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Kim Jong-un

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Korea: The Real Deal

The summit is on, it’s off, it’s sort of on again. It’s amateur night every night at the White House, and the fate of the US-North Korean summit scheduled for Singapore on 12 June will be decided by the coin Donald Trump flips each day: heads three days in a row means ‘yes’, tails three days in a row and the meeting stays cancelled.

So let’s not waste time speculating on the unknowable. Let us just assume that the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually goes ahead in the end. What would be a good outcome that stays within the bounds of plausibility?

One that avoids a nuclear war, obviously, but it’s equally obvious that neither party is going to abandon its nuclear weapons. The United States, as the first country to build nuclear bombs and the only country ever to use them, sees having thousands of them as its birthright and would never consider giving them up. North Korea’s regime has only a few, but sees them as the only real guarantee of its survival.

But that can’t be entirely true, because North Korea had already survived for 57 years before it tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. It was another dozen years before it built a very small but theoretically effective force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could, on a good day and with a tail-wind, reach the United States. Only now has Pyongyang
achieved nuclear deterrence against the US. What protected it before that?

What served North Korea as deterrence until 2017 was a very big army (twice the size of South Korea’s army PLUS the American troops stationed in South Korea), and the ability to destroy Seoul within a day or two using only conventional artillery and rockets.

Seoul’s northern suburbs are only 50 km from the North Korean border, well within the range of many thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, and the metropolitan area is home to half of South Korea’s 50 million people. As the capital, it also contains almost all the government ministries and military headquarters. Not even US nuclear weapons could save it from destruction in a North-South war.

So forget about both sides’ nuclear weapons and concentrate on the conventional balance. South Korea has twice North Korea’s population but only half as many soldiers on active service, because Seoul would rather save money and rely on (American-supplied) nuclear deterrence. Now that North Korea has nukes of its own, it too can afford to shrink its army by at least half. In fact, it can’t really afford not to.

Kim Jong-un would gain a lot if the summit actually happens. Just by sitting down with a US president as an equal he would win the kind of international legitimacy that always eluded his father and grandfather. If he also got an American promise not to try to overthrow him and a suspension of US economic sanctions, his success would be complete. But what could he offer the US and South Korea in return?

Kim has already unilaterally suspended both nuclear weapons testing and further ballistic missile flight tests in order to attract Trump to the table, but he must come up with some other concessions to get the rest of what he wants. How about a deal that commits him to reduce North Korea’s army to the same size as South Korea’s, and an agreement by both sides to move their artillery at least 50 km back from the inter-Korean border?

That sort of deal would save Kim a lot of money without exposing him to any serious risk: it’s his secret police, not the army, that keeps his population in line. South Korea would still have no credible ability to attack the North, and Kim’s own ability to threaten Seoul with a “sea of fire” would evaporate because he would first have to move his artillery back to the border area along roads totally exposed to US and South Korean air power.

This is what successful diplomatic deals actually look like. They are often asymmetric in some details, but they are more or less balanced overall and they give both parties what they really need.

What Trump needs is a diplomatic triumph that feeds his ego and maybe gets him the Nobel Peace Prize, while giving him a plausible excuse not to insist on the unattainable goal of eliminating North Korea’s rudimentary nukes and ICBMs.

Kim can afford to give him concessions on other military issues, because even a 10% chance that one North Korean ICBM could deliver one nuclear weapon on an American city is deterrent enough to preclude any US attack on North Korea. In return, North Korea gets an end to sanctions and huge savings on its bloated military spending.

No promises, but this actually could happen. And if Trump and Kim did get the Nobel Peace Prize for it, so what? It’s meant as a reward for saints, but it works just as well as bait for scoundrels.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Seoul’s…war”; and “Kim Jong-un…return”)

By Gwynne Dyer

The summit is on, it’s off, it’s sort of on again. It’s amateur night every night at the White House, and the fate of the US-North Korean summit scheduled for Singapore on 12 June will be decided by the coin Donald Trump flips each day: heads three days in a row means ‘yes’, tails three days in a row and the meeting stays cancelled.

So let’s not waste time speculating on the unknowable. Let us just assume that the meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually goes ahead in the end. What would be a good outcome that stays within the bounds of plausibility?

One that avoids a nuclear war, obviously, but it’s equally obvious that neither party is going to abandon its nuclear weapons. The United States, as the first country to build nuclear bombs and the only country ever to use them, sees having thousands of them as its birthright and would never consider giving them up. North Korea’s regime has only a few, but sees them as the only real guarantee of its survival.

