What’s the U.S.’s best chance with North Korea? Russia

Dmitri Trenin writes: Sanctions, no matter how strict, will not stop Pyongyang from pursuing its program, which it sees as the key to its very survival; as Mr. Putin said recently, North Koreans will “eat grass” before they give up nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s latest missile launch on Friday was a direct rebuke to the new sanctions, notably on oil imports, that the U.N. Security Council passed last Monday.

This is not to say that sanctions are a mistake. They remain a valuable expression of collective condemnation and reassert the goal of nuclear nonproliferation. But they will not halt North Korea’s nuclearization.

A total blockade of the country might, but it is too risky to even attempt. It could push North Korea to start a war or cause the country’s collapse, a prospect that China, for one, cannot tolerate.

And so the only viable strategy left is to convince the North Korean leadership that it already has the deterrent it needs, and that going beyond that — by developing more nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles — would only be counterproductive.

This is where Russia comes it: It can help nudge Pyongyang toward strategic restraint, and help defuse tensions in the meantime, by offering it new economic prospects. [Continue reading…]

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A potent fuel flows to North Korea. It may be too late to halt it

The New York Times reports: When North Korea launched long-range missiles this summer, and again on Friday, demonstrating its ability to strike Guam and perhaps the United States mainland, it powered the weapons with a rare, potent rocket fuel that American intelligence agencies believe initially came from China and Russia.

The United States government is scrambling to determine whether those two countries are still providing the ingredients for the highly volatile fuel and, if so, whether North Korea’s supply can be interrupted, either through sanctions or sabotage. Among those who study the issue, there is a growing belief that the United States should focus on the fuel, either to halt it, if possible, or to take advantage of its volatile properties to slow the North’s program.

But it may well be too late. Intelligence officials believe that the North’s program has advanced to the point where it is no longer as reliant on outside suppliers, and that it may itself be making the deadly fuel, known as UDMH. Despite a long record of intelligence warnings that the North was acquiring both forceful missile engines and the fuel to power them, there is no evidence that Washington has ever moved with urgency to cut off Pyongyang’s access to the rare propellant.

Classified memos from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations laid out, with what turned out to be prescient clarity, how the North’s pursuit of the highly potent fuel would enable it to develop missiles that could strike almost anywhere in the continental United States.

In response to inquiries from The New York Times, Timothy Barrett, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said that “based on North Korea’s demonstrated science and technological capabilities — coupled with the priority Pyongyang places on missile programs — North Korea probably is capable of producing UDMH domestically.” UDMH is short for unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine. [Continue reading…]

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After U.S. compromise, Security Council strengthens North Korea sanctions

The New York Times reports: The United Nations Security Council on Monday ratcheted up sanctions yet again against North Korea, but they fell significantly short of the far-reaching penalties that the Trump administration had demanded just days ago.

While the sanctions were described in Washington and other capitals as the most extensive yet, in the end they amounted to another incremental increase of pressure on the country, even after it detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device.

It was far from clear that the additional penalties would accomplish what the Trump administration said was its goal: To force North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and reopen some kind of negotiation toward eventual nuclear disarmament.

The North has claimed that last week’s detonation, in an underground site, had proven it could build a hydrogen bomb, far more powerful than ordinary atomic weapons. It is still unclear how far along the road to a hydrogen bomb the country has gone.

Although the resolution won backing from all 15 council members, the weakened penalties reflected the power of Russia and China. Both had objected to the original language calling for an oil embargo and other severe penalties — with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declaring last week that such additional sanctions would be counterproductive and possibly destabilizing. [Continue reading…]

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China’s fossil fuel deadline shifts focus to electric car race

Bloomberg reports: China will set a deadline for automakers to end sales of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, becoming the biggest market to do so in a move that will accelerate the push into the electric car market led by companies including BYD Co. and BAIC Motor Corp.

