American North Korea Policy under the Next President 2: Trump – He will just Drop North Korea


Biden calls North Korean leader a 'thug' but says he'd meet Kim if  denuclearization is agreed - Pacific - Stripes

This is the second part of a series for The National Interest on North Korea policy under the next president. Here is my first essay on Biden and North Korea.

I am of the school that says Trump’s outreach to North Korea was a great big nothingburger. More dovish analysts will tell you that there was a window there for a few years (2018-2019) to forge a deal. I don’t buy that, mostly because of Trump himself – his laziness, disinterest, unwillingness to prepare, and so on.

Instead I think Trump went into this solely for the symbolic imagery and a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama won a Nobel. Trump loathes Obama, so he had to get one too. I think it’s really as simple as that. That’s why there was no deal. The Trump team had not thought through the concessions which would be necessary to strike a deal. The North Koreans were going to ask for way more than just sanctions relief. Trump had nothing greater to offer – and bureaucratic resistance at home would have fought a serious concession like a US drawdown.

So my prediction for Trump and North Korea in a second Trump term is that he will do nothing. Trump has the pictures he wanted. He won’t get a Nobel, and he won’t fight the battles in Washington to offer concessions which NK might actually go for.

The full essay follows the jump:

American North Korea Policy under the Next President 1: Biden–Traditional Washington Hawkishness


North Korea lashes out at Joe Biden - CNN Video

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest recently. They’re running a good symposium on North Korea policy in the next presidential term: how would Trump and Biden differ? This was my submission on a possible Biden victory. My submission Trump is here.

Biden was the easier one to write. Biden is a pretty establishmentarian guy. He respects the foreign policy community. And as Obama’s vice president, we have his foreign policy thinking from that period too.

So it’s not too hard to predict that Biden will revert to a fairly traditional Washington hawkish approach – no more summits or public praising of Kim; working with allies; emphasizing sanctions enforcement and China. If this sounds really unimaginative – the same kind of old-hat you’ve heard from every hawkish North Korea analyst (including me) for decades – then you are right! It is the same old story, but that’s because our options on North Korea are terrible.

For all of Trump’s threats in 2017 and blandishments in 2018-19, he got nothing out of the North Koreans. Neither has SK President Moon Jae-In’s Sunshine Policy redux. So if it’s back to the future with Biden, I am not opposed to that.

The full essay follows the jump:

70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)


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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Failing North Korea Talks Once Again Suggest Starting Small


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This is re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. The argument is one I have made repeatedly – that big-bang, all-or-nothing deals with North Korea are unlikely – because of low trust on both sides – and they represent far too large a leap to take given North Korean cheating in the past. We should scale back our efforts to smaller, cumulative steps which are actually doable. Think where would be now if we had done this for the last 18 months instead of gambling again and again on a huge breakthrough while not making any actual progress.

The problem is that the US and South Korean presidents both want a big-bang deal for domestic political reasons unrelated to the substance of denuclearization talks with the North. Trump wants a Nobel Peace Prize to stave off impeachment and get himself re-elected. He will sign anything because he doesn’t actually care about the deal’s contents. Also, and perhaps as important, Trump is lazy. He doesn’t want to negotiate in depth and detail with NK because he doesn’t know enough to do that and doesn’t want to learn.

SK President Moon wants a big-bang deal because he has pinned his whole presidency to détente with North Korea. All his domestic policies are contentious and are being overwhelmed by the North Korea issue which is absorbing all Moon’s time and energy. NK has a way of overwhelming SK presidents’ time in office, and Moon has worsened that normal time-suck by jumping in with both feet (and getting nothing).

In short, the North won’t go for a big, one-shot deal just because Moon and Trump are desperate at home. If we really want progress, we need to start with small, manageable, transparent swaps. These should involve a limited series of steps on both sides over a limited period of time. This would make post-hoc evaluation easier: after such a swap, we could do an after-action analysis and decide what the next swap should be. With each step, we could enlarge cooperation, building organically and credibly on previous steps. Needless to say, this will take a long time. But it is far more likely to actually work than hoping that NK will suddenly – after 50 years developing nukes – agree to trade them away. They won’t. That should be pretty obvious at this point.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Impeachment is Good for US Foreign Policy


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This essay is a local re-post of my essay for the Lowy Institute for this month.

