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Let’s Be Honest About North Korea: We’re Clueless



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Save yourself a few precious minutes and ignore everything the U.S. government says about North Korea. In fact, at risk of losing my union card in the Asian-studies community, ignore everything Asian experts say about North Korea, too. The truth is, we don’t have a clue what to do. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of very smart people who know a lot about Korea. However, it’s time for the commonsense rule: If we had even the slimmest idea how to denuclearize or de-missilize or de-Kimize North Korea, we would have done it long ago.  

I was in Shanghai 48 hours ago when Pyongyang surprised the world with its successful ballistic-missile launch and satellite deployment. My Chinese hosts were as flummoxed as the rest of us, it seems. But it’s long been clear that Peking has no interest in any type of serious actions against the North. But neither does the Obama administration, it seems, as the White House has apparently given up the idea of any “red lines” in response to Kim Jong Un’s increasingly successful missile program. One assumes that a crazy North Korean decision to nuke Seoul or Tokyo (or maybe L.A.) would be a red line, but who knows?

The point is, life is too short to spend any time listening to more meaningless condemnations, soulless U.N. pronouncements, or expert spin (not that I won’t take my time on camera, if called upon, of course). They’ll undoubtedly happen, and they’ll be just as useless as everything that’s gone before. We’ve been playing this game for nearly 20 years now, when Bill Clinton first fell for Kim Il Sung’s bait-and-switch back in 1994, and called off the U.S. Air Force after future Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter rushed back home with a “peace in our time” agreement with the dictator.

There are a lot of accomplished and smart people spending decades of their lives on this issue, but as far as I can tell, the song remains the same. All we can be sure of is, the graybeards will hold more secret meetings with their North Korean opposites; a new round of really, super-duper serious sanctions will be announced (and then undercut by China and Russia); and we’ll all wait for the next nuclear test (my bet is sometime in the first quarter of next year), followed by yet another “satellite launch.”

The beginning of wisdom is accepting what you can’t control. In North Korea’s case, that can be extended to admitting that we don’t even understand what’s going on, except that it’s a regime obsessed solely with survival. They, on the other hand, understand us perfectly: No matter what they do, we’re confused and unwilling to risk a greater clash. So, until they wig out and incinerate an Asian ally or two (which seems unlikely), we may as well ignore every launch and explosion, because we’re sure as heck not willing to do anything about it. That may well be the right course, but then let’s man up and admit it.



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