Thinking the unthinkable with North Korea

Graham Allison writes: The United States intelligence community believes that American military strikes against North Korea would almost certainly trigger retaliation that would kill up to a million citizens in Seoul. The South Korean government would respond with a full-scale attack on the North. The United States is committed to support South Korea. But would Mr. Xi ever allow the Korean Peninsula to be reunified by a government allied with the United States?

And history is working against us. A Harvard study I led found 16 cases over the past 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of them, the outcome was war. Today, as an unstoppable rising China rivals an immovable reigning United States, this dynamic — which I call Thucydides’s Trap — amplifies risks.

What we see unfolding now is a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In the most dangerous moment in recorded history, to prevent the Soviet Union from placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy was prepared to take what he confessed was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. What risk will Mr. Trump run to prevent North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the United States?

As Kennedy approached the final hour in which he would have to attack, risking nuclear war, or acquiesce to a Soviet nuclear presence in America’s backyard, both he and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, began to examine previously unthinkable options. In the popular American narrative, Khrushchev capitulated. But we now know that both sides blinked. Kennedy agreed secretly to remove American missiles from Turkey, an option he and his advisers had earlier rejected because of its impact on NATO — and because he would look weak.

Kennedy’s central lesson from the crisis still offers wise counsel for Mr. Trump. “Above all,” Kennedy said, “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says missile test aimed at testing carrying large nuclear warhead

Reuters reports: North Korea said on Monday it had successfully conducted a newly developed mid-to-long range missile test on Sunday, supervised by leader Kim Jong Un and aimed at verifying the capability to carry a “large scale heavy nuclear warhead.”

Kim accused the United States of “browbeating” countries that “have no nukes” and warned Washington not to misjudge the reality that its mainland is in the North’s “sighting range for strike,” the North’s official KCNA news agency reported.

The North fired a ballistic missile that landed in the sea near Russia on Sunday in a launch that Washington called a message to South Korea, days after its new president took office pledging to engage Pyongyang in dialogue.

The missile was launched at the highest angle so as not to affect the security of neighboring countries and flew 787 kilometers (490 miles) reaching an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers (1,312 miles), KCNA said.

Experts said the altitude reached by the missile tested on Sunday meant it was launched at a high trajectory, which would limit the lateral distance it traveled. But if it was fired at a standard trajectory, it would have a range of at least 4,000 km (2,500 miles), experts said. [Continue reading…]

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South Korea’s new president says his election completes the ‘candlelight revolution’

Tim Shorrock reports:  Moon Jae-in, a human rights and labor lawyer who came of age protesting authoritarian military governments backed by the United States, assumed South Korea’s presidency Wednesday after a snap election that repudiated 10 years of right-wing conservative rule.

Moon, 64, took office after securing about 41 percent of a total popular vote of 32.8 million, far ahead of his closest rival, the conservative Hong Joon-pyo, who ended up with 24 percent. It was the largest margin in Korean election history, the wire service Yonhap reported.

“I will restore a government based on principle and justice,” Moon declared Tuesday night in a nationally broadcast speech from Seoul’s Gwanghwamun district, which is famous for its political protests. “I will be the proud president of a proud nation.”

After being sworn in Wednesday, he startled the nation with a ringing declaration calling for a new foreign policy based on negotiations and dialogue. “I will do whatever it takes to help settle peace on the Korean Peninsula,” including visiting North Korea, Moon told the National Assembly. In a nod to Washington, he also declared he would “further strengthen the alliance between South Korea and the United States.”

Moon’s election was the direct result of the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who had embraced Washington’s hard-line policies toward Pyongyang. She was brought down after millions of citizens angry about corruption, economic mismanagement, abuse of power, and the uncertain future of Korean youth flooded the streets of Seoul and other major cities in a peaceful movement now known as the “candlelight revolution.” [Continue reading…]

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Are cyber crooks funding North Korea’s nukes?

The Daily Beast reports: Like all modern geopolitical chess matches, the growing tension between the United States and North Korea has a shadowy analog playing out in cyberspace.

North Korea is primed for a sixth nuclear test, which would bring it one step closer to its admitted goal of developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching the United States mainland. At his current pace, Kim Jong Un could achieve that objective within three years, according to military analysts. That’s within President Donald Trump’s first term, and the administration has been ratcheting up the tough talk almost daily. The president recently said that nuclear war is on the table, and the USS Carl Vinson is steaming toward the Korean peninsula (for real this time). Far from cowed, North Korea on Sunday detained an American college professor who’d been teaching in Pyongyang, the second arrest of a U.S. citizen in recent months.

