Streetwise Professor

August 9, 2017

How Do You Eat a Norkupine?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:23 pm

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.

North Korea has also amassed a cache of nuclear weapons, estimated to number about 60. These weapons alone, without a reliable delivery mechanism, pose little threat to the US. The Norks are also working diligently on their missile forces, and have recently achieved several apparently successful tests of ICBMs. Nukes alone are little threat. Missiles alone are little threat. Put them together, and you have a real threat.

It is this convergence between missile and nuke technology that has brought this crisis to a head. The window to prevent this threat from becoming reality is closing rapidly with every successful North Korean test. But how to deal with the threat without wreaking vast destruction on the Korean Peninsula? No easy answers.

Kim Jung Un clearly sees nukes as the best guarantor of his survival, and that of his regime. But somehow guaranteeing regime survival is unlikely to induce him to give up these weapons. First, he is unlikely to find any guarantee credible: paranoids seldom do. Second, no one, least of all the US, is likely to consider any Un promise to disarm to be credible: “unpromise” is about the most accurate way you could characterize it. Further, if KJU believes that nukes make him immune from attack, he will believe that his freedom of action is much greater with nukes than without them: he can be far more aggressive and disruptive secure in the knowledge that his nuke missiles deter any retaliation.

So what to do? In the medium to long term, continued development of more robust missile defenses will mitigate the threat he poses. But in the short term, the only real leverage is economic, and (a) that is limited, and (b) it depends crucially on Chinese cooperation (and to some degree Russian).

But the Chinese actually enjoy US discomfiture: this gives them little incentive to cooperate. China will act only if it perceives that there will be a serious price to be paid if it doesn’t.

Since the earliest days of the administration Trump has been deploying every carrot and stick to get the Chinese to cooperate. Relenting on threats to deal aggressively with trade, currency and intellectual property issues. Threatening secondary sanctions against Chinese companies and banks who keep North Korea afloat–and relenting on those threats when the Chinese cooperate.

But greatest risk that China faces would be a war on the Korean Peninsula. It would receive the most fallout–figuratively, but likely literally too. A collapsed regime on its border is a Chinese nightmare, as would the resulting storm of refugees, not to mention a substantial risk of nuclear fallout–and perhaps even a Korean launch of a nuclear missile against China.

So China is unwilling to play a constructive role unless it believes that the US may indeed attack the Norks.

It is against this background that one must view Trump administration actions, from direct presidential threats to repeated flyovers of US nuclear capable bombers to today’s statement by SecDef Mattis, which effectively reprises his famous threat to Iraqi tribal leaders (though unfortunately absent the profanity): “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

Yes, these messages are ostensibly directed at KJU, the administration is definitely CC’ng Xi and the Chinese leadership.

This strategy does appear to have paid off: China voted in favor of  Security Counsel resolution imposing the most punitive sanctions on North Korea yet adopted. Chinese compliance on the ground remains to be proven, but it’s a start.

And there’s the dilemma. There are seldom ever purely diplomatic solutions: all negotiations depend crucially on threat points, and in international relations military force is a powerful threat point. This is especially true with North Korea, which as a pariah nation is relatively immune to other conventional blandishments. And this is also true here because the party with the most leverage, China, is likely to be most responsive to the risk of military conflict.

It is therefore hard to imagine any approach to North Korea that does not involve the threat of military force, including threats in terms that North Korea is usually the one using, rather than hearing used against them. Trump personally, and most of his top personnel, including Mattis and McMaster, have been doing just that.

This has elicited a horrified reaction among the establishment–whose opinions, I might add, deserve even less weight than usual given that they have proven singularly inept at dealing with North Korea over the past quarter century. From ex-Obama people (notably the execrable James Clapper), to senior Senators like Feinstein and McCain(!), we are told that Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous (“unhelpful”, in McCain’s case), that we can accept a nuclear North Korea, and that dialogue with North Korea is the only alternative.

But again, this is utterly vacuous. Dialog with KJU has any prospect of success only if he and the Chinese believe that a failure of diplomacy could result in mushroom clouds over Pyongyang. Further, acceding to KJU’s possession of an arsenal of nuclear weapons without contemplating what he will do next is a victory of hope over experience.

