Commentary on North Korea

There has a been a lot of commentary over North Korea during the last few days as Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump let each other know their respective policies. Naturally, this has prompted people who know nothing about North Korea (or at least, hide their knowledge well) to score points against Trump. I was rather disappointed to see that Mick Hartley, who is usually pretty sound on North Korea, approvingly quote this garbage:

President Trump is an impulsive egotist with a lot to prove and he’s generally surrounded by yes-men. His threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” sounds very much like the nutball threats which the current leader of the Kim family and the North Korean state news agencies frequently make – various rage-and-threat-speak about seas of fire and other such nonsense.

This is a really bad and dangerous situation to start with. It was bad when President Obama left office. It’s gotten much worse since – through some mix of US threats and North Korean testing out the new administration. The worst possible thing is a President who is stupid, impulsively emotional and has something to prove, which is exactly what we have. (You think his litany of failures as President so doesn’t make him eager for a breakout, transformative moment?)  At the risk of stating the obvious, threats like this from a country that has the ability to kill everyone in North Korea at close to a moment’s notice can set off a highly unpredictable chain of events. What if North Korea issues more threats? Presumably Trump fails to respond with a nuclear attack and reveals his threats as empty or – truly, truly unimaginably – he launches a nuclear attack. These are not good choices to face.

The situation with North Korea would be an extreme challenge for a leader with ability and judgment. President Trump is simply too erratic, unstable and dangerous to be in charge in a situation like this.

This piece is not about North Korea at all, it’s about what the author thinks of Trump. North Korea is simply the excuse to write the words down, and adds no value whatsoever. Trump is surrounded my yes-men? Like James Mattis? And hasn’t a rather defining attribute of Trump’s presidency been that he can’t seem to get anyone around him to do what he wants? If any article you read on North Korea focuses mainly on Trump and his supposed inadequacies, it can be safely ignored.

North Korea has been an intractable problem since its formation. Many people are leaping up and down blaming America for Kim Jong-Un’s behaviour and that of his father and grandfather, but this is reflexive ignorance or anti-Americanism, especially now Trump is involved. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other places in which America has meddled, the problems caused by North Korea can be laid squarely at the feet of the ruling Kim Dynasty, the Soviets who created it, and the Chinese who support it. Blaming the Americans for antagonising the North Koreans is like blaming West Germany for antagonising the Soviets.

It’s not as though America hasn’t tried every approach it could. The idiots wringing their hands over Trump’s rhetoric seem to have missed that every president since Bush Snr. tried and failed to get North Korea to behave, and often acted in full partnership with the UN and China, Russia, and other partners. Every one of them failed, and Trump has inherited a problem which has arguably been made worse by his predecessors’ failures either to take it seriously or to believe the lies told by Kim Jong-Il. At the very least, Trump is trying to deal with the same shit-burger his predecessors did, only now it’s nuclear-armed. The problem is not one of Trump’s own making, and is not being made worse by language, but we can be sure half the west will fall over itself to criticise Trump and downplay the nature of the North Korean regime in order to score political points, undermining any attempt to solve the problem.

Sensible commentary has been provided, as usual, by Streetwise Professor:

North Korea represents one of the most daunting challenges imaginable. Although the North Korean military has aged and obsolete equipment, and would lose in an all out war, it could inflict massive casualties on whomever it fought. Further, it has the Sampson option: with massive conventional and chemical artillery forces in range of Seoul, before it was consumed in the inevitable retaliatory strike, North Korea could kill tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of South Koreans.

As I said, any commentary that emphasises Trump and downplays the enormous challenge North Korea represents can be safely ignored. I think there’s going to be a lot of rubbish written on this subject in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully Mick Hartley will adjust his filter and give us more stuff like this:

All of which sounds fine, but negotiations with North Korea have never worked in the past, simply because they never stick to their side of the bargain.

More importantly, it’s simply not true that Kim only wants to survive. What he really wants – what he’s working towards – is reunification of Korea, on his terms. Not to grasp that point is to fail to understand the dynamics behind Pyongyang’s aggression.

