No, North Korea’s Nuclear Missiles are Not an ‘Existential’ Threat to the US


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This is a re-post of an article I just wrote for The National Interest. It is a response to the increasing hawk threat inflation – presumably to justify possible airstrikes –  that even one North Korean nuclear weapon is intolerable, or that even one North Korean nuclear strike on America would bring down the country, or that the NK nuclear program is an ‘existential’ threat to the US.

None of that is true. Is it bad that NK has nukes and missiles? Of course. Would it be a humanitarian catastrophe if NK nuked one or several American cities? Obviously. Would that bring down the American state, the US Constitution, and the American way of life? No, it would not. Is it creepy and strangelovian to talk like this? Yes. But NK nukes are here to stay; we need to adapt to this reality. We need to start thinking soberly about these sorts of frightening questions, especially if we are contemplating the use of force against North Korea, with its huge attendant risks.

The below essay argues that the US has some resilience against even the disasters which would follow a North Korean nuclear attack on the homeland. Many people would die but that is not the same is bringing down the whole country. Killing people is not the same as breaking the state, and way too many hawkish threat-inflators, like President Trump or John Bolton, are eliding this point. In the four US strategic bombing campaigns of the 20th century – against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam – none of them lead to governmental breakdown and domestic anarchy. We are not on the cusp of Lord of the Flies or Mad Max, and we should be honest about that, even as we try to contain the NK nuclear program. To do otherwise just scares the hell out of the country even more than it is now. Even in the worst case scenario, which this essay presents, NK almost certainly does not have the ability to destroy America, even if it can kill many Americans. That is a distinction, however macabre it may seem to point it out.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The North Korea Travel Ban is Probably a Good Idea at this point


This is a repost of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute recently on the travel ban preventing Americans from going to North Korea as of September 1 this year. The picture is the US State Department mailer to this effect from a few days ago on my iPhone.

Basically my argument is that the ban is a good idea at this point given how many foreigners Kim Jong Un seems to be snatching during his reign. The numbers have gone up, and although I went to North Korea as a tourist myself and have recommended it in the past, I no longer do so, especially for Americans. It’s just way too dangerous now.

Otto Warmbier’s death is the last straw, as I figure it was for Tillerson. At the time of his death, I thought a travel ban might well be the next step. I still find it curious that Kim Jong Un did not let Warmbier leave earlier. The tourist trade brings in needed dollars, and Pyongyang is already complaining about the US halt. They easily could have let him go when he fell into a coma and then just pretextually snatched the next idiot US tourist who drank too much to replace Warmbier. But they held onto him to the point where they’re responsible for his death. Pointless. Just shows once again how awful North Korea really is.

My full essay on the travel ban follows the jump:

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North Korean Nukes are almost Certainly for Deterrence and Defense


8114998_origThis is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this week.

I feel like a broken record. I keep saying this – they’re not going to use them offensively, we don’t need to airstrike (at least not yet), we have learned to live with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nuclear missilization, the North Korean leadership is rational enough to know that using these things against a democracy would bring extraordinary retaliation. So yes, it really, really sucks that North Korea has these weapons, but we can adapt, as we have to other countries’ nuclear missilization. We don’t HAVE to start a potentially huge regional war over them right now. If we must, we always can. But let’s not get carried away that North Korea is going to nuke the US out of the blue, so we should airstrike them right now. That is HIGHLY unlikely.

But journalists keep asking me if we’re going to/should bomb North Korea, and US officials keep saying stuff like this. So here we go again:

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More on NK Nukes: It took the Cuban Missile Crisis before the US Adapted to Soviet Nuclear Deterrence


9e67b42f03919f5ba59a4be37287fcb8dd8f17e0This is a re-post of something I wrote last month for The National Interest on US adaption to other countries’ nuclearization. In short, we adapted badly at first – Cuba – and then learned to live with proliferation even though we didn’t like it and did the best we could to halt it.

A repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis over North Korea is what I fear most from the US toward North Korea in the next five or ten years. We will decide that North Korea is too batty and gangsterish to trust with nuclear weapons, and we’ll pick a fight. How the North Koreans will react – will they believe China will stand with them? – nobody knows. The Soviets felt that missilizing Cuba evened the score with the US which could easily strike the USSR at the time. The North will think the same – that they are entitled to nuclear deterrence for national security, which perception a Cuban-style crisis will reinforce in them. Then will come a showdown.

But most people agree North Korea will never give  up its nukes, and most people also agree that North Korea is quite rational. So it is quite unlikely that North Korea will launch a nuclear ICBM at the US without provocation. It sucks that North Korea has nukes, but we have learned to live with Soviet/Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nukes. The big question is can we live with NK nukes when so many Americans seem to think the North Koreans are insane.

The full essay follows the jump:

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There will be No US Airstrike on N Korea; SK will Veto it


northkorea-missiles-reuters-graphicThis is a local re-post of a piece I just wrote for the Lowy Institute. Mostly I wrote this as a response to all the cable news chatter we’ve been hearing all year about how the US should consider air-striking North Korea. I have been saying for awhile that we won’t do it and that US policy-makers should  stop bluffing something they’re never going to do.

There are lots of reasons why bombing North Korea is a terrible idea. But there’s one obvious reason we won’t do it, and that’s because South Korea will never approve. South Korea would bear the brunt of any Nork retaliation, and we can’t very very jeopardize hundreds of thousands of people without asking them first. And Moon Jae-In, the president of South Korea will never agree. He is well-established dove on North Korea supportive of engagement for 20 years now. He’s extremely unlikely to suddenly embrace a course he’s fought against almost his entire career, and certainly not for a belligerent, posturing buffoon like Donald Trump. So let’s all come back to reality and start thinking about what will work – missile defense, China, sanctions, perhaps negotiation. But bombing is ‘off the table’ for at least 5 years (the duration of Moon’s presidential term). That’s an easy prediction.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Let’s be Careful about Calling the North Korean ICBM a ‘Game Changer’


north-korea-koreas-tensionsThis is a local re-post of an essay I just wrote for the National Interest on the most recent missile launch, marketed as an ICBM.

My concern is the increasing discussion of airstrikes and military options against the North. This is hugely risky, and every time we say things like ‘we have crossed a red-line’ or ‘this is a game changer,’ we get one step closer to a war. No, not airstrikes. A war. Because any air campaign against North Korea would be so long and violent, it would be indistinguishable from a war. So before you listen to cable news hawks all week telling you that we have to strike North Korea, consider all the likely costs including a possible Sino-US shooting war. Here is my tweet storm griping about all the loose, irresponsible language NK provocations unleash.

So no, I am not suddenly a dove on North Korea. I want sanctions, missile defense, and more discussion with China. And I know talks won’t work. But we need to keep a calmer, less alarmist rhetorical environment so that we don’t ignite something we won’t be able to control.

The essay follows the jump:

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The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier: Time for a US Travel Ban?


ottowarmbierThis is a local re-post for an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute this month (here).

I feel nothing but anguish for this young man and his family. Our prayers go out to them. Given that North Korea almost certainly gave him a hack doctor – because all the good ones are kept for elites – who grossly misdiagnosed him, it is no exaggeration to say that Pyongyang effectively murdered this poor man.

The problem is what to do, and the options are all depressingly familiar. Cable news idiots are a talking about force again, but that’s a terrible idea for reasons well known by now. The big question is whether there should be a travel ban on US citizens going to North Korea. This idea gets raised every time there is a hostage-taking. Given that Warmbier was killed though, it is getting a lot more play this time. For myself, I would not counsel Americans to go now. I went in 2012 when it seemed reasonably safe. Kim Jong Un was new to power, and his habit of snatching Americans had not yet bloomed. But now it seems like this is a state policy almost. Don’t go to North Korea now. It is too risky.

The full essay follows the jump:

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