We somehow have survived, and prospered living on the same planet Earth with all three dictatorships, with first the Soviet Union, then the People’s Republic of China, and now with the most recent arrival of the three, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea. We have kept all three at more than arm’s length (sometimes a lot more) and have in regard to the first two only exceptionally felt threatened.
Now the third, the Kim family is close to having its own nuclear deterrent and we’re seeing it as a greater threat than the others, Kim appearing much like a madman enjoying his first real taste of real power, and that’s frightening. He appears with his growing nuclear and missile capabilities not only as an area threat to our allies in the East, but also to California and our own western states. Common feeling if not common sense says take them out. This was probably President Trump’s first reaction to the Kims, and for once he didn’t tweet it. But things have changed rapidly in the few months of his presidency and under his “leadership” we now seem totally without a viable strategic plan of action regarding North Korea and Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, we hear nary a word from Steve Bannon, the President’s own strategic planner, Bannon probably having, more than his president, a good sense of the limitations of the office, and of the few strategic steps if any that might be taken.
The reporters and the op ed columnists that I read are now writing about Kim, there being a lot to say because of so many possible, plausible, and terrible outcomes, but none of the writers has come up with a solution. Unless you count Thomas Friedman and Mark Bowden who come if not to a solution to a conclusion regarding how to deal with North Korea. And that is, don’t do anything, stand pat. For as they explain having a nuclear armed North Korea may be the least bad of the alternatives out there. Friedman says this in a relatively few words, Bowden in ten or more times as many. To read Bowden’s article go to the Atlantic web site. You can read almost the entire Friedman op piece, and a greatly shortened Bowden piece below.
And as you read, as you live and think about such things, ask yourself just how likely it is that Kim will wake up one morning and set fire to his world, and our world?
Solving the Korea Crisis by Teaching a Horse to Sing
SEOUL, South Korea — Some stories have to be experienced to fully grasp — the Korea crisis is one of them. I arrived in Seoul on the evening of May 28. As I was dressing for breakfast the next morning, I was jarred by a news alert ringing on my phone: North Korea had just fired a short-range ballistic missile that had landed in the sea off its east coast.
I waited for the sirens to tell us to go to the hotel shelter, as happened when I was in Israel during a Hamas rocket attack. But there were no sirens. Nothing. The breakfast buffet was packed. The mood was: Another North Korean missile test? Oh, pay no attention to our crazy cousins. Could you pass the kimchi, please?
I was immediately reminded of my favorite quote from when I lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, where people also became inured to the constant threat of violence. It was from a Beirut hostess who asked her dinner guests, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?”
A few hours after the missile test, two U.S. B-1B Lancer strategic bombers out of Guam flew right up to the North’s border on what North Korea called “a nuclear bomb dropping drill.” No matter. The South Korean stock market didn’t flinch.
In fact, one of the most popular housing markets for young Koreans today is Musan, located just south of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating the South from the North. It’s an easy commute to Seoul, and young people have gamed out that if the North launched rockets or artillery shells, they would likely go over their heads because they are so close to the border! Human beings! God love ’em. Their ability to adapt never ceases to amaze me.
I interviewed a group of South Korean college students at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and here’s what some said: “The fear has been diluted — as time goes by you just get used to it.” “We don’t really believe that North Korea can harm us or launch war, because we think we are stronger than them economically and militarily.” “We heard the G.D.P. gap between us and North Korea is 20 times, and we don’t want to pay more taxes to fix them up.” “When I went to the U.S. I freaked out [over] why people there care more about North Korea than me.”
After a couple of days of such discussions, I realized that America is now the odd man out in this drama. Why? Because China and South Korea have one thing in common: The thing they fear most is not a North Korean nuclear missile blowing them up. It’s North Korea either blowing itself up — economically collapsing under the weight of sanctions — or being blown up by America.
That would spill refugees and fissile material into China and South Korea, presenting both with a huge cleanup bill and China with a possible united Korea with a nuclear weapon next door.
The U.S. — by contrast — now fears North Korea blowing us up, or at least Los Angeles. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington fears North Korea more than ever, while China and South Korea fear a unilateral U.S. strike on North Korea more than ever….
The U.S. has dispatched to South Korea Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile batteries. But the new South Korean president is delaying their full deployment, fearing it will provoke the North or alienate China — which doesn’t like a U.S. antimissile system near its border that can also cover its airspace; China has imposed a partial economic boycott on Seoul to make that clear.
When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un also started threatening the U.S. by building a long-range nuclear missile, the story shifted for America. “It was not about reassuring us anymore but its own people,” added Hahm, “which means that Washington does not have to consult us. It can do what it needs to do.” And Trump’s America-first rhetoric only amplifies the worry here that he will. Some people “are more scared of [Trump] than Kim Jong-un,” concluded Hahm. “Kim Jong-un they understand.”