And this:

North Korea would not need intercontinental ballistic missiles to strike South Korea, whose capital sits just 35 miles from their shared border. Pyongyang has had the ability to detonate nuclear devices in Seoul via short- and medium-range ballistic missiles for years. There’s also reason to question the wisdom of nuking a proud, democratic city of 25 million people before attempting to rule it.

What an ICBM does for North Korea is establish deterrence in the event of a reunification campaign.

Kim Jong Un thinks “the nuclear weapons will prevent US from getting involved,” Sun said. “That’s why we see more and more people making the argument that the North Korea’s nuclear development is not aimed at the US, not aimed at South Korea, but aimed at reunification.”

Rather than this:

And, despite the promise of a firmer hand on the tiller in the shape of the president’s new chief of staff, General John Kelly, the crazy tweeting persists, and casual threats of war erupt from a man on a summer golfing break.

This could, in other words, all turn out much worse than even the president’s wary advisers, who know war (though far less ferocious war than this would likely be) may think. And if the war hype is all a Trump fake, it will be shown to be such. And as is usually the case with Trump fakes, others will pay the bill while he continues to golf.

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32 thoughts on “Commentary on North Korea

  1. “It’s not as though America hasn’t tried every approach it could”

    I don’t think they have tried truly holding the Chinese feet to the fire. Trump, for all his flaws, is actually capable of achieving a positive result I believe.

  2. Just to add, the North Koreans couldn’t inflict massive casualties to a US force, Iraq 1 demonstrated that very tellingly.

    Their ace card is having Seoul in artillery range, he could kill a lot of civilians before they were neutralized.

  3. People should calm down. America in one of its fits of hysteria is no more a pretty sight than the Guardian or the Beeb in their permanent states of hysteria.

    What I’ve seen so far is mainly twaddle: “the Norks are about to bombard Guam” rubbish. “Our snipers could have assassinated the wee fat bloke but didn’t” rubbish.

    What exactly is it that the Yanks hope to achieve, and by when do they hope to achieve it? What options have they got for achieving it: indeed, do they have any method of achieving their objectives that are remotely practical? By ‘remotely practical’ I exclude, for instance, action leading to the killing of vast numbers of Sorks.

    Meantime perhaps the Democrats would care to explain how their lust for war with Russia contributes to solving whatever the problem is with NorK.

  4. Ultimately it depends how keen China is on having a united, nuclear armed, Korea on its doorstep. I’d guess not at all keen, but not yet worried enough to actually take action.
    Let the Chinese know that the Japanese and S Koreans will get nuclear weapons and delivery systems should the Norms obtain the same and China might become more interested.
    As to Trump’s tweeting- would he really be wise to communicate entirely via the MSM?
    As to his language- well moderate language doesn’t usually work in response to immoderate language, never mind immoderate deeds, and it has never produced any results wrt NK. Would he really be wise to continue a known failed strategy?

  5. Look at it from the China & Russia p o v.
    A 3 mile wide DMZ is a nature reserve, not a barrier with modern weaponry.
    A 500 mile country, even badly armed, is a proper buffer zone.
    So China & Russia are going to support the regime, even though S Korea baulks at the cost (more than reuniting Germany) of a take over.

    KJU could be taken out tomorrow, but what dictator would take his place? Probably one who continued ballistic nuclear development but this time pointed in the other direction.

    Meanwhile it’s a useful distraction for the Pentagon while China & Russia continue their ambitions elsewhere.

  6. @james,

    Correct; there’s is no natural barrier or reason for the border between NK and SK. Just like the satellite Soviet states in the Cold War, North Korea is a useful buffer between China and America’s ally.

    If the USA really wants regime change in the north, and that presumably means a reunification with the south, then they will have to persuade China that the alternative is much much worse than having a new shared border with a NATO country. Good luck with that.

    China is the key and they’ve so far shown no appetite to free an entire country from living in a gulag and the subsequent rush of refugees across the border.

    By the way, there’s a lot of guff written about people escaping the regime. It’s a relatively rare event because of the unbelievably gruesome consequences for the relatives left behind.

  7. TNA
    It’s not just gruesome for the relatives left behind. It’s the stigma in S K.
    The height difference ‘cos of feeding the young, is now about six inches. Presumably the IQ difference is less (you have to have smarts to escape the gulag) but over 50 years the differences are approaching Darwin’s finches on the Galapogos.

