I’ve written here previously about the issues of negotiating with North Korea. See eg this. Or this.

Things have moved on. President Trump appears to be keen not be seen as ‘diplomatic’ as President Obama.

Can containable military action be taken against North Korea to stop it developing nuclear weapons? And if so, would it have the desired result, as defined by those taking the action?

Here are ‘seven myths’ about these issues, supposedly ‘debunked’ by Karl McDonald at iNews. Help! We’re all going to die!

Note that the final apocalyptic myth is ridiculous, in that it has millions of people dying in all directions and China, Russia, the United States and Japan ‘dragged’ into direct military conflict with each other. Why would they fight over highly targeted US action against Pyongyang aimed at flattening North Korean nuclear capabilities? If there is one thing they in fact all agree on, it is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is a Bad Thing, and that each of them would be better off if it were not there.

The operational and policy issues concerning North Korea are clear:

  • North Korea has done a fine job isolating itself against anything that looks like normal modern interaction, other than murky state-sponsored gangsterism to raise hard currency
  • As a result, its people may starve. But hey, all that grass is good for their health! No tubbies under glorious socialism!
  • The regime runs a unique protection racket, by threatening South Korea with horrendous losses if North Korea is attacked. The South Korean capital Seoul is close to the border and in range of lots of heavy weaponry
  • That protection racket (aka blackmail) is both defensive and offensive: it allows North Korea to threaten to develop nuclear weapons and other WMDs by playing on international fear of confrontation, but once the threat is established Pyongyang can make ad hoc ‘compromises’ to achieve other ends (food aid when the famines get especially acute, or other technology transfer).
  • Part of the Pyongyang formal Great Demand is achieving acknowledgement/status. By leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty framework that prohibits signatory states other than the original ‘nuclear powers’ from developing/acquiring nuclear weapons, the North Korea regime has given the international community little choice but to negotiate on its terms
  • Thus the Six-Party talks. What better exemplifies the unparalleled glory of the North Korean regime than sitting down as an equal with Japan, Russia, USA, China and South Korea, and setting the agenda?
  • In a word, classic Miloševićism: create a ghastly problem, then proclaim success when the world duly appears asking you to help solve it
  • But whereas Milošević was a strutting but puny Balkan figure capable of being brought down with no great harm to anyone else in the region, North Korea has firepower, and (so far) has been able to scare off any significant pressure, to the point of post-modern WMD irony:

“Mess with us? We’ll mess with South Korea! Big-time!

Do say. How many South Koreans are you ready to see die while you try to sort us out?

Ah – as we suspected, not a subject you’re prepared to discuss.

We’re strong. You’re weak.

Therefore what? How in fact to deal with blackmail?

Classic blackmailers derive their power from various sources. They know things that the blackmailee does not want revealed. They are willing to reveal them, unless the blackmailee pays a price.

But this in turn rests upon key assumptions. Namely that the blackmailee is unable to threaten the blackmailer. And that the blackmailee is not ready to take the pain of the revelations. In other words, the sanction of the victim – the willingness of the blackmailee to submit:

I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent.

I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was “No.”

Enter President Trump. What if he says ‘No’?

His apparent willingness even to contemplate that question seems to have given Beijing food for thought. Plus his Defence Secretary James Mattis is one of the smartest, steeliest people ever to hold that office. If anyone can work up a shrewd plan with a respectable chance of success to hit North Korea abruptly right where it hurts with overwhelming force that diminishes sharply the risks of blowing up South Korea, he’s that man.

In this case Washington is one of North Korea’s blackmailees, but it’s unlikely that much of the worst consequences of attacking North Korea would fall on the USA. Rather it’s South Korea that bears the key costs of North Korea retaliating.

Thus, questions.

What if the calculation is that the cost might not be that high? Or at least high but containable?

What costs are ‘worth’ incurring today for the sake of long-term gains? By what scale of value do we measure that?

The US-led intervention stopped the Communists taking over Korea completely. That intervention cost tens of thousands of lives. But millions of lives were saved or improved. North Korea today is starving to death its own people. South Korea has almost as many wireless Internet outlets as the whole EU. Where would we rather live?

Putting it another way, just say 400,000 South and North Koreans die to liberate the remaining 25 million North Koreans from slavery. Is that a good investment? Might more lives be saved that way over (say) the next decade than are lost, as North Koreans start to live decently?

Who decides? 

Note that calculating the consequences of a lightning strike to cripple the North Korean nuclear programme and wider military capabilities in turn requires lots of insight into the likely North Korean response:

How united/loyal is the North Korean elite and security establishment?

Can it be divided or rendered uncertain in advance, eg by getting attention-catching private (and credible) messages to key generals that they can play a decent part in a post-North Korea future?

How organised in fact are the command and control systems?

How tough are they when it comes to it? Ready to die for North Korean ideology – or quietly looking for a chance to scuttle, or at least to cut a dirty new deal on its nuclear programme and then work out how to stagger on a while longer?

Yes, the North Korea regime can take pain. But is it also calculating (a) that it can take more pain than South Korea and Washington are willing to inflict, and (b) that it can threaten to inflict huge pain on others to the point of creating uncertainty that defers any action?

Immensely subtle questions, requiring fine judgments. But also at root simple.

What if South Korea finally decides that enough blackmail is enough, and that it is prepared to take its chances?

What if Beijing and/or Moscow conclude that ruthless US military action against North Korea is now so likely that it makes sense for them to get alongside Washington and try to cut deals that cut North Korea down to size, rather than be left looking ineffectual?

And what if Washington and Beijing/Moscow duly reach some quiet but firm understandings about how a new reunified Korea would defend itself while fitting into respectable Asian security architecture that all can accept?