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Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric has taken a worrying turn as the size of his nuclear arsenal has swelled.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
thunderstorms Pyongyang
sunny Khartoum
thunderstorms Washington
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April 17, 2023


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Jay Solomon
Jay Solomon

Hello and welcome to Semafor Security, where we dive into the forces and personalities defending, defining, and destabilizing the world.

Kim Jong Un and his North Korean regime are often portrayed as clowns or cartoons. I know I’ve been guilty of doing it. But the expansion of the North’s nuclear weapons program in recent years, and his talk of a potential first strike, is sobering and underreported. A study released last week by the Institute for Science and International Security concludes that Pyongyang’s weapons stockpile grew by 75% over the past five years, and as I explain in my main story, there’s literally nothing right now constraining it.

Sudan is also a country that gets little attention in Washington. But the feud between its top two generals, which descended into all out warfare this weekend, is bringing into sharp focus its geopolitical significance. Everyone from Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group to the Israelis to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are active there now.

Karina Tsui also weighs in on the Biden administration’s tighter embrace of Vietnam and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s focus on the links between Chinese chemical producers and Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.

Let me know what you think of this newsletter, and please send tips to jsolomon@semafor.com.


Moscow: Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday for a “productive” discussion on the two countries’ growing military ties. Putin said Moscow and Beijing are actively holding joint exercises in Asia that include ground, naval, and air forces. Li, in response, said that the two countries’ relations “outperform the military-political unions of the Cold War era.”

Washington: The U.S. slapped sanctions on two Chinese companies and five individuals for allegedly supplying precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl to drug cartels in Mexico. According to a Treasury Department announcement, one of the sanctioned individuals, a Guatemalan citizen, appeared to be working with the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous, which is led by the children of the imprisoned kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Hanoi: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Hanoi to break ground on a new American embassy in Vietnam — part of a broader push to advance ties with China’s neighbors. Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Blinken said that security cooperation was a core component of relations between Washington and Hanoi. U.S. defense companies are seeking to expand sales to Vietnam’s military and steer the communist country away from a dependence on Russian arms.

– Karina

Jay Solomon

North Korea is talking up its ‘offensive’ nuclear capabilities

North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency


North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal grew by as much as 75% over the past five years, as U.S. and Chinese diplomatic efforts to halt Pyongyang’s advances languished.

This expansion, detailed in a recent report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, includes the North generating enough fissile material for six new nuclear bombs a year, using a mix of uranium-enrichment facilities and nuclear reactors inside the closeted country.

Pyongyang likely now has a stockpile of 72 bombs, up from 41 in 2017, the ISIS study concludes. Its estimates are based, in part, on historic data from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog tracking North Korea’s production of fissile material, and information gleaned more recently from American and European visitors to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex. The group notes that its findings are somewhat uncertain because North Korea is now developing larger and increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons that require more plutonium and uranium.

Pyongyang has also been growing its stock of missiles. According to the U.S. government, the North tested 63 in 2022, more than double its previous annual record. These include eight intercontinental ballistic missiles that the North says are targeted at the western U.S. and overseas American military bases, such as in Guam.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the test of a Hwasong-18 ICBM last Thursday, along with his daughter and his sister. The North also recently claimed to have successfully tested a nuclear-equipped underwater attack drone capable of creating a “radioactive tsunami.”


North Korea’s atomic surge is coinciding with a troubling shift in Kim’s rhetoric about his military strategy and war planning. Gone are the days of Pyongyang’s leaders talking solely about their need for a nuclear deterrent to guard against American militarism. Today, the 39-year-old is touting his “offensive” capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons, that could be used by Pyongyang to win a land war against South Korea.

Last week, Kim met with North Korea’s Central Military Commission as the U.S. and South Korea has staged some of the largest war games in history on the Peninsula. The North’s leader called for a “more practical and offensive” nuclear arsenal to “cope with the escalating moves of the U.S. imperialists,” according to state media.

Pyongyang’s propaganda organs have also begun regularly publishing pictures of battle maps and miniaturized nuclear warhead designs as a signal to the world of how they could use tactical nukes in a war with the South.


Interpreting Kim’s saber rattling is always tricky, and it would be an exaggeration to suggest that he is clearly signaling a willingness to launch a nuclear first strike. But North Korea-watchers do say the most alarming aspect of the buildup is that Kim seems to sincerely believe he could win a nuclear exchange. “North Korea continues to come back to this idea that this isn’t about détente,” David Albright, the author of the ISIS report, told Semafor.

The unrestrained growth of North Korea’s nuclear program also poses major proliferation risks globally. While Kim has pledged not share any of his nation’s nuclear weapons or materials, Pyongyang has a horrific track record.

In 2008, Israel’s military destroyed a reactor in Syria that the U.N. concluded was entirely built by North Korea. The North also traded with the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, swapping North Korean missile components for Islamabad’s centrifuge equipment. Going forward, the more weapons and fissile material North Korea has to spare, the greater the risk it could trade some away for desperately needed hard currency.

It’s possible that North Korea’s program would be moving at less of a breakneck pace today were it not for a crucial decision made by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Kim held three summits with Trump, and ultimately agreed to some vague limitations on its arsenal under the 2018 Singapore declaration.