But that can’t be entirely true, because North Korea had already survived for 57 years before it tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. It was another dozen years before it built a very small but theoretically effective force of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that could, on a good day and with a tail-wind, reach the United States. Only now has Pyongyang
achieved nuclear deterrence against the US. What protected it before that?

What served North Korea as deterrence until 2017 was a very big army (twice the size of South Korea’s army PLUS the American troops stationed in South Korea), and the ability to destroy Seoul within a day or two using only conventional artillery and rockets.

Seoul’s northern suburbs are only 50 km from the North Korean border, well within the range of many thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, and the metropolitan area is home to half of South Korea’s 50 million people. As the capital, it also contains almost all the government ministries and military headquarters. Not even US nuclear weapons could save it from destruction in a North-South war.

So forget about both sides’ nuclear weapons and concentrate on the conventional balance. South Korea has twice North Korea’s population but only half as many soldiers on active service, because Seoul would rather save money and rely on (American-supplied) nuclear deterrence. Now that North Korea has nukes of its own, it too can afford to shrink its army by at least half. In fact, it can’t really afford not to.

Kim Jong-un would gain a lot if the summit actually happens. Just by sitting down with a US president as an equal he would win the kind of international legitimacy that always eluded his father and grandfather. If he also got an American promise not to try to overthrow him and a suspension of US economic sanctions, his success would be complete. But what could he offer the US and South Korea in return?

Kim has already unilaterally suspended both nuclear weapons testing and further ballistic missile flight tests in order to attract Trump to the table, but he must come up with some other concessions to get the rest of what he wants. How about a deal that commits him to reduce North Korea’s army to the same size as South Korea’s, and an agreement by both sides to move their artillery at least 50 km back from the inter-Korean border?

That sort of deal would save Kim a lot of money without exposing him to any serious risk: it’s his secret police, not the army, that keeps his population in line. South Korea would still have no credible ability to attack the North, and Kim’s own ability to threaten Seoul with a “sea of fire” would evaporate because he would first have to move his artillery back to the border area along roads totally exposed to US and South Korean air power.

This is what successful diplomatic deals actually look like. They are often asymmetric in some details, but they are more or less balanced overall and they give both parties what they really need.

What Trump needs is a diplomatic triumph that feeds his ego and maybe gets him the Nobel Peace Prize, while giving him a plausible excuse not to insist on the unattainable goal of eliminating North Korea’s rudimentary nukes and ICBMs.

Kim can afford to give him concessions on other military issues, because even a 10% chance that one North Korean ICBM could deliver one nuclear weapon on an American city is deterrent enough to preclude any US attack on North Korea. In return, North Korea gets an end to sanctions and huge savings on its bloated military spending.

No promises, but this actually could happen. And if Trump and Kim did get the Nobel Peace Prize for it, so what? It’s meant as a reward for saints, but it works just as well as bait for scoundrels.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Seoul’s…war”; and “Kim Jong-un…return”)

Trump and Kim

I think I know why President Donald Trump suddenly agreed to hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after a year of mutual threats and verbal abuse.

Anything short of a complete breakdown at the talks would virtually guarantee Trump next year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, it would seem bigger and shinier than the one they gave to Barack Obama, because Obama hadn’t actually earned it. He got it just for being a nice guy.

Oh, no, wait a minute. If they gave it to Trump they’d also have to give it to Kim Jong-un, and that would be even sillier. Yet there probably won’t be a complete breakdown at the talks, which are due by May, because both men are strongly motivated to make them look successful.

Kim’s minimum goal is to establish North Korea as a legitimate sovereign state that is accepted by other sovereign states (including the United States) as an equal. Just having a one-on-one discussion with Trump about the security problems of the Korean peninsula gives him that. He will do his best to keep the meeting civil, and under no circumstances will he break off the talks first.

Trump’s main goal is to look good – to get a ‘win’ – and Kim’s advisers will have told him to let Trump win something. It doesn’t much matter what, so long as Trump can wave it in the air and claim victory when he gets home. But it will definitely not be an enforceable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s new nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles.

Look at it from Kim Jong-un’s standpoint. Saddam Hussein gave up his nuclear weapons programme (involuntarily) after the first Gulf War in 1990-91, and twelve years later the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and hanged him. Well, the new Iraqi regime provided the rope and the gallows, but the US invasion would never have happened if Saddam had really had nuclear weapons.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave up his quest for nuclear weapons too. It never really amounted to much, but it worried Western powers enough to make them leave him alone most of the time. Then Gaddafi handed over all his pathetic scraps of nuclear weapons-related technologies – and NATO airpower subsequently backed the tribal rebels who finished him off with a bayonet up his backside.

