted by tclark at 1:30 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]

In this scenario, the Korean peninsula is dead. Full stop. The nukes will sterilize a huge part of the north. In the South, the chemical warfare plus the nukes will kill off a huge chunk of the population. Fallout will make what's left uninhabitable. Basically, whoever survives the weeks after the war may be better off looking for refugee status somewhere.

The US will likely be paralyzed. Dear Leader Trump will become a war criminal. Basically, the only way back into polite society is for him to be turned over to the Hague, and whoever the new leadership is basically renounces is time in office*, makes serious restitution, and unilaterally rids itself of nukes.

Basically, the US needs to be prepared for--and I don't think Trump gets it:
  1. There won't be a limited, surgical war in Korea. It's all or nothing.
  2. Like it or not, we'll get to weapons of mass destruction quickly.
  3. The US needs to be prepared to rebuild both countries from the ground up at a humanitarian level.
While I think the military leaders get #1, Trump doesn't. He has no problem with #2. He doesn't give a damn about #3.

*Which I suspect may be the approach the next president takes, regardless.
posted by MrGuilt at 2:02 PM on August 7 [4 favorites]

"I told you so"
posted by growabrain at 3:14 PM on August 7

The supposition that NK will soon have missile-capable thermonuclear weapons is, at best, stupidly generous.

What NK are known to have are Little Boy style gun-type atomic bombs. These are easy if you have the resources of even a small and backward nation. NK failed on their first attempt because they knew plutonium could be made more easily than U-235, and they tried to make a Plutonium gun bomb. These predetonate, resulting in what the wonks call a "fizzle." Their first ~1 kiloton explosion is almost exactly what you would expect from a Plutonium gun bomb fizzle. So on their next try they used U-235, although it's a more precious material, and got their 10 kt design yield.

There is no evidence so far that they have even tried, much less been successful, at making an implosion bomb. That's not particularly hard with today's technology; explosive implosion spheres are used in industrial materials testing. But they're also export controlled. And the neutron generating initiator to start the reaction is a nontrivial add-on, which is much easier in a gun type bomb.

Both Fat Man and Little Boy weighed over 10,000 lb and were not deliverable by missile.

Once you have implosion bombs, there are two improvements you can make. The most spectacular is of course the thermonuclear, where you use the fission explosion of an implosion bomb to start a fusion reaction in a fuel like liquid deuterium or lithium-6 deuteride (both of which are pretty precious materials also). Contrary to much propaganda, that fusion reaction doesn't yield most of the blast energy; it creates a massive flux of neutrons, which can induce fusion in the depleted uranium tamper. This is why H-bombs are dirty -- about 80% of their energy derives from induced fission in normally non-fissionable U238.

The first thermonuclear bombs were even bigger and more unwieldy than Fat Man, having essentially a Fat Man lookalike as a trigger and a much larger thermonuclear second stage. Mike was not deliverable at all, and when Castle Bravo was weaponized it was only deliverable by the very largest airplanes that have ever been built. And thermonukes are hard to build; postwar Britain, with far more resources available from its global empire than NK will ever have, failed on its first try.

So the next step after you have thermonukes is miniaturization. Miniaturization involves using fusion fuels, particularly tritium (which is an extremely precious material) to "boost" the atomic bomb fission reaction. This introduces more neutrons, making much smaller critical masses possible. With boosting, it's possible to make a Fat Man like bomb little more than a foot across, putting out almost as much energy as Fat Man did. The output also comes out in a shorter pulse than in a full-sized bomb, which is an advantage in the trigger of a thermonuke.

It is also very, very difficult to design, build, and source the exotic materials for boosted bombs. NK is not even close to this technology, and probably does not have the resources to ever perfect it. Making boosted weapons without testing is essentially impossible, and we would know if they were trying. They aren't.

Finally, if you have miniaturized implosion fission bombs, you can use them as the triggers for miniaturized thermonukes. These are what the US mostly deploy nowadays, bombs weighing a few hundred pounds and delivering a few hundred kilotons yield. NK is several basically impossible steps from ever getting such weapons, and they are the only weapons worth putting in the nose of an ICBM. And that's not even counting the difficulty of aiming an ICBM accurately at a target half-way around the world. That's yet another problem you don't solve without extensive testing, and NK hasn't even pretended to start. Yes, they can make a missile that will most likely bomb a few cows in the midwest, but actually hitting a city and doing more than triggering a call to the local fire department in the unlikely event it hits its target? No way.

There was once a time when you would have had to be an insider with a security clearance to know any of this stuff, but we live in a post-Howard Morland and Richard Rhodes world now. Rhodes two books alone, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb will tell you all you need to know about why this Economist article is alarmist fanfic drivel. It is truly a sad day for a respected institution like The Economist that they published this fantasy. What's next, the yellow peril?
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:38 PM on August 7 [28 favorites]

The Economist was predicting an Orange Peril, surely.

