Bob Corker on Trump’s biggest problem: The ‘castration’ of Rex Tillerson

Jackson Diehl writes: So is Donald Trump really leading the country toward World War III?

That is the warning that lingers from the broadside delivered by Bob Corker (Tenn.) during his Twitter war with Trump. Most Americans already take for granted much of what the Republican senator said — that the president peddles falsehoods online and has to be corralled by the “adults” around him. But the notion offered by the silver-haired, sober-minded chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that Trump might launch a catastrophic war invites sleepless nights even for those who have already resigned themselves to four years of domestic chaos.

There would seem to be plenty to worry about, from Trump’s insistently hawkish statements about North Korea, including personal insults directed at ruler Kim Jong Un, to his showy announcement of “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal Friday. Yet as Corker sees it, the biggest problem is that Trump is neutering his own chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and thereby inviting “binary” situations in which the United States will have to choose between war and a North Korea or Iran capable of threatening the United States with nuclear weapons.

“You cannot publicly castrate your own secretary of state without giving yourself that binary choice,” Corker told me in a phone interview Friday. “The tweets — yes, you raise tension in the region [and] it’s very irresponsible. But it’s the first part” — the “castration” of Tillerson — “that I am most exercised about.”

Tillerson gets low marks from many in Washington, both inside and outside the State Department, who think he has cooperated with Trump’s attempt to strip U.S. diplomacy of resources, authority and public profile. But as Corker sees it, Tillerson has been instrumental in opening a path away from confrontation with North Korea through quiet diplomacy with China.

It’s like the movie “Mean Girls,” except it’s in the White House. Unfortunately. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
“The greatest diplomatic activities we have are with China, and the most important, and they have come a long, long way,” Corker said. “Some of the things we are talking about are phenomenal.” [Continue reading…]

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Demonstrating his status as a moron, Trump said he wanted to see a tenfold increase in nuclear arsenal

NBC News reports: President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nation’s highest ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.

Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.

According to the officials present, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the build-up. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.

The July 20 meeting was described as a lengthy and sometimes tense review of worldwide U.S. forces and operations. It was soon after the meeting broke up that officials who remained behind heard Tillerson say that Trump is a “moron.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korean leader hails nuclear arsenal as ‘powerful deterrent’

The New York Times reports: The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has vowed to build up his country’s nuclear arsenal as a “powerful deterrent” to the United States, state media reported, hours after President Trump said that “only one thing will work” in dealing with the isolated country.

Mr. Kim made his comments on Saturday at a meeting of the Central Committee of his ruling Workers’ Party, the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday. He also reconfirmed his policy of simultaneously seeking progress in his nuclear weapons program and pushing for economic growth in the face of expanding international sanctions.

The remarks indicated that Mr. Kim had no intention of retreating under American pressure even as South Korean officials and analysts worry that the North will conduct a major weapons test to observe the anniversary on Tuesday of the founding of the Workers’ Party.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a “powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding the peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying, citing “protracted nuclear threats of the U.S. imperialists.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump fires more tweets at North Korea

If this is the calm before the storm, it’s not filled with an ominous silence, but on the contrary, another round of Trump’s seemingly portentous tweets.

He doesn’t seem to recognize that his efforts to promote alarm and uncertainty have become so repetitive that the only reaction they can be expected to provoke is another sigh — here he goes again.

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The world has nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize honors the quest to abolish all of them

The Washington Post reports: An international group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a recognition of efforts to avoid nuclear conflict at a time of greater atomic menace than any other period in recent memory.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its work to foster a global ban on the destructive weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. The scrappy civil society movement was behind a successful push this summer for a U.N. treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It promotes nuclear disarmament around the world.

The award comes amid rising global alarm about a potential nuclear conflagration. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has hurled threats of nuclear missile strikes against the United States, and President Trump has warned he could “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked. The barbed exchanges have raised fears among many global leaders of a miscalculation that could end in cataclysmic conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Washington sends indecipherable signals to North Korea on nuclear/missile tests and war

Yesterday the New York Times reported: The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it was in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests, seeking a possible way forward beyond the escalating threats of a military confrontation from both sides.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he added. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” a reference to North Korea’s capital. [Continue reading…]

This afternoon, State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert reiterated that channels of communication remain open — for now:


And yet Donald Trump says there’s no point engaging in talks:


While the State Department appears ignorant that North Korea has already demonstrated its nuclear capabilities:


And Trump insists he will succeed where Clinton, Bush, and Obama failed:


But as Jeffrey Lewis points out, Trump already failed, having claimed in January that North Korea testing an intercontinental ballistic missile “won’t happen” — until it did happen:


Perhaps the North Koreans have less hesitation about engaging in talks with the U.S. than difficulty believing there is anyone in this administration with whom they can productively engage.

