Trump Threatens N. Korea with “Fire and Fury”

Posted August 9, 2017 on 8:16 am | In the category North Korea, Press, TRUMP, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States, They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” ,President Trump

Several years ago (December 2010) this blog had a piece on the challenge of dealing with North Korea; today’s comments by Trump are evidence that little has changed.

Understanding North Korea’s behavior should not be that tough in the context of America’s historical interventions in countries around the world, frequently predicated on a hypocritical desire for regime change in countries identified as “undemocratic”. When Iran democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 we engineered his overthrow in 1953, installed the Shah and returned oil production to British Petroleum. In Chile we engineered the overthrow of democratically elected President Allende on 9/11 1973; he subsequently committed suicide. During Reagan’s presidency the US sold weapons to Iran so money could be passed on to the Nicaraguan contras to facilitate the overthrow of the Sandinista government. George W. Bush’s administration identified an “Axis of Evil” consisting of N. Korea, Iraq and Iran. It invaded Iraq, killed its leader, left the country in ruins and helped create ISIS. The US led NATO against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi with an invasion of Libya, killed Gadaffi and left the country in ruins as another base for ISIS. The list of countries the US has messed around in includes Syria, earlier ventures in support of Saddam in Iraq against the Kurds and Iran, and of course Vietnam and Cambodia, Indonesia, Grenada, Lebanon, etc. The leaders of North Korea are not stupid or irrational. They have seen what we do and know that if the US is interested in regime change, a beefed up military is a good idea. And what better beefed up military than one with nuclear arms? We are – as a country – complicit in creating our own international problems.

Trump talks the talk but has never walked the walk and we can only hope he doesn’t start now with North Korea. The lack of realistic military options, the dismal history of diplomacy and the failure of both the United States and North Korea to honor previous agreements are not reasons for hope.

Bilateral, direct negotiations between the U.S. And N. Korea have been elusive, largely because U.S neocons argue that direct negotiations would be viewed as “rewarding” N. Korea for its bad behavior. This is not a nuanced understanding of adult human behavior. While there have been the occasional suggestions of possible direct negotiations (most recently by Secretary of State Tillerson) they have always been contingent on North Korea giving something up before the US can sit with them, like a poker player demanding that everyone show him their cards before he decides to bet. This has not and will not work.

The current gambit is to suggest that China solve the problem by joining in strong international sanctions and refusing economic activity with N. Korea. Successful sanctions would likely lead to a flood of Korean refugees into China which is not acceptable to China; in addition, the slim possibility of a unified Korea would produce a different kind of threat to China. Basically, China has its own interests and they are different from ours and Trump can’t tweet himself out of that reality.

For decades Americans have been presented a picture of the N. Korean leadership as semi-deranged but they behave in their own interest not ours and are not all that different from American leadership. President Trump’s childish playground rants are not all that different from Kim Jong-un’s and just about as helpful. The N. Koreans are committed to maintaining their regime; if we act militarily to dislodge them thousands of South Koreans will die along with some number of American military stationed in S. Korea.

Whatever window of opportunity existed for a diplomatic agreement to limit N. Korean nuclear development seems likely closed. So in a nuclear world we have Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump screaming threats at each other. This is likely not to end well for anyone, including and especially our Asian allies, unless wiser and cooler heads are able to influence the future while recognizing the limits of American power and the consequences of its misuse.

It might mean a future based on fear of mutual destruction as in the good old US-Soviet Cold War days of containment and threat of mutual destruction.


The North Korea Conundrum

Posted December 16, 2010 on 10:48 am | In the category North Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

We have it. The smoking gun. The evidence. The potential weapon of mass destruction we have been looking for as our pretext of invading Iraq. There’s just one problem – it’s in North Korea. –Jon Stewart

American media and politicians too often seem to share a commitment to forget some of the past and skip some of the possible consequences of policies when discussing an issue as serious and difficult as North Korea.  And the fact that the N. Korea issue is almost always described in narrow American terms adds to the difficulty of building support for addressing North Korea in any way but the tried and failed ways of the past.

