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).