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If North Korea fires an ICBM, the U.S. might have to shoot it down over Russia

Patrick Tucker writes: If Pyongyang fires a missile at the United States, its most-likely trajectory would take it over the North Pole. A U.S. attempt to shoot down that missile would probably occur within Russian radar space — and possibly over Russia itself. “It’s something we’re aware of,” Gen. Lori Robinson, who leads both U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said Wednesday. “It’s something we work our way through.”

By year’s end, the U.S. will have deployed 44 ground-based interceptors, or GBIs: 40 at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. If deterrence fails, those interceptors would be the last line of defense against a North Korean missile. Each incoming ICBM might be met with four or more GBIs.

Last week, Joshua Pollack told an audience at the annual Air Force Association conference in Washington D.C. that the most probable intercept route aims the U.S. GBI “into the teeth of the Russian early warning net.”

The actual route will depend on the incoming missile’s course and speed, and just how quickly the U.S. system can react. Pollack, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, elaborated in a subsequent writeup of his presentation. “Defending a West Coast target…means engaging the attacking [reentry vehicle] above the Russian Far East. Yikes.” [Continue reading…]

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Is North Korea going to risk an open air nuclear test?

Gregory Kulacki writes: North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.

It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.

At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.

China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.

Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.

It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel. But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.

Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test. [Continue reading…]

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Experts on North Korea’s latest threat: ‘This is how war by miscalculation starts’

Zack Beauchamp writes: Nuclear weapons can deter war, as we observed during the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union worked hard to avoid outright conflict because no one believed they could win a nuclear war. In that sense, nuclear weapons enhance stability.

But the sense of security that nuclear weapons grant — because who in their right mind would attack a nuclear power? — can also encourage lower-level bad behavior. In 2010, for example, a North Korea submarine sank a South Korean destroyer, the ROKS Cheonan, without things escalating to war. The North gambled that the South wouldn’t risk being hit by Northern nukes (and its conventional arsenal) over one destroyer, and so wouldn’t respond with all-out war. It was right.

This paradox — where nuclear weapons deter full-scale war but at the same time encourage lower-level provocations — is why Kim thinks he can get away with threatening, and perhaps even firing on, US bombers.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, compares this dynamic to what happened when car manufacturers first began putting seat belts in cars: “There is some research about seat belts — early on, it seems, drivers with seat belts drove more aggressively,” Lewis says. “Nuclear weapons, for some leaders, do the same thing.”

North Korea hasn’t fired on any US warplanes since becoming a nuclear power in 2006, despite the US conducting many defensive flights like the one on Saturday. The reason it’s flexing its muscles now, experts say, is that Trump’s threats — like his tweet on Sunday warning that North Korea “won’t be around much longer!” if it keeps threatening the US — makes the North wary that the B-1B flights might be a prelude to an actual bombing run.

“DPRK really hates the B-1B flights,” Narang tweeted. “They’re clearly making the regime nervous about surprise attack.”

Now the Trump administration has two choices: stop doing these flights and look like you’re bowing to the North’s threats, or keep doing them and risk an actual exchange of fire. If the administration chooses the latter, then what happens if Pyongyang isn’t bluffing and actually fires on a US warplane? Does Trump back down, or does he respond with a strike of his own?

Lewis calls this scenario “the nightmare I’ve been warning about,” in which a war no one wants becomes plausible. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says it has the right to shoot down U.S. warplanes

The New York Times reports: North Korea threatened on Monday to shoot down American warplanes even if they are not in the country’s airspace, as its foreign minister declared that President Trump’s threatening comments about the country and its leadership were “a declaration of war.”

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” the foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, told reporters as he was leaving the United Nations after a week of General Assembly meetings in New York.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country,” he said.

Within hours, the Trump administration pushed back on Mr. Ri’s assertions, with the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, telling a news briefing in Washington: “We have not declared war on North Korea.”

The last time North Korea shot down an American warplane was in 1969, during the Nixon Administration, killing all 31 crew members of a spy plane that was flying off its coast.