For years America has been waiting for the N. Korean regime to collapse but it hangs on, starving its people, harassing its neighbors to the South and currying favor with nations like Iran seeking their weapons technology.  And while sanctions have done some damage they have not to date influenced significant positive change and there is no evidence that more sanctions will do much more. The six-party talks, with six countries holding six separate sets of interests, are similarly unlikely to produce positive change.

In this environment analysts on the right view attempts at diplomacy as “rewarding” N. Korea’s bad behavior and seriously discuss military options available to the U.S. While these options vary from analyst to analyst they all downplay the risk to the ten million inhabitants of Seoul. It is not comforting to read some of these analyses when a common thread is that as long as the risk is mostly to millions of South Koreans and only 15000 or so Americans military adventure is worth considering. 22 million S. Koreans live within 40 miles of Seoul, which is 35 miles from the N. Korean border.  N. Korea has over 500 long-range artillery tubes along the border and an army of over a million. The devastation of a military action would be incalculable. The fact that some would seriously consider initiating military action after our costly, deadly and largely counter-productive Iraq fiasco is bizarre, but scary.

The history of U.S. – N. Korean engagement does not provide much hope for the future. Agreements have emerged from time to time only to be broken by the North Koreans and/or treated to a kind of passive aggressive approach by the U.S.  KEDO, (The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) was the last such major effort and it failed largely because the N. Koreans reneged on their part of the agreement. At the same time, the U.S.‘s commitment was less then total, largely due to a lack of trust and the influence of domestic politics in the U.S. which led to KEDO becoming a kind of orphan in American foreign policy.

The diplomatic option is a very tough pill to swallow. The N. Koreans have behaved outrageously and it is difficult – perhaps not possible – for Americans to accept that as difficult as it is, it may remain the United States’ best possibility to influence the regime. Those who would force the issue towards military action risk a far worse mistake than even the Iraq War. Former CIA official, National Security Advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush, and U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 Donald Gregg in the Washington Post in 2006 summed up a realistic view of U.S. diplomatic attention as a “reward”:

“Why won’t the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with [North Korea], as the Brits (and eventually the US) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country’s good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behavior of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hizballah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends — a huge mistake.”

Gregg’s words provide a sensible backdrop as the Obama administration continues to wrestle with its choices in dealing with a rogue nation. Attack or talk?

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Bush’s Last Chance??

Posted March 2, 2007 on 5:39 pm | In the category Iran, North Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

Graham Allison has written an op ed about diplomacy and power in the Kennedy era for today’s Boston Globe. Reading the piece suggests that the Bush administration – after six years – may be beginning to look for a philosophical center for its foreign policy. The piece compares the recent negotiations with North Korea and the planned multilateral discussions with Iran, to the approaches taken by Kennedy with the Soviet Union. The article quotes former Bush advisor and UN ambassador John Bolton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the merits – or lack thereof – of negotiating with the likes of Iran and N. Korea. The money quotes are:

From Gates in 2004:

“Iran is not on the verge of another revolution . . . The durability of the Islamic Republic and the urgency of the concerns surrounding its policies mandate that the United States deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall.”

From Bolton in 2007 re: the agreement with N. Korea:

“[The N. Korea agreement] contradicts the fundamental premises of the president’s policy he’s been following for the past six years.” (Vice President Cheney is quoted: “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.”)

Bolton’s and Cheney’s comments represent the Bush-Cheney approach of power without diplomacy that has given us the Iraq “thing”, N. Korean nuclear weapons, and a stronger Iran headed for nuclear self-sufficiency. While it is late in the game for the Bush presidency, he actually has an opportunity to leave a legacy that will not be the raving insult that he currently courts with history.

The N. Korea agreement, while only a beginning, is after all, better than we had come to expect from this administration.  Similarly, the movement towards talking with Iran hints at possible advances. The question is whether the Cheney gang will come back into dominance or whether diplomacy can proceed. Cheney is unlikely to watch the latter happen without a fight. We shall see.

