Month: March 2017

One Cheer: The North Korea Initiative

Mattis and Tillerson are flawed, but they are neither incompetent nor insane (unlike their President and the rest of the Cabinet). I consider “Mad Dog” Mattis too aggressive, but he is experienced, knowledgable and thoughtful. Tillerson is compromised by his Russian connection, and has no government experience, but he is a capable strategic thinker, with a broad understanding of world affairs, and lots of negotiating and relationship-building experience. Their decision to grasp the nettle of North Korea deserves fair consideration rather than knee-jerk “resistance.”

The Korean war never formally ended: hostilities were suspended in 1953 by an armistice, but there was no peace treaty. For sixty years North Korea has been a client state of China, and South Korea has been protected by U.S. treaties and troops. As we all know, North Korea has become increasingly isolated, impoverished and bellicose while South Korea has flourished. Apart from minor skirmishes there has been little loss of life, and there have even been periods of rapprochement between the two Koreas. In recent decades, however, North Korea has persistently developed nuclear weapons and missles, which are now capable of reaching Tokyo and U.S. bases in Japan as well as South Korea. Economic sanctions have hobbled North Korea’s economy but have failed to deter its nuclearization. The U.S. has periodically sabre-rattled but in essence has continued, decade after decade, to “kick the can” of this “frozen conflict” down the road, in the hope that North Korea will eventually see reason or collapse due to economic failure and/or political unrest. Meanwhile, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilites have continued to grow the crisis has gone from bad to worse.

There are several reasons why this conflict has remained unresolved.

  • First and foremost is the fact that a shooting war could easily cost millions of lives. North Korea has massive conventional artillery formations that could obliterate Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the border, even without going nuclear. And its nuclear weapons could reach Tokyo as well as anywhere in South Korea. This is spelled out in detail in a recent New York Times article, The Risks of Pre-emptive Strikes Against North Korea.
  • The other big reason is the fact that China, despite grave concerns, has continued to support the North Korean regime, as for example by providing them with essential food, fuel and weapons. China has grave reservations about the North Korean regime, but so far it has been more worried about losing its strategic buffer with the American troops in South Korea and about dealing with hoards of refugees when North Korea does collapse. A treaty requires China to come to the defense of North Korea in the case of an unprovoked attack; which could obviously precipitate World War III. This Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder gives more details.
  • South Korea wants reunification, on its terms, but is also anxious about the cost and difficulty of integrating millions of desperately poor and badly educated northerners into its first world society. This would be much more difficult, in every respect, than the reunification of Germany, which was itself quite challenging.
  • North Korea says that it will never give up its nuclear capability, which it sees as giving it respect and attention as well as protection from attack.

The risks of doing nothing, however, continue to grow. From Trump’s “America First” perspective the lives currently at risk — unless China is drawn in — are mostly those of South Koreans and Japanese. If North Korea is given time to develop longer range missles this will include Hawaii, and eventually the U.S. West Coast. Trump’s team may have calculated that now is the time to precipitate a crisis, before the U.S. itself is held hostage. If this is their thinking they get no cheers from me!

But there’s also a legitimate up-side to grappling with the situation now. If a “deal” can be struck with China on how to handle North Korea it may be possible to manage North Korea onto a less dangerous path and de-fuse the conflict. I’m not particularly optimistic, mind you! But the “new broom” status of the Trump administration gives it a unique opportunity to break the log jam that has frozen the Korean conflict into an increasingly toxic spiral. Thus my single cheer: for having the nerve to come to grips with the single most dangerous situation on the planet. 

I still doubt that China will come on board; that Japan and South Korea will allow enough freedom of action; and especially whether North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. I’m terrified of the nightmarish risks. And I have grave doubts about whether Mattis and Tillerson will be able to manage their erratic and impulsive boss. But I’m prepared to give them credit for trying.

Update April 3, 2017:  Good overview from Al Jazeera. Trump blustering that if China doesn’t do something about North Korea “we will.”

Update April 4, 2017CNN reports that a White House source says that “the clock has run out” on the North Korean nuclear program, just before Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi, while General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command says that, “Any solution to the North Korean problem has to involve China.” Mixed messages, but the ball is still in play.

Update Sept. 1, 2017: Good article in National Review, starting with the important idea that a problem without a solution isn’t a problem at all, it’s a fact. Unfortunately, however, the “solution” proposed in the last paragraph is nonsense.