  8. Scott Adams (the Dilbert chap) recently wrote a piece in which he asserted that the vast majority of the Norks’ foreign trade was with just ten Chinese companies. His suggestion was that the US State Department should approach those companies and ask “How much?”

    It seems to me that that could only work absent interference from the Chinese government, which seems unlikely.

    I wonder whether Trump and Mattis are, in fact, seeking to motivate the Nork generals, with the objective being to have them decide “This crazy fat kid’s going to get us all killed!” At which point they murder him.

    It may be a pipe dream, but I wonder whether the best hope of survival for the Norks is for their military to take a leaf out of Ataturk’s book, except with Communism in place of Islam.

    On a related note, earlier this week I remarked to SWMBO: “So, this conversation just took place: NK – ‘We could nuke Guam’. Rest of the world – ‘You do know that this is Nagasaki Day, right?'”

  9. There are no good options in the N Korea mess. Just less-worse ones, probably none of which involve emotional Twitter outbursts.

  10. North Korea plays its role as a regional irritant quite well, keeping Erdogan and the Spartly Islands off the front pages. I always expect those missing subs to pop up in the East River, surface and nuke the UN. They could do it during the Great American Eclipse on the 22nd August as that would be a good time to swear Pence in.

  11. the vast majority of the Norks’ foreign trade was with just ten Chinese companies. […] It seems to me that that could only work absent interference from the Chinese government

    They’re one and the same. The Chinese government doesn’t interfere with Chinese companies, it de facto runs them.

  12. China must be tempted to supply the Norks with the sort of non-nuke missiles suited to sinking US aircraft carriers.

  13. All dictatorship posturing is about one thing: how much will it cost you to buy me off?

    The threats, if carried out, would buy NK nothing but annihilation. The point is to present enough of a ‘mad dog’ image to persuade everyone that the threat is credible nevertheless, so that the other nations will but Kim off with economic and political support to keep the regime going.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madman_theory
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brinkmanship

    Kim is after more concessions. Pay him enough so that his regime is safe, and he’ll dial down the threat – while maintaining the capability to bring it back any time. But at the same time, doing so will only perpetuate the threat and escalate the risk. Now he’s got a nuclear capability that can reach Guam – maybe next time he’ll be able to reach California. When the cost becomes too great to pay, how high will the stakes be?

    Can Trump present enough of a “mad dog” response to make Kim nervous in turn? I kind of doubt it. The press in the west are motivated to portray him that way, but I doubt a genuine dictatorial nutter would be fooled. But maybe it’s enough to allow the Chinese and others to use it as a sufficient threat to reduce the price. For now.

    Such is international politics.

  14. @NIV. Better analysis than most of what we see in the press. It can be rationale to appear irrational. No such luck with the BBC news or Guardian though.

  15. North Korea routinely starves each year, so each year Li’l Kim postures and waves his fat arms to demand this and that and in order to get a few ship loads of grain and more porn movies to watch so he’s happy, until he needs to posture again.

    Trouble is, each year he has to posture that little bit more. Normally too it is spring when the lack of the previous year’s produce hits home. Started early this time, I see…

    I don’t really know what anyone would do with the man and his stupidity (though it is a fair bet he isn’t the power, just the puppet.) China is either embarrassed or grateful he’s there, but what the Yanks then do is hard to say. Pre-emptive is probably out of the question.

    Turning the country into a glass bowl is easy for the US, but it requires something big to cause it. and radiation spreading the few miles south to Seoul is a tough sell.

    A land invasion? Hmmm, a million plus men under arms in the Nork army proves it would be a tough war even if they may be half starved. The question is what will China do if the US lands troops and wades in? The best option may be to arm the Japs to the hilt and say, go on, you do it. The land of the rising sun can make a new sun over Pyongyang, and the US can breathe a sigh of relief.

    What then happens to a nuclear-armed House of Hirohito (and you can bet he is still fondly remembered by some) is another question.

  16. What exactly is it that the Yanks hope to achieve,

    At a guess, they want to prevent the North Koreans inflicting massive loss of life and catastrophe on their ally South Korea, as they did in 1950.

    and by when do they hope to achieve it?