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North Korea: Another Intelligence Failure?

Posted March 1, 2007 on 6:27 pm | In the category Iran, North Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

We may need to come up with a new term to replace “Intelligence Community” when referring to what we are told about countries’ nuclear capabilities. Maybe “Idle Speculation Community” as in:  “Sources in the Idle Speculation Community (ISC) told this reporter yesterday that weapons of mass destruction might be being stockpiled by Saddam Hussein.”

The record of the ISC is not good. In the 1980’s it missed the coming dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 2001 it missed the rather strong warning signals on 9/11, and in 2002-3 it guessed wildly off the mark on WMD in Iraq.  Now, according to administration officials cited in today’s NY Times, it appears the ISC speculated incorrectly on North Korea’s nuclear program and that, in a strange irony, it seems that the Bush administration’s cutting off of oil deliveries in 2002 may actually have pushed the North Koreans to proceed with developing a plutonium-based nuclear arsenal which they did not previously have.

But the problem is less one of inadequate intelligence than of inappropriate use of intelligence in politicians’ decision-making processes.  Certainly that was the case with Iraq and now we see the possibility that the basis of the Bush policy toward North Korea from 2002 on was largely based on questionable intelligence on its nuclear program that fulfilled political desires. And we are left to idly speculate about Iran. Skepticism might be the right approach.

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Bush, Iran, Diplomacy and War

Posted January 13, 2007 on 4:50 pm | In the category Iran, Iraq, Middle East, North Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

Last April in an exchange with a friend I wrote about the possible role of diplomacy in the Bush Universe. I post it now as Bush appears to be embarking on a widening of his Iraq fiasco; much of what was said in April seems worth considering nine months later:

“In general I think diplomacy trumps war almost every time. There are no guarantees in diplomacy but neither are there any in war that I am aware of, but the search for common ground – or at least a modus vivendi – is to me worth a better effort than this administration (and I suppose earlier ones) has put forth. But this administration has a special place in the Land of Oz, crippled by its blind arrogance of (illusionary) power. And yes I would say the same about N. Korea. I think we have refused to talk to either country directly because they are “evil” and we are “good” – and we have therefore a self-induced consequence. And it is the consequence that the administration wants so it can change the world to fit its picture of what reality should be. Iraq is the current best example of the results of this kind of thinking.

I think the N. Korean situation is in some ways more complicated. We did a deal with them in which we and the S. Koreans and the Japanese would build nuclear energy plants in return for their not building nuclear weapons. It was, according to the diplomat who was given the unenviable task of managing that agreement – an “orphan” from the start. The U.S. (particularly the Congress – not the smartest lamps in the light store) never really made a serious effort to fulfill their part of the deal and when The Glorious Leader wanted to talk directly to the U.S. there was simply no way anyone could do that and retain domestic political support.

I don’t know whether direct negotiations would have or could have led to different scenarios – but then neither does anyone since it was never tried. I trust Iran and N. Korea about as much as I would trust Cheney/Bush if I were an Iranian given our Iraq adventure….

Would the world be a better place if Iran and N. Korea did not ever have nuclear weapons? Of course. But is it worth going to what amounts to war to stop it without attempting to negotiate? In my view, “no”. We could kiss S. Korea goodbye and we could kiss any hopes for peace on any level in the Middle East goodbye.

Also – I am not sure that the IAEA is as guilty of incompetence on the Iran issue as some say – they were aware as far back as 1996 that Iran was screwing around with nuclear stuff and Blix reported that concern. And it does not help IAEA with policing the nonproliferation pact when Bush plays it fast and loose with India, Brazil etc. We discussed this earlier and I remain concerned on the existential issue – if we give permission to India then we give it to others (in the existential sense – we lose the moral edge).
Of course we cannot blame Bush for every bad thing that happens – but I blame him for the mess in Iraq – we were better off with Saddam in power in a secular country with no WMD than we are now – it has cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives (many thousands if we want to include Iraqis), has diverted our attention from the important work at hand and has made it easier for the likes of Iran to screw around with us.