Xin Guobin, the vice minister of industry and information technology, said the government is working with other regulators on a timetable to end production and sales. The move will have a profound impact on the environment and growth of China’s auto industry, Xin said at an auto forum in Tianjin on Saturday.

The world’s second-biggest economy, which has vowed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 and curb worsening air pollution, is the latest to join countries such as the U.K. and France seeking to phase out vehicles using gasoline and diesel. The looming ban on combustion-engine automobiles will goad both local and global automakers to focus on introducing more zero-emission electric cars to help clean up smog-choked major cities. [Continue reading…]

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China agrees UN action, and talk, needed to end North Korea crisis

Reuters reports: China agreed on Thursday that the United Nations should take more action against North Korea after its latest nuclear test, while also pushing for dialogue to help resolve the standoff.

North Korea, which is pursuing its nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of international condemnation, said it would respond to any new U.N. sanctions and U.S. pressure with “powerful counter measures”, accusing the United States of aiming for war.

The United States wants the U.N. Security Council to impose an oil embargo on North Korea, ban its exports of textiles and the hiring of North Korean labourers abroad, and to subject leader Kim Jong Un to an asset freeze and travel ban, according to a draft resolution seen by Reuters on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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Bad news, world: China can’t solve the North Korea problem

Max Fisher writes: If China complied with every American request to cut trade, it could devastate North Korea’s economy, which especially relies on Chinese fossil fuels.

But repeated studies have found that sanctions, while effective at forcing small policy changes, cannot persuade a government to sign its own death warrant. North Korea sees its weapons as essential to its survival, and tests as necessary to fine-tune them.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs an East Asia program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, called notions that China could impose costs exceeding the benefit North Korea draws from its weapons “sad and desperate.”

Imagine, Mr. Lewis said, that you are Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and China turned against you, joining your enemies in pressuring you to disarm.

“The last thing you would do in that situation is give up your independent nuclear capability,” he said. “The one thing you hold that they have no control over. You would never give that up in that situation.”

When sanctions aim at forcing internal political change, they often backfire, hardening their targets in place.

In the 1960s, the United States imposed a total embargo on its neighbor and onetime ally, Cuba. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, ruled for half a century, even surviving the loss of Soviet support.

When Americans rage at Beijing for failing to toughen sanctions, Mr. Lewis said, “The Chinese response is, ‘Because they’re not going to work.’ And the data is on their side.” [Continue reading…]

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Cold War lessons in coercive diplomacy for dealing with North Korea today

Michael McFaul writes: Unfortunately, like many national security debates these days, our national discussion about how to address the growing North Korean threat has quickly become polarized between two extreme positions. In one corner, President Trump has threatened a preemptive military strike in response (I’m paraphrasing his remarks into more analytic terms) to new threats from the North Korean regime. In reaction, Trump opponents have advocated the exact opposite — talks with Kim Jong-un. Both of these options are insufficient. In fact, threatening nuclear war or proposing talks are only partial strategies at best, slogans at worst, for dealing with one of our most pressing national security challenges. What we need instead is first a clearly defined objective, then second a smart mix of both diplomacy and pressure — coercive diplomacy — to achieve that national security goal.

Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.

All effective national security policies must start with defining the objectives before pivoting to discussions about how to achieve them. Right now, our objectives regarding North Korea are ill-defined and many. Some, including Trump administration officials, argue for denuclearization. Others seek regime change and reunification. Diminishing the North Korean nuclear program through limited military strikes is a third objective proffered. A fourth camp advocates the removal of Kim Jong-un, or decapitation of the regime. A fifth group advocates a more modest goal — the resumption of talks with the North Korean government. The Trump administration itself sends conflicting messages about its objectives.