    In perpetuity, I’d imagine.

    What options have they got for achieving it: indeed, do they have any method of achieving their objectives that are remotely practical?

    That’s what the whole fuss is about: how does one ensure the North Koreans don’t attack the South. Playing nice hasn’t worked. Perhaps letting them know the costs of doing so will.

  17. Let the Chinese know that the Japanese and S Koreans will get nuclear weapons and delivery systems should the Norms obtain the same and China might become more interested.

    I think that’s inevitable. In fact, I’d be surprised if both SK and Japan don’t have the designs and material ready to go.

  18. Better analysis than most of what we see in the press. It can be rationale to appear irrational. No such luck with the BBC news or Guardian though.

    Indeed. Trump may be a buffoon, but I’m reading articles implying he’s as bad as, if not worse than, Kim Jong-Un. The whitewashing of North Korea has begun already. If WWII happened now, you’d have half the west falling over themselves to excuse Hitler, leak him information, and undermine Churchill and FDR in order to settle petty domestic scores.

  19. “What exactly is it that the Yanks hope to achieve,

    At a guess, they want to prevent the North Koreans inflicting massive loss of life and catastrophe on their ally South Korea, as they did in 1950.”

    But they’ve got that at the moment. The Norks haven’t inflicted massive losses on the Sorks since the end of that war.

    “and by when do they hope to achieve it?

    In perpetuity, I’d imagine.”

    That too shall pass away.

    “What options have they got for achieving it: indeed, do they have any method of achieving their objectives that are remotely practical?

    That’s what the whole fuss is about: how does one ensure the North Koreans don’t attack the South.” I don’t believe it. The Norks would only dare attack the south if they believed that China and Russia would somehow deter the US from nuking them. Why would Peking and Moscow risk God knows what to deter the US in defence of the Norks? It all makes little sense.

  20. To continue: it’s now well established that the Kennedy lied to the American population during the Cuban missile crisis. Why be so gullible as to believe that the unvarnished truth is being told now? In private Kennedy accepted that the Soviet missiles in Cuba made little strategic difference. But that ain’t what he said in public: to protect his re-election chances he sailed too damn close to starting a nuclear war.

    I’ll grant you that there’s no reason to believe that Trump will be as reckless as JFK was, and that one can’t be sure that the Norks will be as cautious as the Soviets were, but still I think that the certainty of the death of the Nork ruling class if they start a nuclear exchange will concentrate their minds wonderfully.

  21. If China or Russia gave a fvck about the Norks they’d send them some food.
    Instead it’s UN aid, labelled “made in America”.

  22. @NIV
    Kim can play the mad dog routine convincingly because he is a dictator. A Western leader cannot, simply because he does not possess the absolute political power necessary to back up every whim that comes into his head.

  23. I want to defend Mick Hartley’s blog. If, like me, you read it everyday, you will have noticed that on this issue he posts articles that play both sides of the fence. That seems reasonable seeing that the NK side is the world’s worst and most unpredictable authoritarian, and the American side is a unknown quantity.

    In one post he criticized the guardian for an article that stated upfront that Trump was less trustworthy than Kim. So that isn’t an argument he has bought into.

  24. But they’ve got that at the moment.

    Yes, and they want to keep it that way. But the situation keeps changing, particularly in the sense that NK appears to have a nuclear capability and is rapidly developing a delivery system. Perhaps some people think this ought not to alter America’s stance, but it’s hardly insane to think it should.

    That too shall pass away.

    Well, yes. The Americans are hoping – and have been hoping all along – that the North Korean regime will collapse before any US action is necessary or forced on them.

    I don’t believe it. The Norks would only dare attack the south if they believed that China and Russia would somehow deter the US from nuking them.

    The Americans didn’t nuke them last time around and there was a lot more agitation for it then. I don’t think China and Russia have much to do with it, I think it’s more a case of NK only daring to attack the South once they have a nuclear weapon which they can use should any outsiders attempt to intervene in their reunification project. In other words, it’s a re-run of the Korean war only with the North having a nuke.