It is particularly bizarre to see this obsession with jaw-jaw in North Korea juxtaposed with the frenzy directed against Trump for attempting to talk with Russia. Here McCain is by far the most bizarre of the bizarre. For at least the past 9 years (since 8/8/8, when the Russo-Georgian War began), McCain has been spoiling for a fight with Putin. In Georgia. In the Donbas. In Syria. Further, McCain has cast attempts to talk to Russia as tantamount to treason. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to picture McCain as a latter-day Major Kong, taking the big one for a final ride into Russia.

So if talking to KJU, or letting Kim be Kim, is the right policy on the 38th parallel, how can confrontation with Putin be the right policy? Putin has more military (notably nuclear) capability. Putin hasn’t made blood-curdling threats against the US. Putin is clearly a far more reasonable interlocutor than the Pyongyang Playboy. If you can transact with KJU, you can transact with Putin.

This palpable irrationality and rank inconsistency is yet further evidence that anyone spouting DC conventional wisdom should be ignored. This conventional wisdom is driven by something. What it is I don’t know exactly, but I know what it isn’t: logic.

The policy choice is therefore fold (as the Feinsteins and McCains and Clappers are proposing) or raise the stakes. But folding will just embolden Kim going forward–which is something that McCain would point out if it was Putin on the other side of the table, but which he blithely ignores here. And it is hard to see how the correlation of forces would move in favor of the US if the game is continued: indeed, it is likely to go the other way as Kim hits his nuke and missile building stride. So, as dismal as it seems, raising the stakes now, with all the attendant risks, is the best of a bad choice. The fact that John McCain and the rest of the CW set don’t like it may be the best endorsement of all.

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  1. “he is unlikely to find any guarantee credible: paranoids seldom do.” Oh come now; he’d have to be dimwitted or insane to accept an American guarantee. Remember Gaddafi. Remember (to an extent) Saddam Hussein. Remember Mubarak, Diem. Hell, Remember the Maine.

    “continued development of more robust missile defenses will mitigate the threat he poses”: ho hum; that’s assuming that ‘robust’ defences will be available. Was it in the first Gulf War or the second that a heap of lies was told about the effectiveness of the anti-missile defences used by Israel? But suppose that there were signs of the US developing such robust defences: wouldn’t that give Russia and China an incentive to strike the US before such defences were employed? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    Now then, a question. Who concocted the yarn about the Norks wanting to attack Guam?

    Comment by dearieme — August 10, 2017 @ 12:47 am

  2. Nobody in Swamp cares about geo-strategy. They only care about their domestic enemies.

    Comment by John Q. Public — August 10, 2017 @ 7:40 am

  3. The Chinese can get rid of him when they are good and ready. He’s their client.
    First find a successor who’s a bit less mad. Not easy. And any successor would continue nuclear ballistic development, or be mad not to.

    Comment by james — August 10, 2017 @ 8:43 am

  4. 3. The Russians can get rid of him when they are good and ready. He’s their client.
    First find a successor who’s a bit less mad. Pence? And any successor would continue anti-ballistic missile development, or be mad not to.

    Comment by dearieme — August 10, 2017 @ 10:54 am

  5. Yes I think this is right. Glad to read the thoughts of someone who sees what Trump is doing, and realises that it is probably the best way to approach a very difficult situation. The administration’s actions are also heartening, because they suggest that 1) Trump is receiving good advice from the professionals he has chosen to be around him, and 2) Trump is listening to, weighing, and taking that advice.

    I sincerely hope Ivanka ‘Daddy the television said the nasty Syrians have sarin-gassed little babies’ Kushner isn’t even in the same building when discussions about the Norks are taking place.

    ‘This palpable irrationality and rank inconsistency is yet further evidence that anyone spouting DC conventional wisdom should be ignored. This conventional wisdom is driven by something. What it is I don’t know exactly, but I know what it isn’t: logic.’

    Oh Prof – mate! That is THE question: what is it that drives the establishment’s hatred and demonisation of Russia? The lack of proportion is obvious, and as you say the establishment’s reaction to the Nork situation makes it stick out like the proverbials. So – what is its reason for being?

