Tag Archives: DPRK

Trump on the DPRK: Exerting Maximal Regime Change Influence

Sitting within the target zone for a North Korean retaliation causes one to contemplate a bit on the state of things. Trump has doubled down on his bellicose rhetoric of “fire and fury” over the course of the last day, and quite a few people are flipping out, as anyone could have predicted. I have received several emails and calls from friends wishing me well if things go south, expressing hopes that various cabinet personalities can reel Trump in and so on.

All of this assumes Trump is nuts. That is far from an accurate portrayal of the situation.

Washington is faced with a very tough choice right now, but one that has only one real option available: Does Washington wait until American cities sit under nuclear threat from a country with a decision making apparatus that is only a single person deep (meaning, ultimately, the strike decision is left up to personal whim and intent), or does it sacrifice non-Americans to protect Americans?

Obviously, the choice is clear: risk Americans instead of risking Americans. To think that any other nation would do any differently is to believe we exist in a parallel universe where altruism reigns, feelings are reasonable goals of achievement and love conquers all. We do not live in that universe.

Let’s be clear: the US will not allow tens of millions of Americans to sit at risk of a North Korean leader who wishes to advance an extortion game against Washington. It will avert that by risking tens of thousands of foreign lives (mostly South Koreans, but also some Japanese and possibly Chinese as well). Even though I live within the zone that might get splatted, I really can’t see any other way for things to be — and let’s remember: this is tens of millions of American lives VS a few tens of thousands of foreigners from Washington’s perspective. Not much of a choice there, even if one is a hardcore humanitarian.

So now that we have established the American calculus, and we’re not deluding ourselves into thinking that management of a nuclear-armed, globally-strike capable North Korea is part of our menu of options, what is Trump going to do about this? How about get the Chinese or Russians to do something instead? Well, that route has already been explored and exhausted. The Chinese enjoy North Korea being a useful problem regionally, so do the South Koreans to some degree, the Russians love having the DPRK act as a consistent policy spoiler for everyone involved, and even the Japanese have leveraged the existence of North Korea from time to time. It was a useful problem for pretty much everyone for quite a long time, and that’s why it has been allowed to fester for so long.

But now things have gotten serious.

The US cannot wait longer than next spring to strike. The decision on exactly when to strike is dependent on weather, mostly. If the Americans believe that the advantage leans to their side in cold weather then we will see a strike sometime between late November and early March. If the advantage would go to the Americans in warmer months then we will see a strike sometime between now and December. Expect the US to ramp up a strike capability from now until whenever and just sit on it to mask the moment of their intent. Sure, nonessential being relocated from the American garrisons in South Korea would be a telltale sign, but I don’t know if Washington would even telegraph its intent that way rather than letting the chips fall where they may. This is serious business, after all. On the other hand, Washington may evacuate nonessential personnel right away and just remove that as an indicator all together very soon. Who knows.

Back to the rhetorical bit Trump threw out the other day and then doubled down on today…

Trump is doing everything but being explicit about his threat to either glass North Korea entirely or commit to a massive conventional strike that comes very close to that. Looking at Trump’s negotiating style since the 1980’s it is very likely that he intends to do exactly that if the situation does not improve — he is not known for bluffing. He also would not have made this decision alone. China has already stated that they would defend North Korea in the event of an American strike, so by elevating it to the level of an absolute conflict Trump is essentially guaranteeing that there would not be any chance for any action to escalate to becoming a regional war because there would not be a North Korea left to defend.

That sounds crazy, but it is not. It ensures a limited scope to the conflict from the start, and that is wise.

From the North Korean perspective, though, it does one more thing: it places every single leader and peasant and their families under threat of annihilation if Pyongyang does not change course in some way. The Chinese have been trying to effect a regime change in Pyongyang unsuccessfully for a few years now. Beijing can’t do it, it is very likely that nobody outside of North Korea can short of a war. Trump’s appeal to an absolute level of violence here is an overt signal to the North Koreans that it is up to them to effect regime change or face total annihilation. There is plenty of hidden opposition to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang — but unless they feel that Trump is more dangerous to them than their own leader they are unlikely to feel motivated to move. After all, North Korea has had spats with the West hundreds of times over the last several decades — so often that there is almost a script for this sort of thing.

Trump is going off script. He is doing so to evoke a specific survival reaction in the upper leadership in Pyongyang, specifically a reaction against Kim Jong Un. This is probably the best chance anyone has of deposing him: turning his own leadership against him. They might die if they go against Kim Jong Un. They will certainly die if they go against Trump. This is how mutinies are made from the outside. On the outside chance that it comes to an American strike Trump has already guaranteed that a Chinese retaliation would be pointless. A massive strike (nuclear or conventional) would be a huge shock to the world, but the populations of the world are already experiencing hyperbolic rhetorical shock — when the volume has been turned up to 11 for so long there isn’t really anywhere left to go.

Trump is not crazy and his staff have certainly planned out (and are constantly revising) attack plans on North Korea designed to execute a strike devastating enough to limit the scope of any follow-on actions from anyone in the region. He has since moved on to working an influence play directly aimed at the North Korean leadership. This is how the game is played. People today are not used to being forced into situations where one bad option is balanced by an even worse one. Sometimes there is no unicorn to come save the day. The world is only going to turn more harsh in the coming decade — we probably will only remember this as a side show (if we even care to remember it at all).

DPRK Handling

[Pic unrelated: On sale at Jusco. They have no idea how this appears to a Westerner.]