Update April 20, 2018: So yes, DT will meet Kim Jong-un. This is better than starting a nuclear war with him. But there’s every reason to think that DT is being played for a fool (like every previous U.S. administration, it must be acknowledged), after which the danger will be redoubled. Kim Jong-un will not give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, by Evans J.R. Revere, Brookings Institution. “North Korea wants to resuscitate the approach it pursued in every previous nuclear negotiation: Launch a lengthy, complicated negotiation to get agreement on actions each party must take, and use this process to buy time for the development of the North’s nuclear weapons program.”

Update April 29, 2018: I’m not quite ready to add a second cheer, but I have to admit that the meeting of the Korean leaders was historic. The Washington Post reminds us that North Korea signed denuclearization agreements in 1992, 1994, 2005 and 2012, received substantial benefits, then reneged. But that article also acknowledges that, “this time may be different.” It would be too ironic to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a leader who accomplished a peaceful result by threatening nuclear war, but if DT comes away with an effective and enforceable agreement I will begrudgingly give him three full-throated cheers.

Update May 3, 2018: This essay isn’t from an authoritative news source but the facts are known and I find the argument persuasive: that Kim’s charm offensive probably reflects an ultimatum from China. There’s every reason to believe that China doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, and the essay presents evidence that the pressure of sanctions is finally biting. If so, this could be the real deal!


The Anger of Trump’s Base

Trump’s ascent has mystified liberals because he is so obviously unsuitable to be President. His voter base for the most part recognized  this, but voted for him anyway. The reason is more emotional than rational, which is why intellectuals find it so mystifying.

Trump voters, by and large, share two strong feelings:

  • They are mad as hell at “the system,” and want to blow it up.
  • They are thrilled that Trump is not afraid to express the anger that they feel.

Even though most Trump supporters recognized that his temperament was flawed, they voted for him in much the same way that one would throw a hand grenade into an enemy position. These voters wanted to destroy “Washington”, not just make specific policy changes. They are by and large happy with Trump’s performance, despite its many deficiencies, because he is doing just that. 

Why exactly are these voters so angry? The genius of the Trump movement is that it has drawn on so many people’s anger despite the fact that the causes of the anger are manifold, various and sometimes mutually inconsistent. Trump’s base is unified by feeling, not by policy. Among the things that have enraged his voters are:

  • Foreigners
  • Non-whites
  • Non-Christians
  • Lazy, Greedy Poor People
  • Obamacare
  • Bi-Coastal Liberal Elites
  • Immorality
  • Economic decline
  • Free trade agreements
  • Corruption
  • Taxes and Deficits
  • Military failures
  • Terrorism
  • Political gridlock
  • Excessive regulation
  • Crumbling Infrastructure

Not every Trump voter is angry about all of these things; it’s reductionist, for example, to call them all racist, even though some certainly are. But I would venture to say that nearly all of his voters are angry about several of these things, and many of them are angry about most of them. 

This anger has fueled a remarkable political movement, but emotion alone is no substitute for a coherent political program: Anger at Obamacare doesn’t necessarily point the way to a better solution (apart from single payer!)  Crumbling infrastructure can only be fixed through taxes or deficits. Abandoning free trade could easily exacerbate economic decline. Demonizing religious groups could worsen the danger of terrorism. Etcetera.

Even if it were possible to devise a political program that would address many or most of these issues, Trump shows no prospect of developing or pursuing such a program. Apart from specific follies such as The Wall, the Muslim Ban and Trumpcare, his cabinet choices suggest (and Steve Bannon has said in so many words) that Trump plans to “deconstruct” the federal government, with the exception of the military, which he proposes to greatly strengthen. If he isn’t stopped, it’s easy to envision America becoming a militarized police state, ruled with an iron hand by a tiny coterie of billionaires, walled off from the horrors of the “inner cities” where impoverished, unhealthy masses suffer amid squalor and violence. Many of those who are hurt most will have been those who elected Trump in the first place. Which is why his vision can only be fully realized if democracy is undermined and eventually replaced by some amalgam of autocracy, plutocracy and theocracy. 

What can be done at this point? The Democrats have very little political power at the moment, except the filibuster (which may well be lost in 2018). But we can and should speak out, most particularly in defense of democratic institutions and Constitutional rights and freedoms. If democracy is preserved, and if the Democrats offer a credible alternative, it can be confidently predicted that the implementation of the Trump program will eventually turn away enough voters to cause the pendulum to swing back towards some form of liberalism. Granted, those are two big “ifs”. And also granted that the damage that the Trump/Pence administration(s) will have done to the federal government, America itself and its role in the world will be incalculable and can never fully be repaired.