But weapons tests like last month’s failed missile launch in Sinpo aren’t cheap. By one estimate, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on missile tests in 2012 alone. That may explain why the escalation in North Korea’s nuclear provocations has been accompanied by a spree of attempted and actual online bank heists that trace right back to Pyongyang. The largest of them was a nearly successful theft of almost $1 billion from Bangladesh Bank in 2016—enough money to fund North Korea’s missile testing for almost a year.

State-run crime has been an important component of North Korea’s economy for years. Illegal arms sales to countries like Syria and Iran are reportedly North Korea’s mainstay, but it’s also been linked to everything from the wholesale production of illegal drugs to the mass sales of counterfeit Viagra and cigarettes. In 2009, the U.S. blamed North Korea for a deluge of counterfeit U.S. currency, dubbed “supernotes,” that were so high in quality that the Treasury Department was forced to redesign the $100 bill. [Continue reading…]

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Why Trump’s budding bromance with Xi is doomed

The New York Times reports: President Xi Jinping of China and President Trump, despite vastly different personal styles, have several things in common.

They were both born to privilege. They both possess boundless self-confidence. Each seeks advice from a select inner circle, ignoring the big bureaucracies of his government.

Mr. Trump, not known for his effusive praise of world leaders, has talked up their relationship, saying in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last weekend that his relationship with China was “already acclaimed as being something very special, something very different than we’ve ever had.” He called Mr. Xi “a man that I’ve gotten to like and respect.”

But beneath the bonhomie, Chinese analysts say, fundamental differences of strategic interest are likely to undermine any personal ties Mr. Trump says he has forged with the Chinese leader. The romance, they say, may be more a short marriage of convenience.

Mr. Trump’s public effusiveness is barely reciprocated in China. The state-run media accords Mr. Trump polite coverage, much more so than it did President Barack Obama — a signal that the government, for the time being, would like the Chinese people to view the American president in a positive light.

Among foreign policy experts, however, there is skepticism that Mr. Trump’s flattery of Mr. Xi, and his reliance on the Chinese leader to bear down on North Korea over its nuclear program, will bring the results he wants. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea issues direct criticism of China amid nuke dispute

The Associated Press reports: North Korea has issued a rare direct criticism of China through a commentary saying its “reckless remarks” on the North’s nuclear program are testing its patience and could trigger unspecified “grave” consequences.

China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and main benefactor, suspended imports of North Korean coal in line with U.N. sanctions earlier this year and has recently been urging its traditional ally to stop nuclear and missile activities amid U.S. pressure to use its leverage to resolve the nuclear standoff. Chinese state media have also unleashed regular and harsh criticisms on North Korea.

The commentary released Wednesday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said that “a string of absurd and reckless remarks are now heard from China every day only to render the present bad situation tenser.”

Asked about the KCNA commentary during a regular briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing’s position on “developing good neighborly and friendly cooperation with North Korea is also consistent and clear.” [Continue reading…]

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South Korea’s likely next president asks the U.S. to respect its democracy

The Washington Post reports: South Korea is on the brink of electing a liberal president with distinctly different ideas than the Trump administration on how to deal with North Korea — potentially complicating efforts to punish Kim Jong Un’s regime.

He is also a candidate who fears that the U.S. government has been acting to box him in on a controversial American missile defense system and circumvent South Korea’s democratic process.

“I don’t believe the U.S. has the intention [to influence our election], but I do have some reservations,” Moon Jae-in told The Washington Post in an interview.

Barring a major upset, Moon will become South Korea’s president Tuesday, replacing Park ­Geun-hye, who was impeached in March and is on trial on bribery charges. Because Park was dismissed from office, Moon will immediately become president if elected, without the usual transition period.

With Moon pledging to review the Park government’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system, the U.S. military has acted swiftly to get it up and running. This has sparked widespread criticism here that the United States is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Moon to reverse it. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The anger is palpable on a narrow road that cuts through a South Korean village where about 170 people live between green hills dotted with cottages and melon fields. It’s an unlikely trouble spot in the world’s last Cold War standoff.

Aging farmers in this corner of Seongju county, more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital Seoul, spend the day sitting by the asphalt in tents or on plastic stools, watching vehicles coming and going from a former golf course where military workers are setting up an advanced U.S. missile-defense system.

“Just suddenly one day, Seongju has become the frontline,” said a tearful Park Soo-gyu, a 54-year-old strawberry farmer. “Wars today aren’t just fought with guns. Missiles will be flying and where would they aim first? Right here, where the THAAD radar is.” [Continue reading…]

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As U.S. and China find common ground on North Korea, is Russia the wild card?