    My overall point is I think it takes considerable ignorance or blind political partisanship to look at the North Korean problem and believe that it is mainly the Americans which are to blame and that Trump is somehow making a benign situation volatile.

  25. I want to defend Mick Hartley’s blog. If, like me, you read it everyday, you will have noticed that on this issue he posts articles that play both sides of the fence.

    Indeed, but if he’s going to quote approvingly from articles using the words “there’s little to disagree with” then one can assume he supports the author’s position.

  26. A Western leader cannot, simply because he does not possess the absolute political power necessary to back up every whim that comes into his head.

    Which is probably why Trump isn’t doing that, at least not as far as I can see. Of course, the media and people who don’t like him want to portray him as that, but that’s not quite how I see it. I think he’s just laying down a marker and informing Kim of what is likely to happen if he goes too far, unlike his predecessors who just hoped the problem would go away.

  27. “BEIJING (Reuters) – If North Korea launches an attack that threatens the United States then China should stay neutral, but if the United States attacks first and tries to overthrow North Korea’s government China will stop them, a Chinese state-run newspaper said on Friday.”

    Its up to you to strike first and if you do we wont take any action against you. If your opponents strike first we will defend you and attack them.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-china-media-idUSKBN1AR005

  28. “it takes considerable ignorance or blind political partisanship to look at the North Korean problem and believe that it is mainly the Americans which are to blame and that Trump is somehow making a benign situation volatile.”

    I agree with that. But I still think this whole thing is larded in hysteria. Nobody, for instance, seems even to bother to question whether remarks attributed to Norks have been translated into English accurately. Nobody, or damn few, distinguishes between … I’ll stop there: I’m becoming repetitive. Meantime, remember that virtually everything important that Americans learned from the Cuban missile crisis is wrong, because it is based on blatant American lying about what did happen. A good introduction is at
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/the-real-cuban-missile-crisis/309190/?single_page=true

    Even that is a bit gullible about JFK’s behaviour. The author of the book being reviewed didn’t (I guess) allow for the fact that in the tape-recorded meetings only JFK knew that they were being recorded. It seems to me that you shouldn’t discount the possibility that he was acting for the microphones.

  29. Nobody, for instance, seems even to bother to question whether remarks attributed to Norks have been translated into English accurately.

    Good points, good points.

    Even that is a bit gullible about JFK’s behaviour.

    Well, how everyone can be so supportive of JFK after the Bay of Pigs is a testament to politics trumping everything, isn’t it?

  30. Guam attack cancelled, next up a joint US South Korea military drill starting on the 21st August which coincidentally is the start of The Great American Eclipse for any of you star gazers out there.

    And why wouldn’t Pyongyang move first, especially after Beijing has just green lighted them to do so?

    As Quartz has written, with tensions high on the Korean Peninsula, a small military incident could rapidly escalate into a full-blown war. Should Pyongyang feel that a “decapitation strike” is imminent, it might choose to move first, Euan Graham, a security analyst with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, has said.

    https://qz.com/1052895/the-upcoming-us-south-korea-military-drills-occur-every-year-but-not-amid-north-korea-tension-like-this/

  31. I’d be surprised if both SK and Japan don’t have the designs and material ready to go

    Japan has a kind of suicidal pacifism baked into its national character, but I recall the last time NK started tossing rocks into the Sea of Japan a strateic analyst indicated that although Japan does not have any nuclear warheads now, they’re approximately three weeks from having a functional nuclear device should they decide they want one.

    That’s not enough time to bootstrap a nuclear weapons factory from scratch, so it strongly implies they’ve got the parts and the expertise on the shelf and it’s simply a matter of inserting Tab A into Slot B.

  32. So we have Bannon “there is no US military option in North Korea” voice of reason fired and McMaster now in full control, Trump at Camp David, US-SK joint military drills to start on Monday and some say another NK nuclear test imminent. High stakes in the Korean Peninsula at the moment.

    “North Korea will conduct a sixth nuclear test in order to bring the United States to negotiations,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, professor of unification and diplomacy at Seoul’s Korea University.

    “I don’t know exactly when (it will happen), but a sixth nuclear test is a less dangerous option for North Korea than firing missiles towards Guam.”

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