Today, North Korea’s ability to make good on its threat is limited. Its air force is outdated, undertrained and frequently short of fuel. But the threat signaled another major escalation in a rhetorical exchange that many fear could push Pyongyang and Washington into a conflict, even an unintended one. [Continue reading…]

Issac Stone Fish writes: The heartening—and, for Americans, deeply sad—reality about this particular crisis is that neither Trump nor Pyongyang feel any fealty to the truth. Neither side believes the other will take his remarks at face value, and both sides seem to understand that the other rarely follows through. Kim “has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” Trump said in August, “and as I said, [his country] will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” What was striking about Trump’s threat, beyond its immorality, was its impossibility. The world has seen genocides and nuclear destruction and horrific massacres—somehow, Trump would exceed all that? It was an inconceivable threat, similar to when North Korea, in April, hinted at plans to nuke Australia, a country it almost entirely ignores, because of its close ties with America. (Like Trump, Kim is no stranger to lobbing personal insults. He called Trump a “dotard”; Trump called Kim “little Rocket Man,” and described him as “obviously a madman.”)

And while North Korea now has the potential to successfully strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped weapon, it’s worth remembering that it acted far more provocatively during the Cold War, when it had a close relationship with the Soviet Union. At that time, Washington understood that North Korean provocations—even when they led to the loss of U.S. lives—could be countered with shows of military might, diplomacy, and restraint. War was unnecessary. In the bizarre 1976 Axe Murder Incident, North Koreans killed two U.S. soldiers for trimming a tree in the Demilitarized Zone, the border that separates the two sides of the peninsula. In the aptly named Operation Paul Bunyan, President Gerald Ford responded by “launching one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history,” according to journalist Gordon F. Sander, sending in a U.S. military team to finish hacking the tree. For the first and only known time in history, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung responded with a formal statement of regret, Sander wrote.

On one of my visits to Pyongyang, our North Korean guides proudly took us on a tour around the USS Pueblo, a U.S. navy spy ship. In 1968, North Korean soldiers seized the ship, killing a crew member in the process. The remaining 82 crew members were tortured and held hostage for nearly a year. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided diplomacy was the best way to bring the Americans home—but officials in the Pentagon did consider responding with nuclear weapons, according to a now-declassified Pentagon memo. [Continue reading…]

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China watches in frustration as North Korea crisis enters dangerous spiral

The Washington Post reports: The view from China could hardly be much worse: the leaders of North Korea and the United States threatening to rain down total destruction on each other, while U.S. bombers and fighters stage a show of military might close to China’s shores.

In public, China’s foreign ministry has calmly advocated restraint and warned Pyongyang and Washington not add to fuel to the fire. But behind closed doors, experts said Sunday, it is as frustrated with North Korea, and with the situation, as it has ever been.

As North Korea’s dominant trading partner, China is widely seen as the key to solving the crisis, yet experts say its influence over Pyongyang has never been lower.

Unwilling to completely pull the plug, it has nevertheless agreed to a stiff package of sanctions at the United Nations and implemented them with unprecedented determination, experts say. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea’s top diplomat says strike against U.S. mainland is ‘inevitable’

The Washington Post reports: North Korea’s foreign minister warned Saturday that a strike against the U.S. mainland is “inevitable” because President Trump mocked leader Kim Jong Un with the belittling nickname “little rocketman.”

U.S. bombers escorted by fighter jets flew off the North Korean coast in a show of force shortly before Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho strode to the podium to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, capping an extraordinary week of militaristic threats from both nations before an organization founded to maintain international peace and security.

Ri said that Trump’s bombast had made “our rockets’ visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable,” and linked it to the Trump’s insulting shorthand references to Kim.

Harsh sanctions placed on North Korea’s trade with the outside world will have no impact on its ability to complete building a nuclear bomb capable of reaching the United States, Ri said, suggesting that stage is imminent. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump kills the Iran deal, he may give the world another Rocket Man

Jeffrey Lewis writes: President Trump made quite the scene at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. He didn’t bang his shoe, as Nikita Khrushchev did in 1960, or wear a pistol like Yasser Arafat in 1974. But in his own way, Trump unsettled the audience in the room and those watching on television with an extraordinary, bellicose speech.