Which is the same Peril everyone on that peninsula is worried about
posted by anem0ne at 4:55 PM on August 7

NK is not even close to this technology, and probably does not have the resources to ever perfect it.

Part of the resources needed is many many watts of electrical power. The nation is not well known for its excess electrical generation power.

It is claimed a large part of the US silver stockpile is in the form of elecromagnets for the bomb making efforts based on some old black and white photos. (When the US isn't blowing up $16K of silver in batteries everytime a tomahawk missile is fired.)

I'm guessing the blog that discusses nuke policy (who's name escapes me) has done the calculations on the power needed to run the known gear to do this. Overlay that with the known electrical generation of North Korea and you'd have an idea of how far off they are.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:12 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

It is claimed a large part of the US silver stockpile is in the form of elecromagnets

That was the case for U-235 enrichment by the cyclotron method, which was used (along with other methods) to make Little Boy. Nobody does that any more because the new method is centrifuges, which are much faster and more power efficient. But still much slower than using reactors and chemistry to breed and isolate Plutonium.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:57 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

How about a shipping container?

I have said for some time that given their capability, NK's most likely atomic attack vector is a panel truck parked in Seoul. A shipping container is a secondary possibility, but stands a fair chance of being detected because of radiation detectors put in place to detect contaminated steel, and still with such a low yield just not doing the kind of damage that seriously disables your much larger and more capable opponent.

The scenario described in the fanfic fantasy OP is not really believable unless NK can somehow pose the kind of existential threat to the US that the US does to NK, which it doesn't and isn't going to any time soon or ever. They can cause a lot of damage, a horrific amount of damage, and in fact they've done that on the Korean peninsula, but even if they punch a Hiroshima-sized hole in an American city we will rise up as if a force of nature and smite them with weapons they can only dream about, and they know it. They would only ever even try such a thing as a suicidal exuent stage left. Which might be a gambit for them if we back them into a corner too much.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:04 PM on August 7 [5 favorites]

"Do you know something I don't?"

If there was ever an atomic bomb in the Russian embassy, there are two possibilities: Either it was boosted, or it wasn't.

If it wasn't boosted it weighed at least 10,000 lb and was about 6 feet across. Shipping all the pieces of such a thing in diplomatic pouches would have been an heroic occupation and assembling them would have kept a large team busy for at least a couple of months. I don't believe it.

If it was boosted, the whole thing might have it in a relatively modest container. But then it would be intimately dependent on tritium, a component with a twelve-year half-life. Tritium isn't especially precious to the Russians, who have resources NK can only dream of, but once you've set up your nuke in the embassy servicing it in the way that is routine for US boosted nukes becomes a bit of a problem. So this thing was there in the 1960's? It is now quite dead.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:20 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

> the economist publishes fanfic now?
For quite some time, and infamously so. An example is this one: How the slow death of Labour might happen. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn's one weird trick would go on to totally blow their minds.

They can still issue the challenge "Prove we're not, at this moment, living in a fanfic as we speak!", can't they?
posted by runcifex at 7:31 PM on August 7


P.S. I know I always post it, but I feel like it's worth reposting for those who haven't seen it.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:14 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

Bringer Tom Given how many thousands of tonnes of illegal drugs cross the US border every year, I don't think it's particularly outrageous to think that a few tens of thousands of pounds of atomic weapons or chemical weapons did/do as well.

The Soviet Union knew damn well that the US was leading it in technology, but that the US had borders which were easily penetrated even by civilians.

The counterargument, of course, is that the US border patrol does intercept some shipments of drugs, so if there were many nukes being shipped across then odds are good that one of them would be intercepted.

On the gripping hand, if they'd shipped in just one they'd only have had to get lucky once.
posted by sotonohito at 6:40 AM on August 8

Assuming that the US border patrol did intercept a shipment of nuclear weapons material, what would be the observable consequences of this? Presumably there'd be no announcement, and it would be kept out of the news. Would we see diplomatic actions or changes in policy that would be otherwise inexplicable?
posted by acb at 7:22 AM on August 8

WaPo: North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say

Of course, take this with a grain of yellowcake...
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:47 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Well the drugs being shipped across the border don't start in tightly guarded storage controlled by the military. Which is not to say things are perfect, but it's not a very comparable situation.
posted by Bringer Tom at 10:00 AM on August 8

God, the WaPo article about NK's miniature nuclear bombs is so fishy. Like Iraq WMD fishy. I hope we are not spiraling down towards a war.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:43 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

As I posted in the political thread, that WaPo article simply beggars belief, considering how recently they were definitely building gun bombs which can't be miniaturized at all.

This is, incidentally, why Howard Morland argued that the so-called "secret" of the H-bomb should be published. It's still very hard to build one even if you know the basic principles, but it's much harder to lie to you about where they come from and what they do when you know those basics.
posted by Bringer Tom at 12:07 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I'll certainly agree that it seems a bit fishy that the DPRK is being reported as having this sudden surge in both delivery systems and nuke miniaturization. The comparison to the runup to Iraq is apt.