North Korea gets 95 percent of its oil from China. Beijing could shut down the North’s economy overnight by shutting off that oil. But it hasn’t. It has suspended purchases of North Korean coal, hurting Pyongyang financially, but not enough to stop missile testing. For now, it appears that China will do just enough to keep Trump at bay — by keeping North Korea from putting the last screws on a nuclear missile that can hit the U.S. — but never enough to collapse the regime or definitively end its nuclear program.
What about diplomacy? For now, North Korea shows no willingness to trade its nuclear arsenal for guarantees that the U.S. will not pursue regime change, and Trump is not going to give such guarantees without total denuclearization.
In sum, China and South Korea don’t dare starve the North for fear it could collapse. They don’t dare shoot it for fear it could shoot back. They and the Americans don’t dare negotiate with Kim for fear that they will end up blessing his nukes — and because they don’t trust him to keep any deal. And they don’t dare ignore him, because he keeps getting stronger.
So we all wait — for something.
Indeed, the whole situation reminds me of the medieval fable of the criminal hauled before the king to plead for his life and successfully does so by promising that if the king spared his life for a year he could teach the king’s favorite horse to sing.
When the criminal got back to his cell, his cellmate scoffed at him: You could never teach the king’s horse to sing if you had a lifetime. And the man said: “No matter. I have a year now that I didn’t have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”
And that is our North Korea policy. Waiting for something to solve this insoluble problem. Waiting for a horse to sing.
How to Deal With North Korea
There are no good options. But some are worse than others.
The Atlantic, July/August 2017
Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it would take a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from North Korea to reach Los Angeles. With the powers in Pyongyang working doggedly toward making this possible—building an ICBM and shrinking a nuke to fit on it—analysts now predict that Kim Jong Un will have the capability before Donald Trump completes one four-year term.
About which the president has tweeted, simply, “It won’t happen!”
Though given to reckless oaths, Trump is not in this case saying anything that departs significantly from the past half century of futile American policy toward North Korea. Preventing the Kim dynasty from having a nuclear device was an American priority long before Pyongyang exploded its first nuke, in 2006, during the administration of George W. Bush. The Kim regime detonated four more while Barack Obama was in the White House.
For his part, Trump has also tweeted that North Korea is “looking for trouble” and that he intends to “solve the problem.” …
None of which, we should all pray, will amount to much. …There are no good options for dealing with North Korea.
The comic-book-style foundation myth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. holds that Korea and the Kim dynasty are one and the same. It is built almost entirely on the promise of standing up to a powerful and menacing foreign enemy. The more looming the threat—and Trump excels at looming—the better the narrative works for Kim Jong Un. Nukes are needed to repel this threat. They are the linchpin of North Korea’s defensive strategy,…
Like his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung before him, Kim is the anointed defender of all Koreans, who are the purest of all races.
Kim’s regime may be evil and deluded, but it’s not stupid. It has made sure that the whole world knows its aims, and it has carried out public demonstrations of its progress, which double as a thumb in the eye of the U.S. and South Korea. …
North Korea’s military exercises leave little doubt that Pyongyang plans to use large numbers of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces throughout Japan and South Korea to blunt an invasion. In fact, the word that official North Korean statements use is “repel.” North Korean defectors have claimed that the country’s leaders hope that by inflicting mass casualties and destruction in the early days of a conflict, they can force the United States and South Korea to recoil from their invasion.
This isn’t new. This threat has been present for more than 20 years. …
How should the United States proceed?
As tensions flared in recent months, fanned by bluster from both Washington and Pyongyang, I talked with a number of national-security experts and military officers who have wrestled with the problem for years, and who have held responsibility to plan and prepare for real conflict. Among those I spoke with were former officials from the White House, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon; military officers who have commanded forces in the region; and academic experts.
From these conversations, I learned that the U.S. has four broad strategic options for dealing with North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear program.
1. Prevention: A crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military. It would end North Korea’s standoff with the United States and South Korea, as well as the Kim dynasty, once and for all.
2. Turning the screws: A limited conventional military attack—or more likely a continuing series of such attacks—using aerial and naval assets, and possibly including narrowly targeted Special Forces operations. These would have to be punishing enough to significantly damage North Korea’s capability—but small enough to avoid being perceived as the beginning of a preventive strike. The goal would be to leave Kim Jong Un in power, but force him to abandon his pursuit of nuclear ICBMs.
3. Decapitation: Removing Kim and his inner circle, most likely by assassination, and replacing the leadership with a more moderate regime willing to open North Korea to the rest of the world.
4. Acceptance: The hardest pill to swallow—acquiescing to Kim’s developing the weapons he wants, while continuing efforts to contain his ambition.
Although in late April Trump called Kim “a madman with nuclear weapons,” perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursuing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal nor crazy. In the five and a half years since assuming power at age 27, he has acted with brutal efficiency to consolidate that power; the assassination of his half brother is only the most recent example. As tyrants go, he’s shown appalling natural ability. For a man who occupies a position both powerful and perilous, his moves have been nothing if not deliberate and even cruelly rational.