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What North Korea Wants

What does Kim Jon-un want? One thing: security.

He doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s impractical: only one out of every 300 people in the world is North Korean. He doesn’t even want to conquer South Korea. It’s twice as populous as North Korea and ten times richer: eliminate the border and Kim’s regime would crumble in months. And he certainly doesn’t want to attack the United States.

King Kim III (as we would have called him a couple of centuries ago) declared last week that North Korea has now completed the task of building a nuclear deterrent to ward off a possible American attack. It will return to the task of building its economy and prosperity instead. Indeed, it will “ stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and even shut down a nuclear weapons test site.

He’s obviously laying out his negotiating position for the summit meetings that are planned for this month with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and for next month with US President Donald Trump. He clearly wants a deal, but he has long been afraid of an American attack. There could be a deal, but only if Washington and Seoul acknowledge that his fear is real.

A little story from the Cold War. I only realised how deeply I had been affected by the propaganda I had heard all my young life when I attended my first NATO military exercise in Europe as a journalist. It was the same exercise scenario as always, with Russian tanks surging forward to overrun Western Europe and outnumbered NATO troops struggling to halt the attack.

I did know that NATO wasn’t really outnumbered. It had almost twice as many people as the Soviet Union and its allies, and at least four times the wealth. It just chose to have smaller armies because soldiers are very expensive to maintain, and relied instead on the early use of nuclear weapons. But I had never questioned the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Nobody did.

Then one day, I was interviewing a senior British army officer and for some reason I asked the obvious question I had never bothered to ask before. What scenario did the Russians use when they ran their military exercises?

Oh, he said airily, their scenarios imagine that we have invaded East Germany, but after a few days they manage to turn it around and start pushing us back west. When their tanks are breaking through the Fulda Gap we use nukes to stop them, and the whole thing rapidly escalates into a general nuclear exchange.

Well, of course. Would the Russians tell their troops that they were launching a deliberate attack on the West that would end in a full-scale nuclear war? No. As the weaker side in the long confrontation, would they ever even consider doing that? Probably not. But I had never considered the fact that the Russians were afraid of us.

It had simply not occurred to me before that a country that had been invaded by everybody from Napoleon to Hitler, and had lost at least 20 million killed in the Second World War, might be obsessed about the threat of being attacked by us. We were the good guys: surely they must realise that we would never do that. But OF COURSE they didn’t.

Maybe we were ‘the good guys’ in that confrontation, in the sense that our countries were democracies and their countries were dictatorships, but in terms of threat perception and over-reaction the two sides were identical. The situation in the Korean peninsula is the same story in microcosm.

The Kim dynasty inherited a devastated country at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Its cities were levelled and at least a million people had been killed. The Chinese troops who had helped North Korea went home after the war, but the American troops stayed in South Korea. Moreover, the Americans had nuclear weapons and would not promise not to use them – and there was no peace treaty, just an armistice.

The Kims built a very big army as a partial and unsatisfactory counter-threat to US nuclear weapons, and started working on their own nukes as soon as the economy had been rebuilt to the required level. However, that big army created a threat perception in the US and South Korea as real and acute as North Korea’s own fears.

So how might you negotiate your way out of this futile and dangerous confrontation? Pyongyang won’t give up the nuclear deterrent it has worked so long and hard to build: there’s not enough trust for that. But Kim is saying that he is willing to leave it at its current small and technologically primitive level. It’s no real threat to the US in its present form.

Concentrate instead on a peace treaty that gives North Korea a sense of security at last. Demand as a quid pro quo that Pyongyang reduces its ridiculously large army to the same size as South Korea’s. And promise that once those cuts have been made, the US troops in South Korea will go home.

It might work. It’s certainly worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I did…did”; and “It had…didn’t”)

Will the US Betray the Syrian Kurds?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an angry man at the best of times, but on Monday he outdid himself: “This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences.” That was a barely veiled threat that he will use force against American troops if they try to stop him from attacking the Syrian Kurds.

The iron law of international politics in the Middle East is that everybody betrays the Kurds. It was on display again in Iraq last October when the Baghdad government seized almost half the territory ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In obedience to that unwritten law, nobody else objected – including the United States, even though it had armed the Iraqi Kurds to fight Islamic State. But now the US government has effectively told the Syrian Kurds that they can keep the huge chunk of Syria they control for the indefinite future. And the Turkish government, predictably, has gone ballistic.

In President Erdogan’s book, any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a ‘terrorist’, and the Syrian Kurds are a ‘terror army’. In fact, they played the main role, under US air cover, in destroying the Syrian base of the real terrorists: Islamic State. As a result the army that the Kurds dominate, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now controls almost half of Syria’s territory.