In brief, I argue that Trump, for all his bluster and chaos, has not actually moved the US foreign policy consensus that much. So if he is impeached, we’ll likely get a ‘snap-back’ to more traditional liberal internationalist positions. That would broadly be a good thing, but for the over-interventionism of the traditional foreign policy community. Trump’s departure would mean the end of idiocy like undercutting the World Trade Organization or the Universal Postal Union, attacking US allies, throwing friends like the Kurds under the bus, and cozying up to dictators like Kim Jong Un.

Trump is too uninformed, impulsive, and erratic to represent any kind of meaningful critique of foreign policy liberalism. Some of his supporters try, but it’s most been in vain. There’s no coherent Trump Doctrine, just whatever suits his fancy or serves his political purposes at the time. Nor has Trump created an alternative foreign policy community to the current one. As POTUS, Trump is hugely influential in that community, but he’s leaving no lasting mark because he’s too incoherent and, well, dumb. So if he’s impeached, it’s back to what was, because there is no serious Trumpian alternative.

The full essay follows the jump:

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GOP Post-Iraq Foreign Policy Incoherence: Still Making Belligerent, Aggressive Threats, but Unwilling to Follow Through


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. The argument is right there in the title: the GOP wants to keep talking like hyper-belligerent, threats-against-everyone neocons or Jacksonian America Firsters, but GOP voters don’t want anymore wars. So Trump’s rhetoric comes off hollow: he’s threatened war on North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. But his voters are very opposed to more wars now. That is one of the ways Trump beat his GOP rivals. He denounced stupid wars. But GOP rhetoric hasn’t caught up to the base’s shift, and Trump is such a blowhard that he can’t help but make outlandish threats.

The result is that the GOP now sanctions everyone. It looks tough about avoids war. But in reality, GOP foreign policy looks increasingly incoherent. All threats and no follow through makes the US look like a paper tiger or just confused.

The full essay follows the jump:

Without Strategic Change, a Korean Peace Treaty would be a Formality


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This is a repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a couple weeks ago. The gist of it is that there a lot more hurdles to a Korean War peace treaty than many people realize. That is why it hasn’t happened yet even though it seems pretty intuitive, if not obvious, given that the war has been de facto over sine 1953.

The two big reasons are:

1. A peace treaty potentially undercuts the legal ground for the UN/US structure in South Korea. This, most have long thought, is a big reason the North wants it. If there is formal peace in Korea, what is the US military still doing there? The South Korean left might accept this logic, but the right will not. This is why SK President Moon Jae-In can’t get this idea past his own people. There is not enough consensus for it.

2. A peace treaty may well violate the South Korean constitution, which denies North Korea’s existence. Moon may not even be allowed to sign such a document, which is pointless without SK participation. Worse though is that a peace treaty formalizes and locks-in the division of Korea indefinitely. Again, the South Korean right and SK youth may not mind that, but I don’t think that is enough for the South to formally surrender unification on Southern terms. That woo would be another huge political fight.

The full essay follows the jump:

Trump’s Third Pandering, Legitimizing, Normalizing Photo-Op Summit with Kim Jong Un: Trump is Getting Played


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This is a local re-post of an essay I recently wrote for The National Interest about the DMZ summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. In short, it was a joke, another media stunt of the kind Trump is so good at. But now that everyone – Trump, Kim, Moon – have gotten their vanity picks for the history books and domestic legitimation/re-election needs, can we actually get back to, you know, the actual point of all this – a US-North Korean deal?

This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.

All that matters is what deal comes from all this and we still have no idea what they will be. It’s fashionable to say we’re making ‘progress,’ but are we? I’d say we’re just drifting.

The essay follows the jump:

More on Whether the US will Make Commensurate Concessions to North Korea to get a Nuclear Deal? How about Buying the Program?


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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote a couple weeks ago for The National Interest. It is an extension of this first essay.

That original essay explored why the US will have to make concessions to North Korea if it wants a nuclear deal. The North Koreans aren’t stupid, and CVID is tantamount to unilateral disarmament for nothing. So if we really want them to give up at least some of the nukes and missiles – they won’t give up all – then we have to give them something of commensurate value. That seems pretty obvious at this point, no matter how much official Washington won’t even discuss counter-concessions.

I see two things we can give them: a) a boatload of money, or b) the retrenchment of US strategic assets from South Korea. Or we can give them nothing and try to adapt to a nuclear North Korea. I would rank these choices as: buy them (bad); live with nuclear missilized NK, ie, accept the new status quo (worse); swap them for a tangible US regional strategic assets like bases or airwings (worst).