The early headlines focused on his mocking of Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and his warning that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked. But perhaps more worrisome was Trump’s veiled threat to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which he referred to as “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded with a threat of his own: “If, under any conditions, the United States chooses to break this agreement . . . it means that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country.”

It’s all very reminiscent of when the United States sought to walk away from a nuclear agreement with North Korea in 2002, squandering the best opportunity to forestall North Korea’s nuclear program. And if Trump refuses to certify Iran as being in compliance with the deal by the next deadline, Oct. 15, the result may be the same: Another country with long-range nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States.

The deal made with Iran in 2015 is remarkably similar to the agreement negotiated with North Korea in 1994 — in its gen­esis, its concept and the political resistance it has met.

The stories begin with nuclear ambitions. In both cases, those ambitions were revealed through strong U.S. intelligence capabilities in tandem with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. In both cases, the sensitivity of IAEA techniques, such as environmental sampling, caught the governments by surprise, revealing far more about their nuclear programs than Pyongyang and Tehran ever anticipated. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea warns of hydrogen-bomb test over Pacific Ocean

The Wall Street Journal reports: North Korea’s foreign minister said the country could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean in response to President Donald Trump’s speech before the United Nations that warned the U.S. would annihilate North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

The threat, made in remarks by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in New York, would mark a dramatic escalation in action from Pyongyang, which in the past month has already launched two intermediate-range ballistic missiles over Japan and tested what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.

“In my opinion, perhaps we might consider a historic aboveground test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean,” Mr. Ri said in a video broadcast on a South Korean news channel. The last aboveground nuclear detonation in the world was China’s atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb on Oct. 16, 1980.

Mr. Ri said he didn’t know for sure what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was planning.

The remarks from Mr. Ri came hours after Mr. Kim said through Pyongyang’s state media early on Friday that he was considering the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure” after Mr. Trump’s speech. [Continue reading…]

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The nuclear weapons available for Donald Trump’s use

The Union of Concerned Scientists breaks down the numbers in the US nuclear arsenal which currently includes over 4,600 weapons.

A single nuclear-armed submarine carries the TNT equivalent of roughly seven World War II’s. About 10 such subs are at sea at any given time.

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Trump imposes new sanctions on North Korea, Kim says will ‘tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire’

The Washington Post reports: President Trump on Thursday announced new financial sanctions targeting North Korea as his administration seeks to build international support for more aggressively confronting the rogue nation, whose escalating nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have reached what U.S. officials consider a crisis point.

The new penalties seek to leverage the dominance of the U.S. financial system by forcing nations, foreign companies and individuals to choose whether to do business with the United States or the comparatively tiny economy of North Korea. U.S. officials acknowledged that like other sanctions, these may not deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s drive to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon, but is aimed at slowing him down.

Kim on Thursday reacted angrily to Trump’s remarks and actions this week, calling the president a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and Trump’s earlier speech at the U.N. “unprecedented rude nonsense.” Kim said that he was now thinking hard about how to respond. [Continue reading…]

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What total destruction of North Korea means

Kori Schake writes: Speaking before the UN General Assembly today, President Donald Trump announced that, unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, “the United States will have no choice but to totally destroy” the country. He sounded almost excited as he threatened, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

North Korea is a serious problem, and not one of Trump’s making—the last four American presidents failed to impede North Korea’s progress towards a nuclear weapon. President George H.W. Bush took unilateral action, removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing America’s troop levels in the region, hoping to incentivize good behavior; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions; President Barack Obama mostly averted his eyes. North Korea defied them all.

Those four presidents hesitated to bring a forceful end to the North Korean nuclear program, because there is no good policy move for Washington to make. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has repeatedly emphasized, a war on the Korean peninsula would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” The inescapable constraint on U.S. action is, of course, that the capital of South Korea lies in range of the 8,000 artillery pieces North Korea has aimed at its kin. Even if the United States could pull off a military campaign of exceptional virtuosity—identifying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, targeting dispersing mobile launchers, knocking hundreds of missiles out of the sky before they reach their targets in Korea, Japan, and America, and destroying North Korean conventional forces along the Demilitarized Zone in the first couple of hours of a preventative attack—hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely die. Americans, too, would perish, since more than 130,000 of them reside in South Korea. The more likely course, as Vipan Narang and Ankit Panda have argued, would be North Korea launching on warning—“fail deadly” (as opposed to fail safe) mode. That would drive the numbers much, much higher. [Continue reading…]

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