It’s the north-eastern, relatively empty half, with less than one-fifth of Syria’s population, but it includes all of Syria’s border with Iraq and almost all its border with Turkey. On Sunday Washington confirmed that it will help the SDF create a new 30,000 ‘border security force’ over the next several years that will police those borders – and also the ‘internal’ border between Kurdish-controlled Syria and the rest of the country.

The ‘rest of the country’ is now mostly back under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after six years of civil war, thanks largely to the intervention of the Russian air force and Iranian militas. Both Moscow and Tehran immediately accused the United States of planning to partition Syria, and there is some substance in the accusation.

Washington is indeed creating a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the northeastern half of Syria, and has declared that 2,000 US troops will stay there indefinitely. Or, to be more precise, until progress has been made in the UN-led peace talks in Geneva and it is certain that Islamic State is permanently defeated. Which is another way of saying indefinitely.

The main purpose of this sudden escalation in the US commitment in Syria is presumably to stop the Russians from winning a total victory in the country. The Syrian regime, of course, has denounced the plan as a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty – but Turkey is the only country threatening to kill Americans over it.

The Kurds always get betrayed because what they really want is an independent Kurdistan including all 20 million Kurds. But to create that, the four most powerful countries in the region – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq – would all have to be partially dismantled. They will do whatever it takes to prevent that.

Erdogan re-started the war with Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists two years ago mainly for electoral advantage, but he really is fanatical on the subject. He is convinced that the Syrian Kurdish organisation, the YFP, is really just a branch of Turkey’s own PKK (which does have a terrorist past), and he is determined to destroy it.

The declaration of a de facto American protectorate over the Kurdish-dominated parts of Syria only makes the matter more urgent in Erdogan’s eyes. “A country we call an ally [the US] is insisting on forming a terror army on our border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Monday. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

That’s nonsense: the Syrian Kurds are not terrorists. They are American allies – and when the Turkish army first attacked Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria last spring, US troops drove in front of the Kurdish lines flying very large American flags to protect their allies from Turkish fire.

What Erdogan meant in that quote at the start was that next time, if American soldiers and flags obstruct Turkish operations, they will be blown away. Does he mean it? He may not know himself, but his army is going to move into several parts of Syrian Kurdish territory this week or next. Turkish artillery is already softening the targets up.

But the likelihood of a shooting war between Turks and Americans remains very low. Like Obama before him, Trump is pursuing a policy in Syria that is not backed up by enough force to make it credible. Everybody assumes that he is bluffing, and that he will betray the Syrian Kurds in the end.

For the peace of the world, it’s probably better that he does.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Kurds…destroy it”)

A Different Kind of Tweet

“The president has absolute authority, unilateral power to order the use of nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Blair. The nuclear codes are “the length of a tweet. It would take them one or two minutes to format and transmit that directly down the chain of command to the executing commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.”

While serving in the US Air Force in the 1970s, Blair was a launch control officer for Minuteman ICBMs. Weekly dry runs down in the capsule, turning the keys that would send 50 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on their way, has led to profound reflection in many of the people who did it. It led Blair to found Global Zero, a group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons entirely.

Blair was being interviewed in connection with the controversy that has erupted in the US since President Trump’s August tweet threatening to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if Kim Jong-un threatened the United States again. Does he actually have the unillateral power to do that, and if so should it be taken away from him?

Senator Ed Markey and 13 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would require Trump to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before launching a nuclear first strike. Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor, explained that “We are concerned that the president is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests.”

The bill will never get past the Republican majority in Congress, but it did lead to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week that examined the president’s power to start a nuclear war. As you would expect, various generals rolled up to say that everything is under control. But it wasn’t very reassuring.

The star witness was Robert Kehler, a former head of US Strategic Command, who said that in his former role he would have followed the president’s order to carry out a nuclear strike – if it were legal. If he doubted its legality, he would have consulted his own advisors – and he might have refused to do it. One senator asked: “Then what happens?” Kehler replied: “I don’t know.”

The current head of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten, had another go at it on Saturday. He told the Halifax International Security Forum that he and Trump have had conversations about such a scenario and that he has told Trump he wouldn’t carry out an illegal strike. (Under international law, using nuclear weapons first is almost always illegal.)

“If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen. I’m going to say, ‘Mr President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’” Hyten said. “And we’ll come up with options with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works.”

But Trump doesn’t have to consult General Hyten, or any of his own military advisers, before ordering a nuclear attack on North Korea – or Iran, or anywhere else. He just puts the launch codes into the ‘football’ that an aide always has nearby.

As Bruce Blair pointed out, it would only take a couple of minutes for the launch orders to cascade down the chain of command and reach the “commanders of the underground launch centers, the submarines and the bombers.” It’s even possible that none of the people on duty who would have to execute the orders would be generals.