    A question too important not to investigate.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — August 10, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

  6. “the North Korean military … could inflict massive casualties on whomever it fought.” Really? How could it inflict massive casualties on a USA determined just to nuke ’em?

    I’ll believe that all this fuss is serious when I see the US evacuating its people from South Korea.

    Comment by dearieme — August 12, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

  7. Solid analysis, Craig. Here is a good overview of the history of U.S.-North Korean relations since the Korean War. It is not an example of excellence in American diplomacy:

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — August 12, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

  8. @Tom-What a depressing read. I read it to mean that the Norks have waged a very successful asymmetric war for over 50 years. They clearly understand the center of gravity of the US. Given that history, you know what the Norks’ believe about how the US will react to their provocations, and Trump is in the position of having to give the lie to those beliefs. I think that’s another reason for his escalated rhetoric and saber rattling. However, the establishment’s horror at what he is doing undercuts the effectiveness of that.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 12, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

  9. @Dearie Me
    No idea who came up with the idea about Guam but I can say they were an optimist. An attack on Guam finally would be the beginning of the end of Juche.

    I understand the norkos expect to splasdown 18 miles outside Guam’s 12 mile limit so best case 18 miles offtarget and they splashdown slightly within the 12 mile limit.

    If norko launched a first strike on mainland US then realistically assuming a very basic reentry vehicle they could reach only coastal targets in California. There is that.

    Comment by pahoben — August 13, 2017 @ 4:30 am

  10. @pahoben

    “they could reach only coastal targets in California” – what if we bring to their attention that they might accidentally hit Berkeley? That should definitely stop them.

    Comment by Ivan — August 13, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

  11. @Ivan

    Comment by pahoben — August 14, 2017 @ 8:51 am

  12. @Tom: in your link “the Dear Leader recognized Baker was desperate and concluded he could outlast the Americans.” That’s what lots of people conclude, often correctly.

    Comment by dearieme — August 14, 2017 @ 9:25 am

  13. Sir,
    Have you considered that most of the show and noise from Kim Jong Un isn’t actually for international consumption at all, but is posturing to internal factions inside North Korea?

    Consider the political situation that Kim now finds himself in. He is the hereditary head of a state which, whilst it claims to be communist is actually anything but. Communism explicitly separates military and state; the highest-ranking general is subservient to the civilian politicians of a communist regime.

    North Korea, by contrast, explicitly enroles politicians into the ranks of the military, and as he acceded to power, Kim was made a high-ranking general and received the usual shower of tin-plate that North Korean generals generally seem to sport (all about as convincing as the Legion of Frontiersmen). North Korea isn’t a communist regime, and never really has been.

    North Korea is best described as an ineptly-run medieval monarchy. The first in the Kim line had no worries; he was a revolutionary soldier and had nothing much to prove. Ditto his son, who could also claim some revolutionary history and once again was more or less acceptable to his barons (the generals in the North Korean military). The present Kim, however, hasn’t got the slightest bit of revolutionary kudos to his name whatsoever. He’s one of the Kim family, but apart from that he’s this youngish fat bloke who looks a bit like a historical great leader and that is the limit of his internal political kudos.

    The present Kim is very, very vulnerable to a palace coup and he damn well knows it!

    That’s what all the noise is about; he’s hanging onto power by his fingertips and badly needs some outside threat to make his fractitious and unreliable barons/generals settle down, shut up and stop plotting against him. A reign of terror can only do so much, and whilst the more likely threats to his reign will have been killed, he still isn’t safe. Making threats against the Americans, whom he rightly judges as having no stomach for starting a war unless very strongly provoked, is his best option.

    This is what the current Kim is up to. He is lucky that he has such a wonderfully cooperative American president as Trump; Obama was a much cooler and more considered sort of character and wouldn’t play up to a posturing little pillock nearly so well as Trump does. However Kim has the absolute perfect dupe in Donald Trump, who similarly has something to prove in the military might line of things.

    What to the future? I confidently predict that Kim will carry on making empty threats against Trump, and Trump will carry on replying. Unfortunately we shall have to put up with two empty-headed yard dogs barking their silly heads off at each other, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone around able to apply boot to butt in each case and shut the two morons up.

    Comment by Dan H. — August 16, 2017 @ 6:55 am

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