All of these must be set aside for now. While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal. The North Korean leader rationally believes that possession of nuclear weapons helps to deter threats to his regime, including first and foremost from the United States. No amount of coercion or diplomacy will ever convince him otherwise. Foreign induced regime change or leader decapitation also is not a realistic goal. Tragically, the North Korean dictatorship has demonstrated real resilience in the face of famine, sanctions and international isolation. American efforts to strengthen internal opposition have not produced pressure on the regime. Assassination or decapitation, even if it could be done (and I am skeptical) would not compel the next North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the effect would be the exact opposite. And nothing more will rally North Koreans to defend their government than such an action. Nor should resumption of talks be the goal of our efforts. Talks are the means to achieve other objectives, not the objective in and of itself.

Instead, our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Early arms control during the Cold War (SALT) slowed the acceleration of nuclear weapons acquisition, creating the predicate for eventual weapons reduction in later negotiations (START). The same sequence must be embraced now with North Korea. The objective of freezing North Korean nuclear and missile programs would enhance American national security as well as the security of allies. This objective is also obtainable. [Continue reading…]

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North Korean nuclear test draws U.S. warning of ‘massive military response’

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s detonation of a sixth nuclear bomb on Sunday prompted the Trump administration to warn that even the threat to use such a weapon against the United States and its allies “will be met with a massive military response.’’

The test — and President Trump’s response — immediately raised new questions about the president’s North Korea strategy and opened a new rift with a major American ally, South Korea, which Mr. Trump criticized for its “talk of appeasement” with the North.

The underground blast was by far North Korea’s most powerful ever. Though it was far from clear that the North had set off a hydrogen bomb, as it claimed, the explosion caused tremors that were felt in South Korea and China. Experts estimated that the blast was four to sixteen times more powerful than any the North had set off before, with far more destructive power than the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Yet after a day of meetings in the Situation Room involving Mr. Trump and his advisers, two phone calls between the president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and even demands from some liberal Democrats to cut off North Korea’s energy supplies, Mr. Trump’s aides conceded that they faced a familiar conundrum.

While the Pentagon has worked up a series of military options for targeted strikes at North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, Mr. Trump was told that there is no assurance that the United States could destroy them all in a lightning strike, according to officials with knowledge of the exchange. Cyberstrikes, which President Barack Obama ordered against the North’s missile program, have also been judged ineffective.

Mr. Trump hinted at one extreme option: In a Twitter post just before he met his generals, he said that “the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.’’

Taken literally, such a policy would be tantamount to demanding a stoppage of any Chinese oil to North Korea, essentially an attempt to freeze out the country this winter and bring whatever industry it has to a halt.

The Chinese would almost certainly balk; they have never been willing to take steps that might lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, no matter how dangerous its behavior, for fear that South Korean and American troops would occupy the country and move directly to the Chinese border.

Beyond that, the economic disruption of ending all trade with China would be so huge inside the United States that Mr. Trump’s aides declined on Sunday to discuss the implications. [Continue reading…]

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Who blinked in China-India military standoff?

The Washington Post reports: For weeks, China’s Foreign Ministry had been vehement in its denunciations of India and insistence that New Delhi unconditionally withdraw troops that had trespassed into Chinese territory. Don’t underestimate us, China repeatedly insisted, we are prepared for military conflict if need be.

Yet on Monday, it appeared as though Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

Both sides withdrew troops to end the stand-off. Crucially, military sources told Indian newspapers that China has also withdrawn the bulldozers that were constructing a road on the plateau. That road, built on land contested between Bhutan and China, had been the reason Indian troops had entered the disputed area in the first place, in defense of its ally Bhutan.

The eventual deal allowed both sides to save face — India’s Ministry of External Affairs suggested in its statement that it had stuck to its “principled position” in the discussions, which was that road-building violated ongoing terms of a current boundary dispute between Bhutan and China.

Yet some experts said it was premature to start declaring victory and China continued to be cagey in its official remarks. [Continue reading…]

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China and India are dangerously close to military conflict in the Himalayas

The Washington Post reports: As nuclear posturing between North Korea and the United States rivets the world, a quieter conflict between India and China is playing out on a remote Himalayan ridge — with stakes just as high.

