Current Events: War by Thursday? How Rational Are We?

The United States could be at war with North Korea by Wednesday.  The scenario, as laid out by Ambassador Wendy Sherman at The New Yorker Festival’s North Korea panel, could go something like this.

Tuesday, October 10: North Korea tests a new long range missile to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the communist party and to show it can hit the United States.

Wednesday, October 11: Donald Trump decertifies the Iranian nuclear treaty, despite reports from the International Atomic Energy Commission that Iran is complying.

Thursday, October 12: The United States pulls out of the Iran deal, and war starts with North Korea.

Ambassador Sherman served as special adviser on North Korea to President Bill Clinton, and was the lead American negotiator the Iran nuclear deal. She did not specify what the spark would be that could touch off a war with North Korea or who would initiate it, but instead pointed out that the danger was an escalating cycle that would override the rationality of the two sides.

Ambassador Sherman was on the panel with James R. Clapper, Jr., the former U.S. director of national intelligence, having held the position under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2017, Suki Kim, is the author of the Times best-seller “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite” and the novel “The Interpreter,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, and the famed BBC dad, and Sue Mi Terry, the senior adviser on Korea for BowerGroupAsia, and who was formerly a senior analyst for the C.I.A., focusing on Korean issues. The panel was moderated by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos.

This distinguished panel did have some good news. They say that nearly everyone who studies North Korea agrees on two points.

  1. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and is primarily concerned with preserving his regime, which leads to…
  2. North Korea is not going to attack the United States directly.

These conclusions are based on the notion that Kim Jong Un is rational person. That rationality also means that he will not give up his nuclear weapons, because he is worried about suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons and ended up deposed and dead, Ms. Terry said.

So the question becomes whether or not the United States could live with a nuclear armed North Korea that is capable of sending a nuclear tipped ICBM to the United States. The question becomes one of living in a kind of cold war existence with the North Koreans. On one hand, there is a belief that the North Koreans would be unlikely to ever do anything of the sort because they know that it would be the end of their country. On the other hand, there are some observers who believe that the North Koreans would try to blackmail the United States with its nuclear arsenal so that U.S. troops would leave and North Korea could try to take over the whole peninsula.

Prof. Kelly dismissed the second idea as unlikely because the Koreans would never be able to absorb the South Korean people into their society even if they could beat South Korea’s larger, and better equipped army. The South Korean people would never accept a repressive regime, and being far more numerous would overwhelm the North Korean culture. Additionally, they would never buy the notion of King Jon Un as a god-like ruler, not having been indoctrinated into that notion since birth.

The indoctrination of the North Korean people is what makes the problem of North Korea more difficult. Ms. Kim pointed out that the people of North Korea are somewhat infantilized by the constant control and that they have no context to think about their regime from the outside world. So, it makes sense for the average north Korean to believe that the United States is an enemy poised to attack them at any moment and that the dear leader is the only one who can save the people. She believes the long term strategy for dealing with Korea is to try to get information into Korea about the world outside so that they can rethink their situation, but she and the rest of panel admit this is a long play and not enough to deal with the current nuclear situation.

Mr. Clapper said that there are signs of hope in that the a member of the younger generation had said to him on one visit that “I have been to Seoul and I have seen what is there” in a way that made him think that the official had second thoughts about how great North Korea is. Mr. Clapper also pointed out that unless there is some kind of carrot to go with the threat of sticks, there would not likely be much movement in the situation. He thinks that the North Koreans will need to be accepted into the nuclear club and told to act like grownups now that they are in it.

One further complication in all of this is that China wants North Korea as a buffer against South Korea, the United States and Japan, despite being South Korea’s largest trading partner. Convincing China that a regime change in North Korea would be ideal is probably the easiest bet for change, but that is a tall order.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that it will take more than one thing to solve the North Korea problem successfully. As Ambassador Sherman said, the United States will need to use every tool it has, diplomacy, the credible threat of force to support diplomacy, sanctions, public diplomacy to the North Korean people, cyber warfare, and even basketball diplomacy with the likes of Dennis Rodman.

With any luck, we all won’t be singing the blues about Sad News from Korea.

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