Reuters reports: When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent Lunar New Year greetings this year, the first card went to Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of leaders from China and other allies of the isolated country, according to its official news agency.

Some academics who study North Korea argue Kim could be looking for Russia to ease any pain if China, which accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, steps up sanctions against the isolated country as part of moves to deter its nuclear and missile programmes.

U.S. President Donald Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping last week for Beijing’s assistance in trying to rein in Pyongyang. A day later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed the United Nations Security Council to impose more sanctions to further isolate Pyongyang.

There is no sign of any sustainable increase in trade between Russia and North Korea, but business and transport links between the two are getting busier.

A new ferry service starting next week will move up to 200 passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo six times a month between North Korea and the Russian port of Vladivostok. [Continue reading…]

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Trump says he’d meet with Kim Jong Un under right circumstances

Bloomberg reports: U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with Kim Jong Un amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program if the circumstances were right.

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said Monday in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.” [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un’s missile tests expose Trump’s North Korea-policy vacuum

Reuters reports: North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile on Saturday shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that failure to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could lead to “catastrophic consequences”.

U.S. and South Korean officials said the test, from an area north of the North Korean capital, appeared to have failed, in what would be the North’s fourth straight unsuccessful missile test since March.

The test came as the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group arrived in waters near the Korean peninsula, where it will join the USS Michigan, a guided missile submarine that docked in South Korea on Tuesday.

Tillerson, in a U.N. Security Council meeting on North Korea on Friday, repeated the Trump administration’s position that all options were on the table if Pyongyang persisted with its nuclear and missile development.

“The threat of a nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real, and it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland,” Tillerson said.

“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, who told Reuters in an interview on Thursday North Korea was his biggest global challenge, said the launch was an affront to China, the North’s sole main ally.

“North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!,” Trump said in a post on Twitter after the launch.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. meeting it was not only up to China to solve the North Korean problem.

“The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Wang said.

In a commentary on Saturday, China’s official Xinhua news agency said both North Korea and the United States needed to tread cautiously. [Continue reading…]

Zack Beauchamp writes: “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview published on Friday morning. “Absolutely.”

It was a frightening capstone to the past two days in Trumpland, which have been dominated by North Korea policy. But happily, there’s less to it than meets the eye: The Trump administration is currently giving every indication that it doesn’t want to use force against North Korea.

The issue, though, is that we have no clue what it actually does want to do.

On Wednesday, nearly the entire Senate took a bus trip to the White House to be briefed on North Korea policy. In the briefing, top Trump officials told senators that they were planning to use economic sanctions and diplomatic outreach to allies to bring North Korea to heel. But they were apparently incapable of being more specific than that, infuriating many of the senators who attended. One anonymous Democrat described the reaction to Trump’s comments at the briefing as “80 sets of invisible eyes rolling.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NPR that the US was open to direct negotiations with North Korea — reversing the “no negotiations” stance that he himself had taken a month ago. Then on Friday came Trump’s ominous Reuters interview, which also included a new demand that South Korea pay for the THAAD missile defense system — “the most incredible equipment you’ve ever seen” — that the US was currently installing there.

And then, late on Friday, North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test. It’s not yet clear how the Trump team will respond.

So when you put that all together, what do you have? What does the Trump administration’s past two days of frenetic activity on North Korea tell us about its actual policy?

“Beats the fuck out of me,” says Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. wants more UN sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear arms, warns time is short

The Washington Post reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Friday for new economic sanctions on North Korea and other “painful” measures over its nuclear weapons program, as the Trump administration warned that it would take military action if diplomacy failed.

“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences,” Tillerson said during an unusual high-level session of the U.N. Security Council called to review what the Trump administration calls its most dire national security concern. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.”

Tillerson’s push at a special session of the Security Council came as the Trump administration said it is willing to bargain directly with North Korea over ending its nuclear weapons program, but under strict conditions that make talks unlikely anytime soon.

Ahead of the diplomatic effort at the United Nations, President Trump said direct conflict is possible. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea’s latest missile test fails, U.S. military says

CNN reports: North Korea on Saturday launched a ballistic missile that blew up over land, a spokesman for the US Pacific Command said.

The missile didn’t leave North Korean territory, US Navy Cmdr. Dave Benham said.

A US military assessment found the main part of the missile landed approximately 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Pukchang airfield, a US official told CNN.

South Korean officials said the test likely was a failure. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. says ‘major conflict’ with North Korea possible, China warns of escalation

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump said a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, while China said the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.

