Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar

Emergency meeting in Vienna, North Korea’s recent missile launches

a 7-minute news roundup from the Press the Button podcast

This is a transcript of a recent Early Warning segment from the podcast Press the Button, in which Michelle Dover, Mary Kaszynski, and Daniel Wertz discuss an emergency meeting in Vienna and North Korea’s recent missile launches. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Early Warning segment, July 16, 2019

  • Michelle Dover, Director of Programs
  • Mary Kaszynski, Dep. Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund
  • Daniel Wertz, Program Mgr., Nat’l Committee on North Korea

Michelle: This weekend we saw an emergency meeting in Vienna with officials from Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, basically everybody except the US who signed up to the deal. And the point of the meeting was to see whether there was a way to save the agreement in light of the increase in tensions — we saw the tankers being taken, we saw the missile test by Iran, we’ve seen an increase in sanctions by the US since the withdrawal and overall just a fraying of the agreement. Iranian officials said afterwards the meeting was constructive, but there are unresolved issues and Tehran will continue to reduce its nuclear commitments if Europeans fail to salvage the pact. So, the question is, do you think it’s salvageable? What do we need to see from the parties in order to sustain it, knowing the US is sending such mixed signals?

Mary: Well, it’s absolutely salvageable, and I think that is really the important take-away. The parties are still talking. They’re still talking about what they could possibly do that would be acceptable to Iran. There was good news from the Iranian official who said this was important progress, and that’s again, when your 2 options are a military conflict or continuing these negotiations, we’re on the right track. Now the bad news is that Iran announced that they might take some steps to further reduce their compliance with the nuclear agreement. It remains to be seen if they actually will take those steps or if the Europeans, Russians and Chinese can put together some economic benefits, whether that’s humanitarian trade or maybe a purchase of oil that would make it acceptable to Iran, that would make it worth Iran’s staying in the nuclear agreement. It remains to be seen, but this meeting was important progress. That’s what we’ve heard from officials.

Michelle: Watching this tit-for-tat as the US puts on more sanctions, Iran announces another step, it just is a really big remainder that this is the reason we have the deal — to keep Iran’s program limited.

Mary: That’s exactly right, and I think we’re seeing also from US officials that they really want Iran to continue complying, that it was a good deal, it worked, and it would be extremely dangerous if this deal falls apart, for US security, and for global security.

Michelle: Well, thanks Mary. So, turning to you Dan, let’s talk about North Korea. South Korean officials said on Thursday that North Korea launched two short-range missiles, which they described as a new kind of short-range ballistic missile. This was echoed by North Korean state-run media reporting the next day, that they had fired their new tactical, guided weapon in a solemn warning to ‘South Korean military war-mongers’. Why is North Korea launching missiles if we are still on this diplomatic path vs. the “fire and fury” we saw a year ago?

Dan: Two reasons at least. Short term reasons. One, the US and South Korea are set to resume military exercises next month, despite the fact as President Trump promised, somewhat off-handedly in Singapore a year ago, that US-South Korea war-games, as he called them, would cease. Now the exercises that are to take place are significantly scaled down from the exercises that have taken place in past years. They’re mostly computerized exercises this year, they’re about transfer of operational control from a US-led command during war-time to a joint US-South Korea command, but the North Koreans none-the-less are very unhappy that exercises of any type are taking place. They’re also upset that South Korea recently announced that it would go ahead with purchasing F-35 fighter planes from the United States.

Michelle: So, what has been the US administration’s response to these, what some would call, provocations?

Dan: Well, President Trump, and to some extent Secretary Mike Pompeo, have kind of played down the importance of these North Korean missile tests. The South Koreans seem more alarmed for their part, and I think North Korea clearly intended that to be the respective responses of the US and South Korea. In a statement that North Korea put out announcing these tests, that was squarely aimed at South Korea, didn’t mention the US. They clearly want to keep some kind of decent relationship at least with President Trump alive for the time-being, but North Korea I think has made the decision that it’s time to put more pressure on South Korea at this time. Not only did they test these missiles, they unveiled a new submarine earlier in the week, and recently they indicated that they would reject a planned shipment of South Korean food-aid to the North which would be distributed through the UN agencies in the country, despite the fact that there is a significant food shortage that’s been reported this year.

Michele: So, we’ll have to see how that affects any of the upcoming talks. Continuing the discussion on missiles, we’ve discussed on this show before about how the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, affectionately known as the INF Treaty, is about to end. This is a treaty that was made between the US and at the time the Soviet Union in 1987, eliminated an entire class of weapons, all of the countries’ medium range ground launched, ballistic and cruise missiles, which had been seen as a sort of hair-trigger for nuclear war because of their short flight times. The treaty has been deteriorating over the last decade, with both sides accusing each other of non-compliance, Russia developing systems that would violate the treaty, and Russia accusing the US of unhelpful actions, and in February Trump and Pompeo announced that the US would suspend its obligations, withdraw six months later, that 6-month mark is this week. So, we’ve discussed this a bit before, but I’m curious to hear what you think about what happens in this new world when INF is officially over? Mary, what are Europe’s options? We’ve talked a lot about US and Russia, but Europe is a key player in this.

Mary: Right, well, Europe is in a very difficult position. I mean the whole reason we have this treaty was to stop a new arms race, and Europe is the battle ground for this new arms race. Again, Europe is in a very difficult position. The US under the Trump administration, particularly John Bolton, has been discussing building and deploying new INF missiles that would violate the INF treaty. So, once again, we are on the brink of a new arms race. Europe’s options are very limited. It’s a very dangerous situation.

Michelle: Dan, people a few people in Washington have talked about China being brought into a new round of talks to try and create a bigger, better INF. What do you think? What is the likelihood of that?

Dan: I think a tri-lateral INF would be wonderful, but very unrealistic to expect something, at least in the foreseeable future. I think that this idea of a tri-lateral US-Russia-China arms control agreement is kind of an excuse for people who want to throw bi-lateral US-Russia arms control treaties by the wayside. Keep in mind that it is the US and Russia that have 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world, and bi-lateral US-Russia arms control continues to be extremely important.


Listen to the whole episode, also featuring Smriti Keshari, award-winning director, artist, and co-creator of the bomb:


Photo: Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar / Air Force Space Command (public domain)