For the past two months, Indian and Chinese troops have faced off on a plateau in the Himalayas in tense proximity, in a dispute prompted by moves by the Chinese military to build a road into territory claimed by India’s close ally, Bhutan.

India has suggested that both sides withdraw, and its foreign minister said in Parliament that the dispute can be resolved only by dialogue.

Yet China has vociferously defended the right it claims to build a road in the Doklam area, territory it also claims.

Since the dispute began, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued an angry stream of almost daily denunciations of India and its “illegal trespass” and “recklessness,” along with demands that New Delhi withdraw its troops “if it cherishes peace.”

Incursions and scuffles between the two countries have long occurred along India and China’s 2,220-mile border — much of which remains in dispute — although the two militaries have not fired shots at each other in half a century.

Analysts say that this most recent dispute is more worrisome because it comes as relations between the two nuclear-armed powers are declining, with China framing the issue as a direct threat to its territorial integrity. For the first time, such a conflict involves a third country — the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. [Continue reading…]

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Trump considers sanctions against China while seeking its help on North Korea

The New York Times reports: In a diplomatic gamble, President Trump is seeking to enlist China as a peacemaker in the bristling nuclear-edged dispute with North Korea at the very moment he plans to ratchet up conflict with Beijing over trade issues that have animated his political rise.

Mr. Trump spoke late Friday with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping of China, to press the Chinese to do more to rein in North Korea as it races toward development of long-range nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. Mr. Xi sought to lower the temperature after Mr. Trump’s vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, urging restraint and a political solution.

But the conversation came as Mr. Trump’s administration was preparing new trade action against China that could inflame the relationship. Mr. Trump plans to return to Washington on Monday to sign a memo determining whether China should be investigated for intellectual property violations, accusing Beijing of failing to curb the theft of trade secrets and rampant online and physical piracy and counterfeiting. An investigation would be intended to lead to retaliatory measures.

The White House had planned to take action on intellectual property earlier but held off as it successfully lobbied China to vote at the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions on North Korea a week ago. Even now, the extra step of determining whether to start the investigation is less than trade hawks might have wanted, but softens the blow to China and gives Mr. Trump a cudgel to hold over it if he does not get the cooperation he wants.

While past presidents have tried at least ostensibly to keep security and economic issues on separate tracks in their dealings with China, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two, suggesting he would back off from a trade war against Beijing if it does more to pressure North Korea. “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade,” he told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

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China warns North Korea: You’re on your own if you go after the United States

The Washington Post reports: China won’t come to North Korea’s help if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation, a state-owned newspaper warned on Friday, but it would intervene if Washington strikes first.

The Global Times newspaper is not an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, but in this case its editorial probably does reflect government policy and can be considered “semiofficial,” experts said.

China has repeatedly warned both Washington and Pyongyang not to do anything that raises tensions or causes instability on the Korean Peninsula, and strongly reiterated that suggestion Friday.

“The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is complicated and sensitive,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“China hopes that all relevant parties will be cautious on their words and actions, and do things that help to alleviate tensions and enhance mutual trust, rather than walk on the old pathway of taking turns in shows of strength, and upgrading the tensions.” [Continue reading…]

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Dodging blame, China urges U.S. to stop hurling threats at North Korea

The Washington Post reports: To many Americans, China bears a huge responsibility for the North Korea crisis because of its failure to rein in its volatile ally in Pyongyang.

But in Beijing, the view is different. Here, a large slice of the blame goes to Washington because of its consistently hostile attitude toward North Korea — a stance China says has only encouraged the regime to accelerate its nuclear weapons program.

China’s narrative about U.S. recklessness was reinforced this week when President Trump threatened to respond to further threats from North Korea by unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang threatened in turn to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the Western Pacific with ballistic missiles.