So if the US sees you as a problem and you value your life, don’t stop until you get your nukes, and never give them up. The North Koreans understand this lesson very well.

No promise Trump could make would persuade the North Koreans to surrender their nukes. As far as Kim is concerned, nuclear deterrence against the United States has now been achieved, and he’d be mad to give it up again.

It’s a pretty flimsy form of deterrence – his rockets aren’t very accurate and his nuclear weapons don’t always explode in a fully satisfactory way – but even a 10 percent chance that North Korea could kill half a million Americans in a ‘revenge from the grave’ attack should be enough to deter the US from using nukes on North Korea.

A nuclear war between the US and North Korea would probably kill ten times as many North Koreans including practically every member of the regime – Pyongyang would be a glowing, radioactive pit – so Kim’s regime would never initiate such a conflict. But he needs the assurance that the United States will never resort to nuclear weapons either, and only North Korean nuclear weapons can provide the necessary deterrence.

You may deplore this kind of thinking, but it is entirely rational and it is at the heart of North Korea’s strategy. Kim’s willingness to talk about the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” is therefore just that: a willingness to talk, but not to act. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Does ‘denuclearisation’ mean no American nuclear weapons can be located in South Korea? Given the range of those weapons, how would that make North Korea any safer? Does it mean dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Certainly not. It’s just what Kim had to say to get the talks started.

His ultimate goal is to ‘normalise’ North Korean nukes, as Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons were eventually accepted as normal. This can only happen if the United States acknowledges a state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the two countries, which Trump is not yet ready to do. But even by talking to Kim about it, he begins to give the concept substance.

Kim can promise Trump a “moratorium on nuclear and missile tests” because he doesn’t really need more tests. His nuclear weapons and rockets are far fewer and much less sophisticated than their American counterparts, but mutual deterrence can work effectively even when one side has a hundred or a thousand times more nuclear weapons than the other.

So Trump gets an early ‘win’, and Kim gets to nudge the United States a little closer to an understanding that its future relationship with North Korea will be one of mutual deterrence. Or maybe locking two narcissists in a room is bound to end in tears, but it’s well worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“Look…well”)

Coping with Trump

We have to face facts: there is no US federal government any more in the normal sense of the word. Social Security payments still get made and the 2.79 million federal civil servants still get paid, but there is no such thing as US government policy – especially foreign policy. Take the US defence secretary, former General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.

Depite his nickname, Mattis is a rational human being who thinks that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a bad idea. He knows that it’s too late to stop North Korea from getting them, but he also knows that it is still possible to stop Iran from doing the same. In fact, the job is done: Iran signed an agreement in 2015 that takes the whole issue off the table for ten years.

Matts is well aware that his boss, President Donald Trump, regularly fulminates about how bad the Iranian ‘deal’ is and keeps hinting that he will cancel it – in which case, of course, Iran could go ahead and get nuclear weapons in just a year or two. So he put his own job at risk on Tuesday by telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should keep its word and abide by the agreement with Iran.

Now he’s waiting for President Trump’s next tweet, which may well repudiate what he said. Trump won’t fire Mattis – he prefers to humiliate people in tweets until they quit – but his usefulness as secretary of defence is nearly at its end. Foreigners, including Iranians, know that Mattis is serious, but they also know that he does not speak for the president. Trump will do whatever he likes, so why bother even talking to Mattis?

It’s just the same with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state (foreign secretary). On Sunday he said that the United States has “lines of commuunication” open to Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime.

The subtext was clear: don’t worry about a nuclear war, folks. We’re talking to them (or about to talk to them, or talking about talking to them), and there’s still time for a deal that defuses the whole crisis.

It’s not clear that that’s actually true, if the deal must include North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim is well aware of what happened to other people who defied the United States but did not have nuclear weapons, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (dangling from the end of a rope) and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (a bayonet up the backside), so he is strongly motivated to hang onto his. But it is what Tillerson should say now, and it might help.

Trump didn’t wait 24 hours before he tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Like what? If negotiations are a waste of time, then the only alternative is force.

Does Trump mean he’s going to attack North Korea (whch would almost certainly involve the use of nuclear weapons)? Of course not. He doesn’t mean anything; he’s only venting, as usual. He has no idea what he’s going to do about North Korea, if anything. He doesn’t even know what he is going to think or say tomorrow.

