One aspect of the threat from North Korea that doesn’t get addressed seriously enough is the regime is either unable or unwilling to accurately assess the risks of its actions. It’s as if the entire Pyongyang government has no sense of what kind of provocation is so serious that its foes will retaliate with force.
Put aside the regime’s blustery threats; look at what the North Korean government and its military actually does:
November 10, 2009: A North Korean navy patrol boat crosses into South Korean territorial waters, ignores radio warnings and warning shots from South Korean naval units, and opens fire on a South Korean patrol boat. The two boats exchange fire, take light damage, and the North Korean boat returns to its national waters. Similar exchanges of fire between naval vessels occurred in 1999 and 2002, with more significant casualties.
March 26, 2010: A North Korean “midget submarine” fired a torpedo and sunk the South Korean Naval corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors and wounding 56 more. North Korea denied responsibility but South Korea and its allies have no doubt they committed the attack.
November 23, 2010: North Korean forces fired around 170 artillery shells and rockets at Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea, hitting both military and civilian targets. The attack left four South Koreans dead and 19 injured. South Korean forces returned fire.
October 19, 2014: “North and South Korean soldiers exchanged gunfire when the North’s soldiers approached the military border and did not retreat after the South fired warning shots.”
August 10, 2015: “North Korean soldiers sneaked across the heavily guarded border with South Korea and planted land mines near one of the South’s military guard posts, and two southern soldiers were maimed after stepping on them.”
In other words, every once in a while, North Korea just goes out and tries to kill some South Koreans without warning because it wants to send a message. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. So far, South Korea is willing to suffer those casualties and respond proportionally, managing not to escalate a particular clash into a second Korean War. If the North Koreans sank a U.S. Navy ship, shelled U.S. troops in South Korea, or made some other direct attack, how would we respond? Would it be proportional to North Korea’s attack, or would there be an attempt to deter further attacks by demonstrating overwhelming force? More importantly, would North Korea perceive our response as the opening salvo in an invasion? These are big questions under any U.S. president, but Donald Trump is another giant X factor. How does Trump respond to a fast-moving crisis with many lives at stake?
There’s another more recent event worth keeping in mind as well:
February 13, 2017: At the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, two women believed to be North Korean agents wipe a substance in the face of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He dies shortly after; the substance is later found to be VX nerve agent, “believed to be the most toxic known nerve agent and is banned globally except for research.”
There are a lot of ways to kill somebody; the North Korean regime used a particularly dangerous method in an extremely busy public location. It’s almost as if they’re trying to pick the most reckless and escalating means of achieving their goal as possible. What if North Korea’s regime tried something like that in LAX, LaGuardia, or Dulles?
Right now, a lot of people are probably thinking, “eh, they would never do that” – except that no one foresaw the attack on the Cheonan or Yeonpyeong Island coming, either. North Korea just commits some random, unprovoked act of aggression every once in a while, seemingly confident that they won’t trigger an all-out war in the process.
Elsewhere, our David French imagines how a conventional, non-nuclear war in Korea could unfold, and unfold badly:
There were so many plans – plans upon plans – for dealing with this moment, but no one really reckoned with the human factor. No one could quite foresee how a modern, prosperous nation would react to an instant apocalypse. After generations of the long peace, the world had forgotten total war. We weren’t prepared, and the shock of the moment meant that the plans failed. For crucial hours, for crucial days, until the allies adjusted to the new reality, North Korea had the advantage.
Barring some last-minute dramatic intervention from China, it appears the United States has to choose among three bad options: A) Learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can strike the United States with Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles; B) a conventional war sooner to eliminate the threat, that will involve massive casualties on the Korean peninsula and possibly elsewhere; or C) a nuclear exchange with North Korea sometime in the future.
It’s probably going to be option A. Yesterday, Jonah recalled a debate about North Korea from the mid-1990s, and pointed out how the natural dynamics of American politics create incentives to continue “diplomatic outreach” even when it is clear no agreement is possible: “There will always be loud and large constituencies insisting there is more time to talk. There will always be strong forces encouraging leaders to kick-the-can to some future administration. If you don’t decide before you enter negotiations what you want from negotiations, all you are doing is negotiating for more negotiations while your opponent is negotiating for more time in pursuit of a concrete goal. In the meantime, their position becomes stronger and ours weaker, which means future negotiations are less likely to yield more desirable outcomes.”
You’re already hearing recommendations that the same diplomatic outreach attempted with Cuba and Iran be applied to North Korea, and that the United States should “formally end the Korean War with a peace treaty and normalize relations – even if the North remains a nuclear power.”
I don’t know about you, but these promises and predictions sound familiar:
With normalization of relations, the United States will be in a better position to deal with North Korea on any issue of mutual concern. Human rights organizations will have the opportunity to address concerns in North Korea directly, rather than observing from the outside. Moreover, U.S. companies and brands could also conceivably move into North Korea. Direct economic interactions between the United States and North Korea might bring about changes that the United States has long pressed for but could not achieve.
But as laid out yesterday, back in the mid-1990s, the United States already gave the North Koreans $6 billion in new reactors and other aid in exchange for promises, promises that the regime had no intention of keeping.
In fact, here comes Obama’s former national security advisor, Susan Rice, today: “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea – the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It will require being pragmatic.”
The proposal for diplomatic outreach assumes that the North Korean regime is rational and is willing to end its long history of violent provocations, shady arms deals, and other hostile behavior. Does this look like a regime that can change its character that fundamentally?
Isn’t ‘Better Than the Left’ a Pretty Low Bar to Clear for a Republican?
In the pages of NRO, Conrad Black made another effort at persuading the NeverTrump crowd to jump on the bandwagon, and unsurprisingly, many of Trump’s critics on the Right are not persuaded. But there’s one point of Black’s article that deserves more attention:
The president’s course is clear: Speak and tweet more carefully, as he is generally doing; show more focus; shut down the nonsense and indiscretions in the White House; prepare an unstoppable tax bill; take a strong line in North Korea (after three successive administrations have failed and dropped this horrible mess into his lap); denounce the Mueller investigation for the outrage that it is; do the necessary to set another special counsel on the backs of the Clintons, Lynch, Comey, Wasserman Schultz, and the unmaskers and leakers (the Democrats deserve the heat more than Trump does and this one-way shooting gallery must end); and, if Rosenstein allows Mueller to go fishing, challenge it in the courts.
I concur with much of this, particularly, “Speak and tweet more carefully; show more focus.” I don’t mind Trump’s “fire and fury” comment about North Korea; there’s something deeply satisfying about watching North Korea’s propagandists get a taste of their own rhetoric served back to them. I just wish he had bothered to review his comments with his own national security team ahead of time instead of springing it on them without warning. Too often, the president still acts like he’s fighting about a real estate deal by offering colorful quotes to the New York Post.
Black concludes, “The choice, for sane conservatives, is Trump or national disaster.” Maybe you saw Election Day 2016 as that strict binary choice. But we’re past Election Day. It’s time to stop measuring Trump merely as an alternative to Hillary and to start measuring him on his own merits. So far, he’s better on policy than I expected – particularly in improving care for veterans — but worse on temperament than I feared. A bunch of grumbling conservatives are a much smaller problem for this administration than the president’s habitual erratic impulsiveness.
ADDENDA: Ha! “Jon Ossoff will be leading a panel discussion at Netroots on Saturday about winning the 2018 midterm elections.” Another case of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” huh?