So this essay argues why buying out as much of their program as we can is better than nothing or giving up local assets. The last is a particularly terrible idea, because once we leave, we’ll never come back. That’s what happened after the US left the Philippines in the 1980s. Even if we said we could flow back into Korea easily, the actual removal of US hard, tangible assets, like the bases in the pic above, would basically be decoupling/abandonment in all but name. It would dramatically soften the alliance.

So, for as ugly as it sounds to pay them off like its blackmail – and the Kims are nothing if not gangsters – that strikes me as better than the two alternatives.

The full essay follows the jump:

Some Late Thoughts on John McCain


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I was on vacation there for awhile, and while I wrote the following after the senator’s death, I did not post it here back then. I know everyone is talking about Kavanaugh and Trump’s ‘very, very large brain’ right now, but I wanted to put this up before it fades.

In short, I think McCain was a reasonably ok senator who was celebrated so heavily mostly as a rebuke to Trump rather than for his actual record in the Senate. No one questions McCain’s patriotism or commitment to America. The real issue was his foreign policy judgment, which quite honestly, became increasingly belligerent and risk-taking, if not openly militaristic, after 9/11. McCain, like Lindsey Graham, Robert Kagan, and too many other neocons, simply refused to learn from the disasters of the Bush administration – and that these disasters opened the door to a charlatan like Trump. But he is obviously head-and-shoulders above Trump, and that matters. RIP.

The full essay follows the jump:

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South Korea is Now Running Détente with North Korea – and that is Probably a Good Thing


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This is a local re-post of a lengthy review I wrote on this year’s détente for the Center for International Governance Innovation. This is the original version, rather than that edited up version. They’re basically the same

Basically, I argue that the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was a nothingburger, that basically served to get Trump out of the way. The Americans had to be involved somehow given their importance to South Korea security. So Trump had to have something – unsurprisingly, a content-free, made-for-TV summit. With Trump now sidelined, Moon can do his stuff. I figure we’ll be lucky if he can cap NK at its current arsenal without giving up too much. That is the challenge now.

The full essay follows the jump:

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North Korea 2017: What Did We Learn? That We Can’t Bluster/Threaten Them into De-Nuclearization


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Sorry for the long hiatus. The holidays were pretty busy and exhausting.

This is a local re-post of something I wrote The National Interest late last year. I like these end-of-the-year retrospectives and predictions. So here is a look back at all the craziness around North Korea in 2017.

The most obvious new element is an American president talking to the world’s most dangerous state like a petulant man-child. Honestly, Trump just made everything worse, and his rhetoric almost certainly convinced the Kimist elite that going for nukes was wise.

The other big thing I think is how the debate over responding to North Korea is increasingly cutting out the doves. North Korea with nuclear weapons is such a scary prospect that it is side-lining engagers and powering the hawks in the debate. Increasingly the debate is an intra-mural one among the hawks, between moderates (where I’d put myself), who are wary of strikes and at least open to talks even though we know the Norks will gimmick them, and ultras like Trump or Nikki Haley who genuinely seem to want to strike. The real question in the US debate now is whether the moderate hawks, with an assist from the doves, can restrain the ultras from attacking North Korea this year.

The full essay follows the jump…

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Trump, Naturally, is Making this the Weirdest North Korea Crisis Ever


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This is a re-post of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute this month. In short, Trump is not only making this rolling semi-crisis more dangerous, but weirder too. US presidents don’t talk like vengeful Old Testament prophets, ratings-seeking reality TV stars, or children taunting their siblings, but I guess they do now. *sigh*

I spoke at the New Yorker Festival of Ideas last week on North Korea. I said then that if Trump would simply get off Twitter, there would be a noticeable step down in the tension our here. By extension, I mean he should stop ad-libbing scary, off-the-cuff remarks like the ‘calm before the storm.’ I did the best I could to explain these sorts of remarks here, but honestly, I wonder if he really even grasps the scale of his office. Today’s preposterous comment on the US nuclear stockpile suggests he doesn’t.

My full essay on how Trump is changing this NK crisis from the usual pattern is below the jump.

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Get Real: We’re Not Going to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea. We’re Going to Manage It


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This is a local re-post of an essay I published earlier this month at The National Interest.

President Trump’s outlandish UN speech was yet another national embarrassment, and his threat to ‘totally destroy’ another country verges on a war crime. And it’s not in our interest to do that anyway, so let’s start thinking practically about how we’re going to manage this mess.