I’m writing because I’m a little upset about the shallowness of the Left’s current stance on the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues. Even more broadly, I’m disappointed in the way the media flashes past complex issues like this without ever explaining anything while trying to engender a sense of understanding in their audience. It makes issues such as DPRK “crisis” situations an easy tool for politicians who are ready to lie while rendering them useless for politicians who prefer to talk straight about international issues*

[*Granted, the only politicians who talk straight about such things are the minority of American politicians who understand that it is an effective style of rhetoric only because it is a shocking style of rhetoric. That is only possible because the US controls its own hemisphere. If the truth comes into vogue again then shocking lies will become the winning strategy, so any victory for Truth will be inevitably short-lived. It just so happens that politics everywhere is so deeply invested in lies that the truth is an effective, and winning, shocker.]

The DPRK is not going to bend to anyone because the DPRK is not a manifestation of pro-national governance, it is a manifestation of pro-elite governance. Come to think of it, that’s what the Left is all about as well: taking power from the average person under the cover of saying that they must make everyone’s decisions for them for the “greater good”. The DPRK is one of the few remaining functional dictatorships. Or it is a cult*.

I prefer the cult characterization because it carries an accurate sense of what I have observed there. The State is inseparable from Kim Jong Il, the people must venerate the State and therefore Kim Jong Il, and they do everything but use the words “Lord and Master” or “The Holy Father and Son” to refer to them. It distinguishes the idea of Hitlerite dictatorship which seeks to become a cult from a power elite which actually manages to manifest the Mayan political dream.

[*2015 post-military retrospective edit: I believe it is a cult. It is far more religiously zealous than any of the Christian or Islamic places I’ve worked. Insanely so. I can’t even begin to count the ways in which it is profoundly cultish. With Kim Jong Il now moved into the position of “Eternal Secretary” they now have a proper Holy Trinity: father, son and ghost.]

Here are some quick points:

  1. The DPRK is a dictatorship run by a strict egoist. This may not have been the initial goal, but its the only way to run a tight communist country in Asia in a post-Cold War world totalitarian regime effectively.
  2. The DPRK is obligated to generate crises on a schedule. It doesn’t really matter if the outside world throws (useless) sanctions at them or not, throws a few rounds of actual hot death at them from time to time, or throws a few baskets of gift-wrapped chocolates instead (or more often barges full of rice or cash). So long as KJI is going to stay in power he must play a brinkmanship game on the outside and internally stir a sense that “We are embattled by the whole world! Its Us against Them!”
  3. The world thinks China can magically change the way the DPRK works. It can’t. Only KJI can do that, and he’s not going to because it would put him out of a job, and that’s equivalent to the destruction of the DPRK. Besides, without him holding the country together famine and lawlessness would ensue. Consider other necessary dictatorships, like Libya — Koreans are far more socially advanced, but their already dire survival situation would immediately become critical without KJI. There wouldn’t be an overnight smooth, non-violent transition to unity with South Korea, not by a long shot — that’s purely a daydream of peaceniks who have lost touch with reality. Even the West doesn’t want a unified Korea just now. A united Korea (whatever way that happens) would ultimately not be an ally of the West (or Japan). When Seoul talks about “unity” what they mean is under their leadership. When Pyongyang speaks of “unification” they mean under their control. There is no middle ground on that, and therefore there will be no unity until internal disintegration grips one or the other. (Sorry ideologues, it actually appears to be a fair toss between which one will disintegrate first — South Korea has a profoundly weird list of internal problems the DPRK lacks thanks to its nearly universal state religion. Religion really is a near-perfect way to enslave masses of people.)
  4. The US is wise in avoiding direct dialogue with the DPRK. The game has a pulse to it which usually begins with the DPRK deliberately provoking “the global community”, whatever that means. This week they announce nuclear research, next week they launch a test missile over Japan, another time they send a boatload of missile parts to Iran, another time they sink a South Korean ship, etc. The details of the incident are irrelevant, the whole point is to stir shit so the “world” must “do something about it”. This is code for “the U.S. must do something about it”. Why the U.S.? Because, frankly, the combined might of Europe is utterly incapable of fielding a military force that can influence East Europe, much less East Asia. Beijing and Moscow are interested in seeing what they can get out of the U.S. in return for deliberate avoidance on other issues, making the cost for genuine engagement in the issue unacceptably high. The Japanese are afraid of their own latent might (they might “become evil” through strength, as if “good” and “evil” have a place in geopolitics). The U.S. list of international heavyweights capable of keeping South Korea calm is short. Any dialogue with the DPRK runs immediately and necessarily to military brinkmanship. There really isn’t any place left to go after you fire “test missiles” over a country like Japan or sink a South Korean vessel.
  5. Neither Pyongyang nor Washington would benefit from an actual war. The DPRK, being controlled ultimately by a tiny power elite, is flexible in its interpretation of political consistency and can therefore grandstand with “We will destroy the South unless ___!” The US, on the other hand, has a policy against making idle threats and so can’t match the DPRK’s rhetorical “We kill you all!” talk without actually doing it. Either way, the US will look like diplomatic assholes because any American action can be perceived by any given public as the wrong one. “Oh, world policing again, are we?” on the one hand and “You’re so powerful that its your responsibility to do something, you selfish bastards” on the other. The reactions to brinkmanship are even more severe, and the stakes higher. So its best to just sit things out until the DPRK’s provocations have run their course and the issue has faded from the public consciousness — a process that takes all of a week depending on how many family feuds get started on reality TV in the same span of time.