But this diplomacy broke down a year later over the pace and scope of denuclearization. Trump’s then-national security advisor, John Bolton, demanded a “Libyan model” from the North: a reference to a U.S. deal with Tripoli’s late dictator, Moammar Ghadafi, in which he gave up his entire program all at once in exchange for diplomatic recognition and sanctions relief. Kim balked, according to U.S. officials, offering only to shut down the Yongbyon complex in the initial phase of the process.

Trump later blamed Bolton for unraveling the North Korea diplomacy. “We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model ... what a disaster,” he told reporters at the White House. The advantages of at least having a framework to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear advances, rather than the current unrestrained program, are becoming more apparent over time.


The Biden administration has made a number of diplomatic overtures to the North Korean government over the past two years to hold discussions about the nuclear issue “without preconditions.” But Pyongyang hasn’t responded, according to senior U.S. officials. U.S. President Biden also sought to enlist Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a partner to pressure Kim — arguing in Bali last November that Beijing had an “obligation” to curb the North’s nuclear advances — but also without gaining any commitments.

Kim, however, has made it clear in recent months that he isn’t interested in giving up his nuclear arsenal. Last November, Kim told North Korea’s parliament that his nuclear program was irreversible and that he possessed the right to strike first with nuclear weapons to guard against a U.S. or South Korean attack.

Barring diplomacy, the Biden administration has committed to maintaining stringent economic sanctions on North Korea to roll back its nuclear work. But without firm Chinese cooperation, these financial penalties are unlikely to alter Kim’s strategy, according to current and former U.S. officials. Pyongyang continues to generate hard currency from the export of workers and coal to China, according to reports from South Korea.


Bolton slammed Trump as naïve and said his diplomacy was only going to solidify North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and not mitigate its hostility towards the U.S. “It seems to be clear that [North Korea] has not made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons,” Bolton said in a 2019 speech. “In fact, I think the contrary is true. I think the strategic decision that Kim Jong Un is operating through is he will do whatever he can to keep a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.”

REUTERS/Margaret Small

Twenty-one-year-old Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira could face up to 15 years in prison for leaking highly classified Pentagon documents onto social media sites. But those who helped spread them online may face no consequences at all.

The Wall Street Journal found that Sarah Bils, a 37-year-old former U.S. Navy noncommissioned officer, had reposted many of Teixeira’s stolen intelligence documents across pro-Russian chatrooms, despite acknowledging their sensitive nature. Bils helps run a network of pro-Kremlin social media accounts under the alias “Donbass Devushka,” which were found to have also contributed to a significant part in pro-Russian war propaganda online. According to the Journal, there seemed to be no evidence showing that Bils may have worked with Teixeira or stole the classified information herself — so should she be held accountable?

While the Pentagon says it’s reviewing intelligence access and accountability to help prevent future leaks, the Justice Department and the U.S. Navy declined to respond to the Journal’s questions on Bils’ involvement.

To find out more on how Jack Teixeira gained access to the classified documents, read our recent explainer here.

— Karina


The number of diesel-electric submarines the Argentine Navy is set to acquire from France and Germany. Buenos Aires currently has no operating submarines, and local military analysts say the purchases could cost the cash-strapped nation up to $1.3 billion.

– Karina


⋉ ADVANCE: Grinding forward. Russia made strong advances on the northern and southern edges of the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut — forcing Kyiv’s troops to pull back from some territory. The recent gains by the Kremlin’s ground forces have been driven, in part, by better coordination between Russia’s defense ministry and the paramilitary Wagner group, according to British intelligence.

⋊ RETREAT: No sale. China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, said Beijing wouldn’t supply Moscow with weapons for its war in Ukraine. This marked the most explicit statement thus far from Beijing concerning Western fears that China might support Vladimir Putin, and it drew cautious optimism from Washington. In February, the Biden administration claimed China was moving to arm Moscow.

— Karina

One Good Text

Susan Stigant is the director of the Africa Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Persons of Interest
Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (L) and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (R)
Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (L) and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (R) Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan & Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo: A feud between Sudan’s two most powerful generals, and the threat of a broader civil war, is reverberating across the Middle East.

Soldiers loyal to Khartoum’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and its most powerful militia commander, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, turned on each other this weekend, stoking fighting across the country that has killed at least 56 people. Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces are now claiming control over most of Sudan’s capital, though Burhan’s army disputes this claim.

The two generals swept to power in 2019 after launching a coup d’état against Sudan’s long-standing dictator, Omar al-Bashir. The men currently lead a transitional body, with Burhan as its head, that’s supposed to be paving the way for nation-wide elections and the integration of Dagalo’s RSF militia into the regular army. But the two men have quarreled over the makeup of this future military body, and pushed back on the public’s calls for the military to divest itself from lucrative business interests, particularly in mining.

The fallout from the generals’ battle has huge geopolitical implications. The Russian government is in talks with Khartoum to build a naval base on the Red Sea, to the chagrin of Washington. And the Kremlin’s paramilitary Wagner Group helps Dagalo’s forces mine gold in the country, with some of the proceeds returning to Russia. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are also major investors in Sudan, and the Israeli government forged diplomatic relations with Khartoum in 2020 as part of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Saturday and urged them to use their influence with the two generals to end the fighting and return Sudan to a democratic path. “The only way forward is to return to negotiations that support the Sudanese people’s democratic aspirations,” Blinken said.


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— Jay

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