My TNI essay below argues that we need to try to manage North Korea, rather than seek some final solution, because North Korea is persistent whether we like it or not, and because it is a nuclear weapons state whether we like it or not. That sucks. But I don’t see what other choice we have. Bombing North Korea is a terrible idea for reasons I’ve been saying all year on this website. Talking to North Korea and getting a real deal that they’ll stick to, like JCPOA, would great. But they flim-flam us so much, and so many hawks in the US and South Korea are unwilling to negotiate seriously with the North (remember that Congressional Republicans helped undercut the Agreed Framework; it wasn’t just Nork cheating which undid it), that I doubt talks will go anywhere. So we’re left muddling through. Did I say already that this sucks?

So what does ‘management’ mean? Recognizing that we can’t sole every problem as we want and that bad stuff we just have to live with, like NK nuclear weapons. They are lots of smaller things we can do – sanctions, going after NK money in Chinese banks, missile defense, pruning NK’s diplomatic/money-raising global network, continuing to bang away on China to take this more seriously, and so on. So please, can President Trump and Nicki Haley stop talking like Dr. Strangelove so that the rest of us can get back to the problem of what we can realistically do about North Korea?

The full essay follows the jump:

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The Wide Gap between South Korean and American Media Coverage of North Korea


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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute.

Every time there is a war crisis around North Korea, I notice the wildly different coverage between US and South Korea media, with the former being too alarmist and the later being almost too sanguine. My Korean cable package includes CNN and Fox, so I can quickly flip between the US and local coverage, and the difference is extraordinary. Fox freaks out over impending nuclear wear, while YTN gabs on about some celebrity with a drinking problem before getting to North Korea. The contrast really is that extreme.

Western pundits particularly tend to get carried away every time we have a North Korean war-scare. All sorts of irresponsible rhetoric gets thrown around about how we should invade or pre-emptively attack North Korea (we shouldn’t). In fact, so often do I read these sorts of op-eds when North Korea re-surfaces in the Western media, that I now call this the Kelly Rule, only half in jest. Just look at some of the frightening examples in that link. And here is today’s ‘Kelly Rule’ entry in case you need an extra boost of paranoia to go with the general hysteria.

The short version of these war-scares is that no, North Korea is not going to nuke the US out of the blue, so stop freaking out about that, and stop listening to Fox pundits scaring the hell out of you. The real threat is that North Korea the gangster state will use the nukes to shake down South Korea and Japan. Coercive nuclear bullying – not war – is the real threat. But that’s not as exciting as dramatic red arrows flying across the screen or ‘fire and fury,’ so let’s all get carried away over a war that’s not going to happen.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives


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We live Pakistani nuclear missiles; we can live with North Korean ones too.

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the New York Daily News a few weeks ago, at the peak of the summer war-scare.

I argue that we can in fact live with a nuclear missilized North Korea. Yes, that sucks. But all this irresponsible talk that we can’t adapt, that nuclear North Korea is an undeterrable, existential threat is just threat-inflating baloney. We’ve learned to live with nuclear missiles in the hands a Muslim state with a serious jihadi problem. Would America prefer this not to be the case? Yes. But is living with a nuclear Pakistan a better choice than bombing it or sending in US special forces to destroy their nukes? Absolutely. Or we would have done it already.

It’s not clear to me why this is so hard for people to absorb. What is it about North Korea that makes people lose their mind and say bonkers s*** about risking a huge regional war?

The full essay follows the jump.

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Bombing North Korea would be a War of Choice


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This essay is a re-post of a piece I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. It is an extension of the arguments a made earlier in the month, that North Korea is not in fact an existential threat to the United States. And that wonderfully scary photo is courtesy, naturally, of the Chosun Ilbo.

In brief, my argument is that the US has the ability to survive a North Korean nuclear attack, and therefore, we do not need to threat-inflate North Korea into some state-breaking threat to the United States. It is not. North Korea is dangerous enough without scaring the crap out of people unnecessarily. Killing a lot of Americans is not the same thing as bringing down the Constitution, and too many Trump officials are eliding that critical distinction. Strategic bombing has yet to bring down a country, and there is no reason to think the US is different. We do not need to bomb North Korea because it is on the cusp of destroying the American way of life. It could not do that even if it wanted to, which it does not. So an air campaign would still be a war of choice, no matter how much fire-breathing rhetoric you hear from Trump, Dan Coats, or Bolton.

The full essay follows the jump.

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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