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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”)

Rational Accommodationism

Here we go again. Whenever North Korea launches a new long-range missile or does another nuclear test, President Trump condemns the test and warns Pyongyang not to do it again, while his generals and diplomats point out that it “threatens the entire world.” But latterly, the pattern has been evolving.

North Korea has carried out seven long-range missile tests and one underground nuclear explosion (its first hydrogen bomb) since Trump took office in January, and until August Trump’s language on these occasions was blood-curdling. In July, when two ballistic missiles were tested, he said that any further North Korean threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never see.”

That was actually a threat to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons: Trump was deliberately using the same language, even the same phrases that Harry Truman had chosen to use in a warning message to Japan just before an American plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

His defence secretary, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, continued to talk in apocalyptic terms even after North Korea tested an H-bomb in September: “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so.”

Maybe Mattis just didn’t get the memo, but Trump’s own response on that occasion was less dramatic, and even rather gnomic. Asked whether he planned to attack North Korea, he only said “We’ll see.” That is the response of a poker-player, not the berserker he often pretends to be.

It was striking, even from the start of his presidency, that Trump has never made specific threats with details and deadlines, and his tone has continued to soften. After North Korea tested its first full-range ICBM this week, one that can reach any part of the United States, he just said “We will take care of it,” adding later that “It is a situation that we will handle.”

This suggests that he knows there is nothing he can usefully do to stop these tests, and that he will just have to live with a North Korean nuclear deterrent. He is clearly frustrated by it, and is often abusive about the North Korean leader – he called Kim “little rocket man” at the UN General Assembly in September – but he is now a long way from the “fire and fury” of July. Has someone been getting at him?

I suspect somebody has, and my leading candidates are the three generals who are now his closest advisers on this issue: Mattis at Defence, General H.R.McMaster, the National Security Adviser, and General John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff.

In fact, I’m pretty sure it was mainly Kelly. The other two generals have been in their jobs practically since Trump entered the White House, and although I’m sure that they tried to talk sense to him about North Korea, it didn’t seem to be having much effect. Whereas Kelly only took up his job in late July (so the timing works), and since then he has had more face time with the president than anybody else.

At any rate, Trump is behaving as if he has finally been persuaded of the strategic realities by the generals who now surround him. None of them believes that a war in the Korean peninsula would be a good thing for the United States, and they will have been working hard to persuade the US president to accept that fact. It looks like they have succeeded.

Don’t expect Trump to go public and explain to Americans that there are no good military options available to the United States. He’s not going to tell them that they are ultimately going to have to live in a state of mutual deterrence with North Korea like they already do with Russia and China, because his default mode is sounding tough. But if he understands that himself, that’s enough.

Trump is ignorant and bombastic, but he is not stupid. If his generals tell him the facts often enough, he can be persuaded to behave with appropriate caution. He CANNOT be persuaded to tone down his rhetoric, especially the midnight tweets, so the sense of crisis will continue, but we may be safer than we think.

I would not be suggesting that Trump is privately willing to accept a rational accommodation with North Korea and live with their bombs and missiles if his evil twin, Steve Bannon, were still his Chief Strategic Adviser. To Bannon, ‘rational accommodationism’ is the worst crime of all. But that’s why Bannon’s resignation was one of General John Kelly’s conditions for taking the job of White House Chief of Staff.

Bannon is gone, and I think that Trump may now have secretly accepted reality. Of course, I could be wrong.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“That was…Hiroshima”; and “Trump…think”)

Adult Supervision

Here’s the scenario. Late one evening Donald Trump is watching Fox News and a report comes on that North Korea is planning to launch a missile that can reach the United States. (Kim Jong-un’s regime has said it is going to do that one of these days – but only as a test flight landing in the ocean somewhere, not as an attack.)

Trump misunderstands, and thinks Pyongyang is going to launch a missile AT the United States. After all, there was a graphic with the report that shows the trajectory of the North Korean missile reaching the US, and Trump trusts Fox much more than his own intelligence services. So he orders all US strategic forces to go to DEFCON 1: Defence Readiness Condition One – nuclear war is imminent.

The North Koreans spot all the unusual activity in the American forces – leave cancelled in Strategic Air Command, US nuclear subs in port sailing with zero warning leaving part of their crews behind, etc. – and conclude that an American preemptive attack is imminent.

The North Koreans go to their own equivalent of DEFCON 1: mobilising and dispersing their armed forces, evacuating their leadership from the capital to some bunker in the countryside, and so on. American intelligence reports all this activity, and this time Trump actually listens to them. So he orders a disarming strike on all North Korean nuclear weapons and facilities. With US nuclear weapons, of course. Nothing else would do the job.

That’s how the Second Korean War starts. Not many Americans would be killed, and probably no civilians, because in fact North Korea doesn’t yet have any long-range missiles that can accurately deliver nuclear weapons on the United States, but millions would die in both parts of Korea. With luck, the Chinese would stay out even as their North Korean ally is reduced to rubble, but who knows?

It’s just a scenario, but it’s one that keeps many people awake at night – including many senior people in the US military. That’s why reports have been surfacing recently that the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, the National Security Adviser, General H.R McMaster, and Trump’s Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, have made a secret pact that all three will never be abroad at the same time.

Why not? Because at least one very senior military officer must always be in the country to monitor orders coming from the White House, and countermand them if necessary.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these reports, but I believe them. In fact, I was already assuming that some arrangement like that was in place. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are serious, experienced and professional military officers, and it would be a dereliction of duty for them not to ensure that there is always at least one responsible adult between Trump and the nuclear button.