Trump, speaking to Reuters on Thursday, said he wanted to resolve the crisis peacefully, possibly through the use of new economic sanctions, although a military option was not off the table.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview at the Oval Office.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said, describing North Korea as his biggest global challenge.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there was a danger that the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control, his ministry said.

Wang made the comments in a meeting at the United Nations with a Russian diplomat on Thursday, the ministry said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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White House discovers ‘there are no good military options’ on North Korea

Fred Kaplan writes: If you had started to think that President Trump and his team might know something about diplomacy after all, that their firm talk and shows of strength might finally prod the Chinese and North Koreans to get rid of Kim Jung-un’s nuclear weapons, well, think again. Trump’s holsters are empty, and so is his brain trust. They’ve got nothing, up and down.

In recent days, Trump has sent an aircraft carrier battle group and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korea’s shores. Vice President Mike Pence has gone to the Demilitarized Zone and squinted through the binoculars at the North Korean guards, so they can see his resolve. Pence also declared, “The era of ‘strategic patience’ ”—President Obama’s policy of containment, as opposed to action, toward North Korea—“is over.” To lay the message on thick, Trump summoned all 100 U.S. senators to the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, on Wednesday, for an urgent briefing on the subject from the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State. Buses were even chartered to take the lawmakers on their unusual field trip.

And what did these top advisers and cabinet secretaries say? Apparently, nothing.

Here’s Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when asked by a reporter about the briefing: “It was an OK briefing.” The reporter asked, “What do you mean, you didn’t really learn much?” Corker replied, “I—it was OK.”

Other senators, from both parties, told reporters the same thing: They learned nothing new, they wondered what the big deal was, why they were dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue for such a waste of time. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: It’s not a sonic boom or bunker buster Pyongyang should most fear from the Trump administration. It’s the sound of cash registers falling silent, and doors to the outside world shutting, as the U.S. works to convince China and other allies to cut off the oil, access to money and perhaps even communication links to the outside world.

That was the word from Trump administration officials Wednesday, explaining a multipronged strategy to defang Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program to lawmakers at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Administration officials made clear that open military confrontation or toppling the Kim regime are the least desirable of all possible options—even as China appeared to hint that it wouldn’t oppose certain American military measures against Pyongyang.

“We want to solve this through political or economic measures,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “There are no good military options.” The official said any unilateral strike would likely lead to a North Korean counter-strike on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan—both within artillery or missile range of North Korea—as well as threatening tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Pacific.

“We want to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees,” said Adm. Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. He repeated the administration mantra that “all options are on the table,” but the tone had decidedly shifted from President Donald Trump’s earlier provocative tweets. [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un is a survivor, not a madman

Andrei Lankov writes: Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy. It threatens to consume the United States in nuclear fire on a semi-weekly basis, its leader brutally executes his own generals and had his brother murdered, and it wastes huge amount of money on nuclear weapons while sticking to a failed economic model. Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages.

The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior. In April, U.S. Congressman Bradley Burne (R-Ala.) said “I don’t believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?” He echoed prior remarks by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who said, “We are not dealing with a rational person,” since, she claimed, Kim is a person “who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Back in the 1980s the Kim family was laughed at even inside the Eastern Bloc as an embodiment of Stalinist irrationality. They were mocked for clinging to their outdated personality cult and failed economics and it was suggested that they should follow the dynamic leaders of Eastern Europe, like the reformist communist leader Karoly Grosz of Hungary. Today, these leaders are in the waste bin of history — overthrown, disgraced, and forgotten — while the Kim family still enjoys not only power, but the luxury that goes with it and remains in full control of their country. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea’s Special Operations forces are numerous, mysterious and formidable

The Washington Post reports: Dozens of Special Operations troops marched in North Korea’s military parade this month, covered from head to toe in green, brown and black camouflage. Carrying variants of the Kalashnikov rifle with high-capacity “helical” magazines, they shouted slogans in support of Kim Jong Un, seemingly delighting the North Korean leader as he watched.

The scene underscored a long-held understanding about Pyongyang’s military: Special Operations troops have an outsize role. An assessment of those forces will likely come up Wednesday when the Trump administration hosts an unusual White House briefing for lawmakers about North Korea’s military capabilities, as Washington pressures Pyongyang to halt its advancing nuclear weapons program.

In the past few years, national security analysts and senior defense officials have suggested that it may not be North Korea’s ballistic missiles or artillery that are used to launch a large-scale attack on South Korea or U.S. installations, but North Korean commandos potentially armed with chemical or biological weapons. [Continue reading…]

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