I think this is a disaster that has no foreseeable end. It is a mess and the U.S. has played the major role in making it worse than it needed to be. As to whether anything else would have worked better – we will never know.”

April 18, 2006

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When North Korea Falls

Posted October 11, 2006 on 3:32 pm | In the category North Korea, Press, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

Thanks to our Kiwi correspondent for alerting us to the above titled article in the October Atlantic Monthly by Robert Kaplan.

Kaplan is always interesting writing about soldiers and soldiering and his insights into the military provide a particular prism through which to view the situation in North Korea. Note that it is titled “When” North Korea Falls, not “If” North Korea Falls. He is persuasive in concluding that the winner when N. Korea falls will likely be China and that the U.S.’s influence in the region will be diminished. The article provides some fresh insight into a situation which seems burdened in the press with relatively unsophisticated – even jingoistic – perspectives. Read it at the Atlantic Monthly’s website.

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David Frum’s Axis of Ego

Posted October 10, 2006 on 2:40 pm | In the category Iran, Iraq, North Korea | by Jeff

On today’s NY Times Op Ed page David Frum gives us a terrific example of the nuttiness that gave us the Iraq War. Frum is the former White House speechwriter who helped to coin the phrase “Axis of Evil” a phrase that nicely captures the areas where the Bush foreign policy strategy has so miserably failed. No need to remind anyone of the Iraq fiasco, but Iran and North Korea remain to be totally screwed up and Frum is the right guy to advise on just how to continue doing that.

In a typically dishonest maneuver Frum comments in his opening paragraph that over the past dozen years of American policy Pakistan and North Korea have developed nuclear weapons. That would put the timeframe solidly in the Clinton years while N. Korea’s nuclear plans reached its current level entirely during Bush Junior’s tenure. Pakistan developed its program beginning in the mid 1970’s and in October 1990, then-President Bush (senior) announced that he could no longer provide Congress with Pressler Amendment certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon. Also on today’s Times Op Ed page Nicholas Kristof reminds us that N. Korea obtained zero plutonium during Clinton’s presidency while under the current administration they obtained “…enough plutonium for about eight nuclear weapons”. For background information on the development of weapons of mass destruction around the world see the Federation of American Scientists website.
Frum’s recommendations avoid placing any responsibility for the current state with the Bush administration and outlines a series of “four swift” actions for the U.S. to take that are uniformly unrealistic.

One: “Step up the development and deployment of existing missile defense systems”. He admits that these systems “are not perfect – but they are something.” What they are is unreliable.

Two: “End humanitarian aid to N. Korea and pressure S. Korea to do the same.” Frum says that this would serve to punish both N. Korea and China and perhaps he is right. But S. Korea is highly unlikely to “swiftly” agree to move away from its “sunshine” policy simply because we tell them to do so. End of the day S. Korea is the country most immediately at risk and China, after all, can return any favor of punishment we might choose to give to them via its economic clout.

Three: “Invite Japan, S. Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to join NATO…” I am hoping that our Kiwi correspondent will comment on the likelihood of New Zealand running to join NATO. I will simply comment that anyone thinking that NATO would do that “swiftly” lives on a different planet.

Four: “Encourage Japan to renounce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and create its own nuclear deterrent.” He likes this idea partially because it would also punish those evil Chinese. (who would not respond in any way, like cashing in their U.S. debt chips, for instance).

There is much that is striking in Frum’s piece but perhaps most striking is its resolute inability to place any responsibility on the administration within which he once served. The Bush administration has resolutely refused to negotiate directly with N. Korea or Iran so Frum’s comment to the effect that diplomacy has not worked ignores the fact that real diplomacy has not been tried. A very good piece on the lack of a coherent U.S. policy towards N. Korea by Stephen Bosworth and Morton Abramowitz, published in the Financial Times in February 2005, is available on Bosworth’s website.

What seems apparent is that the world has become significantly more dangerious on the watch of Mr. Frum’s former employers.

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