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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Modern Works: Should I Stay or Should I Go? “Leap” By Tess Vigeland

Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really WantLeap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want by Tess Vigeland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever thought about just saying ‘Forget it, I am not going into work tomorrow?’ even if you didn’t have something else lined up? This book is about people who have done just that.

Tess Vigeland starts with her own experiences in leaving Public Radio’s Marketplace without a plan B in place. Much of the book is structured as a memoir, but it is designed to help people ask the questions of themselves about whether they should stay or go. One of the most interesting ideas is whether or not quitting something is as bad as it is made out to be. We are all taught early on not to be quitters, but there are times when it makes sense to walk away.

This is not a how to book, but there are plenty of references in it for people who want to follow up with those kinds of reading. Instead this is about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally to make a change when you need the change to happen — even is there is no plan B in place.

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How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

Modern Works: “Back Channel” By Stephen Carter, a Spy Novel and Study in Politics

Back ChannelBack Channel by Stephen L. Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back Channel was one of those books that gave me a new perspective about something that I thought I already understood. The book is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. It has an unlikely protagonist who, through a series of odd events, ends up in the middle of the negotiations around the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

What I had never considered before was that there could be people on both sides who thought that 1962 was the time for a war between the United States and the USSR. As the novel portrays it, there were people on both sides who felt that each country could win the war, so they thought that moment was the time to take the chance.

In a afterward, the author alludes to this possibility without going into details. I will need to do more research to understand it, but as the novel portrays it, it goes beyond the simplistic conspiracy approach to the world of international intrigue and into a setting of calculations around world politics.

The novel itself was entertaining on its own merits, and Stephen Carter is a good writer. I may check out more of his books after this. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in spy novels and cold war history.

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Modern Works: The Martian By Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. In a world where Sci-Fi has become focused on computer hacking and cyberspace, it was fun to come back and read a book about rocket ships and outer space.

What made this book a classic is that our hero, Mark Watney, has gotten stranded on Mars. Only a freak accident and great luck kept him alive through a crisis. Now, after the crisis, he has been stranded on Mars with no hope of rescue for four years — so it is up to his brain to do the rest.

While the circumstances of his survival could lead the reader to think “Gee, this guy his really lucky,” it is soon apparent that luck is a door that swings both ways.

The thing about Mark Watney is that he is smart, but human. He gets sad, frustrated, and full of despair. He gets hurt. But he keeps going and keeps working to figure things out. All the same, it is nice to read the hero say “Just once I’d like something to go as planned, ya know?” It’s nice because then we are there with him, and maybe could be like him.

The book was recommended to me by engineer and scientist friends, so the science in it is good enough to satisfy even the technically minded. If you are, or have ever been a science fiction fan, then you should read this book — especially if you liked authors like Asimov, Ellison, or Heinlein.

If you have ever felt like you have been stuck on a strange world as you move through your life on this one, then you also should read this book. Because the message, delivered by a hero we can relate to is clear:

“Okay, enough self-pit. I’m not doomed. Things will just be harders than planned.”

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Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

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Modern Works: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jennifer Government describes the world that the libertarians in the United States wish we had. It is the kind of world where people are defined almost exclusively by their job, regulations and government interference in business are minimal, and the pursuit of profits is the highest order.

The author trusts his reader to get the symbolism rather than trumpeting explanations about why things are this way. While some of it can seem obvious, when you stop to think about the action, there is nuance to be found.

The book is an easy read, and I think it starts to rush a bit towards the end. That said, though, it was a fun read that occasionally made you stop and think. As someone who grew up near where kids were shooting each other over shoes, the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes near-future speculative fiction.

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