The trouble is that Kim Jong-un probably doesn’t realise how aimless and inconsequential Trump’s tweets usually are. What Kim sees is most likely a death threat to him by the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth. He has seen a dozen more messages like it in the past six months, and he must be looking frantically for a way out.

Talking to Tillerson might have shown him a way out, or at least bought him some time, but he’s definitely not going to talk to a diplomat who has been repudiated by his own president. As foreign secretary, Tillerson is toast.

There have been calls in Washington for Tillerson to resign to avoid further humiliation, but others hope he will swallow his pride and stay in office as long as he can to postpone the appointment of a super-hawk like John Bolton or Nikki Haley. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter very much either way, because they would find that the Boss is undermining and discrediting them too. It’s what he always does to his subordinates.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that America’s allies and its opponents are both coming to the conclusion that they will just have to ignore the US and make their deals wihout it. Iran, for instance, has said that it might stick by the nuclear deal if all the other signatories stay loyal to their commitments.

Trump is a problem, of course, but for all his threats and boasts he doesn’t actually do much. It could be a viable strategy for the next three years.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The subtext…help”

The Maniac in Pyongyang

“This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”

So spoke President Donald Trump in Iowa in January. North Korea flight-tested a ballistic missile on Saturday night that landed off Japan’s west coast, so what will he do now? What can he do? And is North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un, really a maniac?

South Korea’s foreign ministry certainly thinks so: “North Korea’s repeated provocations show the Kim Jong-un regime’s nature of irrationality, maniacally obsessed in its nuclear and missile development.” The same word was used a great deal after North Korea tested nuclear weapons in January and September of last year.

But why would it be maniacal, or even irrational, for the North Korean leader to want nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States? After all, the United States not only has nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach North Korea; it has enough of them to eradicate the country twenty times over.

If it is not maniacal for the United States to have them, why is it maniacal for the North Koreans? Because American leaders are responsible, they explain, whereas Kim Jong-un is a maniac. Begging your pardon, but isn’t that argument rather circular?

The United States is the only country that ever developed nuclear weapons with the deliberate intention of using them. It was at the end of the Second World War, when tens of millions had already been killed, and moral restraints had largely been cast aside.

But the United States never used its nukes again, even when it still had a monopoly on them – and all the other known nuclear powers got them in the name of deterrence: stopping somebody else from using nuclear weapons on them.

The Soviet Union developed them to deter the United States from launching a nuclear strike. Britain and France got them to deter the Soviet Union. China got them to deter all of the above. And Pakistan and India each developed them because they suspected the other country was working on them.

Only Israel developed nuclear weapons for use against enemies who did not already have them (and it still refuses to confirm their existence, although it is common knowledge in the strategic community). But Israel got them out of fear that its people would be “driven into the sea” if it lost a conventional war, back in the 1960s when it was conceivable that it could lose such a war. The intention was still defensive.

So why can’t the rest of the world believe that North Korea is doing this in order to deter an American nuclear attack? North Koreans have lived sixty-five years with the knowledge that the United States could do that whenever it wanted, and it is not maniacal to take out a little insurance against it.

The North Korean regime is brutally repressive and given to foaming at the mouth over minor slights. But since it has actually kept the peace for 64 years (while the United States has fought three large wars and many small ones), it is hard to maintain that it is maniacally aggressive.

So why say it? Because if you don’t characterise North Korea as insanely dangerous, then you cannot justify forbidding it to have ballistic missiles (which several dozen other countries have) and nuclear warheads (which nine countries have, and another four had briefly before giving them up).

Since none of the great powers want North Korea to have them, and they control the United Nations Security Council, they have managed to get special UN bans on both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons for North Korea. Maintaining that the Pyongyang regime are maniacs is part of the programme, but it does frighten those who are not in on the joke.

It would be better if the ban worked, since the world has more than enough nuclear powers already. However, the ban is essentially unenforceable, and the heavens will not fall if North Korea does get a few nuclear-tipped ICBMs one of these days.

It will never have very many, and they will not be used for some lunatic “first strike” on countries that are tens of times more powerful. They will be for deterrence, only to be launched as an act of revenge from the grave. Just like everybody else’s.

What can President Trump do about this? He could try bribing North Korea into suspending its work on missiles and bombs. That worked once before, but not for very long. There is really nothing useful to be done.

And what will he say about it? Nobody knows, probably including him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Only…defensive”)