If one of these generals actually found himself in the position of having to stop Trump, he would face an agonising decision. All his training tells him that he must obey civilian authority, and he will certainly be court-martialled if he disobeys a presidential order. On the other hand, he must not allow millions of human beings to die because of a stupid mistake.

I’m sure they think about it, and I doubt that any of them knows which way he would actually jump if the situation arose. Providing adult supervision is a tricky business, especially when the child is technically your superior.

And having said all this, it occurs to me that some senior military officers in North Korea must face the same dilemma. They too have a child-man in charge, and they will be all too aware that if “little rocket man”, as Trump calls him, stumbles into a war with the United States, then they, their families, and practically everybody they have ever met will be killed.

Their dilemma is even worse, because they serve a petulant god-king who has the power of life and death over them and their families. To stop Kim Jong-un, if he were about to make a fatal mistake, they would have to kill him and accept that they would almost certainly be killed themselves immediately afterwards. Would they actually do that? They don’t even know the answer to that themselves, but I‘m sure they think about it.

There is probably not going to be a Second Korean War. Probably neither set of senior officers is ever going to face this ultimate crisis. A subtle form of adult supervision is exercised on a daily basis in both capitals, because even the loosest of loose cannons has to work through other people in order to get his orders turned into actions.

But things have come to a pretty pass when we can have this discussion without sounding crazy.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Their dilemma…it”)

North Korea’s Nukes

The last time when North Korean nuclear weapons might have been headed off by diplomacy was 15-20 years ago, when there was a deal freezing North Korean work on nuclear weapons, and then one stopping the country’s work on long-range ballistic missiles.

If they had been negotiated with the same attention to detail that was given to the recent deal that has frozen Iran’s nuclear programme for ten years, maybe North Korea’s quest for nuclear-tipped ICBMs could have been stopped for good – or maybe not, because North Korea has always wanted an effective deterrent to the permanent US nuclear threat.

At any rate, both the nuclear and the missile deals with North Korea failed after a couple of years. Pyongyang and Washington were equally to blame for the break-downs, resorting to tit-for-tat retaliation for various perceived breaches of the deal by the other side.

But it was the United States that had more to lose, since it faced no nuclear threat from North Korea UNLESS the deals were abandoned and North Korea’s weapons research went ahead. What we have seen recently – two ICBM tests in July, another one last month, and now what was almost certainly North Korea’s first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb) – is the inevitable result of the failure then.

It took a lot of time and effort to get Pyongyang’s bomb and missile programmes to this point, and it seems clear that Kim Jong-un’s regime decided the safest way to test the new weapons and vehicles was all at once. He’s right.

Stringing the tests out over a couple of years might have given the country’s enemies time to organise a complete trade embargo against North Korea, or maybe even some form of attack. The safer course was to bunch the tests up, get the outraged reactions over fast, and then hope the whole issue will fade into the background.

That’s what both India and Pakistan did in 1998, and it worked for them. Everybody eventually got used to the idea that they were more or less legitimate nuclear weapons powers.

India and Pakistan didn’t bother doing all their missile tests at once, because they had enough space to carry them out over their own land and maritime territory. North Korea is much smaller and entirely surrounded by Chinese, Russian and Japanese territory, so any long-range tests are bound to pass over one of those countries. Pyongyang chose Japan, because it is a US ally.

But even its ICBM test on 30 August, when the Japanese government ordered its citizens in parts of Hokkaido into the shelters, did not enter Japanese airspace. The missile crossed Japan at a sub-orbital altitude, and the Japanese authorities knew that it would as soon as the boost phase ended. The pictures of allegedly panic-stricken Japanese civilians in shelters were propaganda meant to serve Prime Minister Abe’s project for remilitarising Japan.

There is no good ‘military option’ available to the United States and its allies in the current crisis, even though President Trump says “We’ll see.”

A direct US attack on North Korea using only conventional weapons would not get all of North Korea’s nukes, which are hidden in hardened underground sites or moved around by night on mobile launchers. It would also call down “fire and fury” on Seoul from ten thousand North Korean artillery pieces and short-range rockets.

A US nuclear attack would probably still not get all of Kim Jong-un’s nukes: North Korea is the hardest intelligence target in the world. Pyongyang may already be able to reach the United States with one or two ICBMs carrying thermonuclear warheads, and it can certainly reach all of South Korea and Japan.

The political options for the United States and its Asian allies are equally constrained. Trump’s talk of stopping US trade with any country that trades with North Korea is really aimed at China (which already operates selective embargoes on various North Korean exports). But cutting US trade with China would cause immense disruption to the American economy, and it’s unlikely that Trump would actually do it.

Normally, when human beings encounter a problem that they cannot eliminate, they find ways of living with it. It often takes a while for them to get there, however, and we are currently in the dangerous phase where people (or at least some people) are convinced that there must be SOMETHING they can do to make the problem go away.

The only excuse for radical action now would be a conviction that Kim Jong-un is a crazy man who will use his nuclear weapons to launch an unprovoked attack on the United States, even though it would certainly lead to his own death and that of his entire regime. If you truly believe that, then the right course of action is an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea right now.

Otherwise, start dialing back your rhetoric, because you are eventually going to have to accept that North Korea now has a usable nuclear deterrent. You can live with that, because it’s better than fighting a nuclear war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“India…Japan”)