Trump’s rhetoric gave China the perfect platform to project itself as the voice of reason — especially as it had just agreed to join the world in stiffening sanctions against North Korea. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., North Korea have few channels through which to resolve crises

Reuters reports: Washington and Moscow have over decades established mechanisms to prevent crises from spinning out of control, from hotlines to satellites and over-flights that allow the nuclear-armed adversaries to track each other’s military deployments.

No such safety nets exist between Washington and Pyongyang, worrying experts who say an accident, misstatement or erroneous reading by one side of the other’s actions could spiral into full-scale conflict even though neither side wants war.

Tensions have risen markedly in the past few days after North Korea warned Washington of a “severe lesson” following U.N. action against it and U.S. President Donald Trump in turn warning that any threats to the United States from Pyongyang would be met with “fire and fury.”

Trump’s unexpected remarks prompted North Korea to respond by saying it was considering plans for a missile strike on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Experts said there are limited channels through which the two sides can try to exchange proposals to ease tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

“We have some ad hoc and analogue ways of communicating with North Korea but we don’t have anything that has proven itself and can withstand the stress of crises,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a top non-proliferation adviser to former President Barack Obama.

The two sides have no diplomatic relations, so they have no embassies in each other’s capitals. They maintain contacts through their United Nations missions, their embassies in Beijing and meetings between military officers at Panmunjom, the location on the militarised frontier dividing the Korean Peninsula where the truce that stilled the 1950-53 Korean War was signed. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea vows to retaliate against U.S. over sanctions

BBC News reports: North Korea has vowed to retaliate and make “the US pay a price” for drafting fresh UN sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons programme.

The sanctions, which were unanimously passed by the UN on Saturday, were a “violent violation of our sovereignty,” the official KCNA news agency said.

Separately, South Korea says the North has rejected an offer to restart talks, dismissing it as insincere. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The U.N. Security Council’s move to block countries from buying North Korean coal plugs a large loophole that allowed Chinese companies to import more North Korean coal after the first U.N. ban in 2016.

Previous bans have allowed Pyongyang to sell coal for “humanitarian” trade, but Saturday’s vote banned all coal sales in an effort to choke off funding for Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs, where much of the money was funneled, according to recent U.S. court filings.

The coal trade cited in the court documents accounted for as much as one-third of North Korean exports and helps explain how North Korea continued to develop its weapons programs despite being impoverished and under trade sanctions. The connections to the military also undermine Chinese claims that their imports were benefiting North Korean civilians. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A Southeast Asian diplomatic meeting quietly turned into the first real multiparty bargaining session in eight years to tackle North Korea’s nuclear program, as the country’s top diplomat held a rare round of talks with his counterparts from China, South Korea and Russia.

The United States and Japan were the only members of the so-called six-party talks on the North’s nuclear ambitions, which ended in failure in 2009, whose diplomats did not meet this week with Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho of North Korea. But Rex W. Tillerson, the American secretary of state, kept the door open for talks, saying at a news conference on Monday that he had no specific preconditions for negotiating with Pyongyang.

“Well, the best signal that North Korea could give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Mr. Tillerson said.

But when asked how long such a pause would have to last before talks could go forward, Mr. Tillerson demurred. [Continue reading…]

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UN Security Council imposes punishing new sanctions on North Korea

The New York Times reports: The United Nations Security Council on Saturday unanimously adopted a resolution to impose the most punishing sanctions yet against North Korea over its repeated defiance of a ban on testing missiles and nuclear bombs.

The resolution, intended to press North Korea to renounce its nuclear militarization, could reduce the isolated country’s already meager annual export revenue by $1 billion, or about a third of its current total.

Ambassador Nikki R. Haley of the United States, which introduced the resolution, said its adoption by all 15 Council members signified what she called “a strong, united step toward holding North Korea accountable for its behavior.”