OTOH, throwing an appreciable fraction of a national GDP at a problem tends to produce results even with a GDP as small as the DPRK's must be.

The real problem is that the DPRK have turned themselves into perfect US enemies. If it were pretty much any other nation I don't think there'd be nearly as much flipping of shit. But the DPRK has been rattling sabers and threatening to turn the US into a lake of fire for decades. Which makes their acquisition of nukes seem a lot more threatening even to people who aren't inclined towards hawkishness.

Sure, everyone assumes all the threats and bluster from the Kims are just shit talking and not intended as real threats. But that's still a problem. The person putting on a raving ragebeast impression is a lot more worrying when they've got the ability to back up their rants and raves.

And now we've got Trump basically doing Kim back at Kim.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
You take out the attribution and that could easily be one of Kim's ravings.

Trump is certainly amoral, self centered, and egomaniacal enough that the risk to Seoul is utterly irrelevant to him. He'd probably see the DPRK glassing Seoul as a great thing, it'd boost his ratings and give him an excuse to play with the big boy toys.

I have no doubt that Mad King Don thinks a war with the DPRK would be the greatest thing ever, it'd certainly boost his ratings.

Problem is, just because it'd be a huge PR boost for Republicans doesn't mean the DPRK hasn't really managed to build an ICBM and a nuke that'll fit on board. It seems a bit unlikely given the timeframe involved, and I'm certainly on board with a large degree of paranoid caution about the risk of being manipulated into yet another Republican war. But it isn't entirely impossible.

Worse, you don't actually need an ICBM. A shorter range missile that can carry even a gun type bomb and be launched from tramp freighter is more than sufficient.

I think it's very likely that the leaders of the DPRK have decided that having nukes is basically a get out of US invasions free card, same reason the leaders of Iran want nukes. ICBM's are a nice bonus, but not necessary to make DPRK nukes a real threat.

I'm not torn, I'm opposed to any war Mad King Don wants. But just because he's a liar doesn't mean that the DPRK isn't also a threat. It's just a threat that calls for cautious handling and careful thought, neither of which the US is even slightly prepared to employ. And the media playing Iraq 2: Electric Boogaloo with the DPRK damn sure doesn't help matters.
posted by sotonohito at 2:45 PM on August 8

What bothers me is that this whole missile-capable nuke thing appears to be the coordinated culmination of a propaganda effort that's been going on for some time, possibly originating with the DPRK but being picked up and amplified instead of properly mocked by our own authorities. From their earliest missile tests the headlines have conflated NK's missiles and nukes, as if either had anything to do with the other, when they clearly didn't. Now, of course, they are trying to force that conflation. Not that it's any more believable to someone who knows the physics and engineering challenges, but people have been conditioned to think that NK has missiles and nukes and that must mean missiles carrying nukes for at least a year now, when anyone with the slightest knowledge knew better and yet nobody was calling bullshit on it.

I believe the DPRK wants everyone to think they have nuclear ICBM's, for the testosterone points. I find it much more ominous that Western interests seem to want everyone to think the same thing. Aluminum tubes indeed. The reports are quite vague and deliberately misleading. Just how "miniaturized" are these bombs, eh? Presumably we would have some idea if there was intelligence about it, but no, we just have a vague "missile deliverable bombs" now. So is this missile deliverable bomb half the diameter and an eighth the weight of Fat Man, so it can barely be delivered a short distance by NK's most powerful missile with a Hiroshimia-sized (which is to say strategically completely ineffective) yield, or are they down to the size of modern H-bomb fission triggers? There is a very, very big difference and something of a range of possibilities in between. High miniaturization is extremely difficult, both technically and in terms of materials that have to be acquired to make it possible.

Frankly, I am only barely convinced they have made an implosion based device of any sort. I suppose if they got 30 kt they probably did, and may have even pumped a little tritium into the core to get a yield boost. None of this makes them at all a direct threat to the USA though, and leaves them still very far from being so. And I'd be really curious as to what their supply of tritium looks like for making more bombs. For reference, the US has no supply at all since the one reactor we had for making it was old and poorly contained, and we have been harvesting and re-refining the tritium from bombs being serviced as we reduce the size of our arsenal.

The Russians are the one source that could be supplying them with some of this shit, but you'd have to ask why. And just because you get a New Old Stock modern bomb from your bud *somewhere* doesn't mean it still works (Tritium has a 12-year half-life) or that you can successfully duplicate it (miniaturized nukes are hard. You basically have to solve all the problems necessary to make an H-bomb, then solve a bunch more problems, most of which you can't solve without the data from a fair amount of testing.)

Not only do they have to solve miniaturization, they also have to solve navigation, re-entry, and triggering, which are all nontrivial missile problems there is no evidence NK has the slightest beginning on.

So yeah, my spidey sense is tingling at the folks in the West who seem so eager and willing and gullible about pushing this issue. The DPRK doesn't really scare me, but those guys do.
posted by Bringer Tom at 3:28 PM on August 8 [8 favorites]

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