The generals would get the order too, of course – but as Blair says: “If they felt that it was a really bad call or illegal, and they wanted to try to override it, they could try to transmit a termination order, but it would be too late.” Trump really could make a nuclear first strike on North Korea all on his own. On this vital issue, there is no “adult supervision”.

This bizarre situation dates back to the early days of the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had ‘launch-on-warning’ policies because they feared that an enemy first strike could destroy all of their own nuclear weapons and leave them helpless. “Use ‘em or lose ‘em” was the mantra, so the US and Soviet leaders both had the authority to launch their missiles in minutes.

Later on both countries buried their ballistic missiles in underground silos or hid them in submerged submarines so they could not lose them in a surprise attack. They no longer had to launch on a warning that might be false: if there really was an attack, they could ride it out and retaliate afterwards. But the US never took back the president’s ‘instant launch’ authority. That was an oversight that needs to be rectified.

It would be a simple matter to restrict Trump’s unilateral launch authority to situations where there is hard evidence that a nuclear attack on the United States is underway. Simple in legal and technical terms, that is. In political terms, very hard if not impossible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“This bizarre…rectified”)

All Quiet on the Climate Front

“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, but President Donald J. Trump did exactly that. He sent a team of American diplomats and energy executives to the annual world climate summit, being held this year in Bonn, Germany, to extol the wonders of “clean” coal.

Bloomberg, now a UN special envoy for climate change, got it right. The audience at the US presentation heckled and mocked the presenters. Where people who were concerned about global warming once worried about whether the US government would dare to defy the fossil fuel lobby at home, the denialists now control the government – and it turns out not to matter all that much.

There are several reasons for that. One is that global coal use has gone into steep decline as the cost of renewable energy has dropped. It’s just not competitive any more, and China and India have cancelled plans for hundreds of new coal-fired power plants this year. Even in the United States, the share of electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to only 31 percent last year – and US coal companies are going bankrupt.

A second reason is that Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement has had zero impact internationally. The fear that other countries would also default on their commitments proved to be unfounded, and the United States is the literally the only country on the planet that does not subscribe to the treaty.

Indeed, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate negotiator, actually thanked Trump for his attempt to wreck the Paris deal. “It provoked an unparalleled wave of support for the treaty,” she said. “He shored up the world’s resolve on climate action, and for that we can all be grateful.”

Finally, Trump has been outflanked by a new alliance announced in Bonn on Monday that links the fifteen US states committed to strong climate action with the Canadian and Mexican governments in a continent-wide group that concentrates on phasing out coal power and boosting clean power and transport. Much of the US contribution to emissions cuts that Trump reneged on will be covered by these state-level American initiatives.

There are other causes for alarm, of course. There always are. After three years when global carbon dioxide emissions stayed steady, albeit at a very high level, they have started rising again. And there is an unexplained rise in methane emissions in the tropics, not caused by burning fossil fuels, that leads some scientists to suspect that one of the dreaded feedbacks is kicking in.

Feedbacks are the spectre at the feast. You can get everything else right, your emissions are going down nicely, and you are on course to stop the warming just before the average global temperature reaches two degrees C higher – and then suddenly, the whole global system goes into overdrive. The warming that human beings have already caused has triggered some other, natural source of warming that we cannot shut off.

The consensus among scientists is that the risk of triggering feedbacks rises steeply in the vicinity of plus 2 degrees C average global temperature, which is why the world’s governments have all promised never to exceed that target. But there could be some unknown trigger in the system that would set off runaway warming at a significantly lower average global temperature: the whole process, as they say, is “non-linear”.

So we are still living dangerously, and it is still uncertain whether we can ratchet down emissions targets fast enough to stop the temperature rise in time. But there are big changes in the offing that will make it easier to cut emissions: meat substitutes and lab-grown meat, electric vehicles, and rapidly falling prices for renewables like solar and wind.

There is also now a unity of purpose that was previously absent from the climate talks: the long struggle between the rich and the poor countries over who is to blame for the problem and who pays for the damage is largely over. And although President Xi did not come in person, China is definitely taking the lead.

Nobody in Bonn is celebrating the US government’s defection from the fight against climate change, but their panic is long past. The Bonn meeting is concentrating on writing the rules for measuring how countries are complying with the promises they have made on emissions cuts. They also need to figure out how to organise the five-yearly reviews at which the countries are supposed to adopt progressively higher targets for cuts.

When the conference closes on Friday, there will be no exciting new announcements of breakthroughs, but we don’t need that. The real breakthrough came in Paris in 2015, and the objective now is to keep the show on the road. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Indeed…grateful”; and “The consensus…non-linear”)