Ms. Haley described the new penalties, which the United States painstakingly negotiated with China, North Korea’s most important trading partner, as “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.” She also said they would give North Korea’s leaders “a taste of the deprivation they have chosen to inflict on the North Korean people.” [Continue reading…]

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Here’s the real reason Anthony Scaramucci hates Reince Priebus

HuffPost reports: In the public feud between Anthony Scaramucci and Reince Priebus, what hasn’t been fully explained is why Scaramucci so dislikes the president’s now-former chief of staff — a man he alternates between calling “Reince Penis” and “Rancid Penis,” according to an adviser to the White House.

The acrimony first surfaced during the presidential transition. The two men had been cordial before then. They met six years ago, when Scaramucci was a fundraiser for presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Priebus was chair of the Republican National Committee. They interacted peaceably during Donald Trump’s campaign as Scaramucci made the rounds on television and at donor events.

After Trump’s victory, Priebus was named chief of staff, and Scaramucci, according to someone close to the transition, was assured that he was also in line for a big position within the administration. (Sources for this story requested anonymity to discuss the details of sensitive conversations.)

While preparing for his move into government, Scaramucci struck a deal — which is still under regulatory scrutiny — to sell his stake in his hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, to Chinese conglomerate HNA Group and another company. He assumed that he’d be put in charge of the public liaison office, a job that Valerie Jarrett held in the Obama administration. He had it all mapped out, according to the White House adviser. He identified 2,500 influential business leaders across the United States and had come up with a clever name for them: Trump Team 2,500. He believed these people would help pressure Congress into supporting the president’s agenda.

But Scaramucci’s plans were foiled in early January. That’s when Priebus, according to a confidant of both Scaramucci and the president, told Trump, “He played you.”

“How’s that?” Trump asked Priebus, according to the same source, who has spoken to several people within the White House about the conversation.

Priebus then told Trump that he felt Scaramucci had been offered too much for SkyBridge by HNA Group. The deal, he implied, smelled bad — as if the Chinese might expect favors from within the administration for that inflated price. The source also said that Priebus mentioned there was email traffic between Scaramucci and the Chinese proving this. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Allies to Priebus said he told them he had resigned on Thursday, concluding that the internal chaos would only escalate. One Priebus friend said the chief of staff had described the situation as “unsustainable,” saying he felt demeaned by the president’s treatment of him and was frustrated that he could not assert control over basic White House functions, such as policy development, communications and even White House announcements — which sometimes were made impulsively by the president, such as this week’s announcement to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

But some White House officials said the decision for Priebus to depart was made by Trump — a decision that had been a couple weeks in the making — and that the president forced him on Friday. These officials noted that Priebus presided over the morning senior staff meeting and accompanied Trump to a law enforcement event in New York.

Regardless, his final departure was a humiliating coda for what had been a largely demeaning tenure during which Priebus endured regular belittling and emasculation from rival advisers — and even, at times, the president himself.

When Air Force One touched down Friday afternoon at Andrew’s Air Force Base, Priebus, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and social media director Dan Scavino all loaded into a Suburban. But moments later, Miller and Scavino hopped out of the vehicle, and as word trickled out about the chief of staff’s ouster, reporters inched close to snap photos of Priebus, who sat alone on the rain-soaked tarmac. Priebus’ vehicle then pulled out of the presidential motorcade, which proceeded along to the White House without him.

“I think any observer — including one that did not speak English and knew nothing about politics and came from another planet and solar system — could, after observing the situation in the White House, realize the White House is failing,” said one informal White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “And when the White House is failing, you can’t replace the president.” [Continue reading…]

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How to take down Kim Jong Un — without firing a shot

Tom Malinowski writes: At my Senate confirmation hearing a few years ago, I made a promise to the panel deciding my fate: never to use the phrase “there are no good options.” After all, if there were obvious solutions to the hardest—and most interesting—problems we face in the world, they would already have been found. Our job in the U.S. government—I served in the State Department as an assistant secretary focused on human rights—was not to make excuses in such situations, but to use whatever inherently limited tools we had to try to make things better, and to avoid making them worse.

