The United States practice bombing runs by a pair of B-2 Spirit stealth bombers (Link) have sent the rhetoric of the government of the Democratic Republic of Korea soaring into the stratosphere (Link). If the U.S. government goal had been a warning to the DPRK government to calm down or else, sending the B-2s on their expensive (Link) and roundabout training flights was a big flop.
However, as Max Fisher, blogging at the Washington post suggests, the flight by the B-2s most likely had the simultaneous purpose of demonstrating to South Korea the reliability of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence. (Link)
There has been a lot of talk in South Korea of late regarding the desirability of restarting a program toward an independent nuclear deterrent (Link), talk that the U.S. government would prefer to be too wacky for polite society in the best of times.
These are not the best of times -- and not just because the Kim regime in Pyongyang is going through a prolonged period of internal strife due to a premature transition of power.
The U.S. and South Korea are trying to nail down a renewal of the “123 agreement” on U.S. nuclear power generation technology. Without a 123 agreement South will find itself in a tough spot as regards its ambitious civilian nuclear power program. (Link)
What is holding up the agreement's renewal is the South Korean government insistence that South Korea have the right to use the U.S. technology it has licensed to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel and enrich uranium.
South Korea has 23 operating reactors and 4 more under construction (Link). It has another 7 nuclear power stations on the drawing board. Long term storage of spent fuel is a critical problem, as it is in Japan.
South Korea corporations also want to construct nuclear power stations in third countries. Having U.S. permission to enrich uranium -- another pathway to nuclear weapons status – would enable South Korean bids to be one of a full nuclear power package, rather than just a building with no fuel in it. (Link)
It must be galling for the South Korean government officials and possibly the public at large to know that their country, a staunch U.S. military ally, has been denied the use of U.S. technology for reprocessing and enrichment, when an ambiguous ally like Japan and non-allies like India are allowed them, with the international community clapping (unhappily, most of the time) at the scene.
The Obama Administration is highly reticent to approve either reprocessing or enrichment in the new 123 agreement. It has very little to show for its supposed rock hard commitment (Hello, Nobel Prize Committee!) to global nuclear disarmament. Permitting South Korean reprocessing and/or enrichment would seem like the utmost hypocrisy.
(Which is why it is not surprising that U.S. Republicans and U.S. Republicans-associated think tanks would be tilting in favor of a U.S.-South Korea agreement allowing reprocessing and enrichment.)
Sending the B-2s would be a decent preamble for a U.S. announcement that the new 123 agreement will not allow South Korean reprocessing or enrichment. The message to South Korea would be long but simple: "Look, you are doing fine in terms of access to fuel, you have sold reactors overseas without fuel enrichment, reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for civilian use is a hopeless nightmare (Link) and there is no doubting our extended nuclear deterrent. So what do you need?"
The B-2 flights have an ancillary benefit, of course, of reinforcing the U.S. extended deterrent promised to other non-NATO allies – most particularly in this instance, Japan. Seeking reassurance of the U.S. capability to deliver nuclear weapons in way that does not light up Russian and Chinese early warning radars – the problem with a strategic-missiles-only-deterrent-for-East-Asia-allies -- has led Japanese officials to take trips down some back alleys they later had to recant in convoluted fashion.
So the B-2 flights are not as stupid as they seem – and given the boost they have provided to the DPRK government's already histrionic war paranoia, they sure do seem stupid. The flights have provided a new, truly threatening subject for DPRK propagandists to harp on. They have also transmitted to the governments of South Korea and Japan messages those two governments probably needed to hear.
Tips of the hat to Our Man in Abiko and Robert Koehler for directions.