North Korea tests this proposition like nothing else. Since its latest provocative missile test, thoughtful observers have pointed out that neither sanctions nor diplomacy are likely to dissuade Kim Jong Un from deploying nuclear weapons that can reach the United States, that we cannot depend on China to stop him for us, but that the alternative of a military strike on North Korea could cause a war that would lay waste to our ally South Korea. When it comes to North Korea, the phrase “there are no good options” has become a mantra.

Though we’ve been slow to admit it, the reasons have been plain for some time. Kim Jong Un, like all totalitarian leaders, wants above all to ensure his survival. He is convinced that a nuclear strike capability is necessary to deter the United States and South Korea from threatening his regime, and to extract concessions that might prolong its life. There is nothing crazy about this conviction. And because the matter is existential for Kim, more economic pressure will not change his mind. His regime survived a famine and can risk economic hardship. What he apparently will not risk is following the example of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi, who gave up nuclear programs and found themselves defenseless against foreign interventions that claimed their lives.

But there is an opportunity in Kim’s obsession with survival. While he assumes the United States would not start a catastrophic war to stop his nuclear program, he also knows that were he to start that war, the U.S. would have no reason to hold back. We could, and likely would, destroy his regime. This means that even if we can’t prevent North Korea from gaining the ability to hit us or our allies, we can deter it from actually doing so, and thus have time to pursue, by means more effective than sanctions and less dangerous than war, our ultimate goal of a reunified Korea that threatens no one.

Kim is right to feel insecure. His life depends on the preservation of a regime, and of a country, that are both artificial constructs. There is no good reason for the existence of a North Korean state that is vastly poorer than its ethnically identical South Korean neighbor, other than to enable his family to rule. To hold on, the Kim regime has thus had to do more than make the North Korean people afraid of its executioners; it has tried to maintain a total information blockade to keep them from knowing just how artificial this situation is.

But knowledge—about the prosperity and freedom of their fellow Koreans south of the DMZ, and about the abnormality of their own suffering—is spreading among North Koreans. We are learning more about them, too—they are not brainwashed, “robotic” denizens of an “ant colony,” as they are so often described. They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.

No one can predict when and how Kim’s hold will weaken, and it would be foolish to think we can force change from the outside. So if anyone reading this has fantasies about setting up governments in exile or fomenting coups or calling for uprisings, please put them aside—that kind of talk will only get people inside North Korea killed. There are, however, forces in play within North Korea that will probably lead to the end of its regime and its reason to exist as a country. Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually much more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime. The central aim of our strategy should be to foster conditions that enable this natural, internal process to move faster, while preparing ourselves, our allies and the North Korean people for the challenges we will face when change comes.

This approach will carry its own risks and costs. And in the meantime, we should continue to oppose North Korea’s nuclear program, using diplomacy and sanctions to manage the danger it poses to us and to our allies. But our primary focus should be on shaping something that can happen in North Korea, rather than expending all our energies on something that will not.

The possibility of change in North Korea arose from its greatest calamity—the famine in the 1990s, in which over a million of its citizens died. Until then, according to defectors, most North Koreans were simply unaware that different ways of life or forms of government existed in the world. Other totalitarian states—Stalin’s in Russia, Mao’s in China, Pol Pot’s in Cambodia—tried to isolate their people from knowledge of the world, but none could sustain the feat long enough (two generations in the case of North Korea) to create a population unable to imagine alternatives.

The famine began to weaken the regime’s hold on its people and their imaginations. As the state-run food distribution system broke down, North Koreans became less trusting of and dependent on their state. Eventually, private markets sprung up around the country. People started crossing the border to China, not just to find food, but to bring back goods to be sold in these markets. From China, they also brought back stories of a country where people could enjoy private lives, choose their professions, own property, travel and learn about the world—like North Korea, a communist dictatorship, but vastly freer than theirs. [Continue reading…]

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