Why a Conversation with North Korea is Critical
Note: The following blog post has been curated with permission from ongoing conversations between myself a retired member of the military/intelligence sector who has requested to remain anonymous. This entry is not intended to be an intelligence summary nor serve as an article. It is a conversation.
On February 8th, 2018, Vox published a piece on “What war with North Korea would look like.” If American political leadership gets North Korea wrong, it’s a mistake we will not be able to come back from as a nation. The wrong move with North Korea has the potential to fundamentally change America through catastrophic loss of life. In addition to nukes, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un likely has a contingency plan for biological or chemical warfare. It would be a war in which over a million people would die in the first 48 hours.
So who can actually help de-escalate North Korea, which has been a nuclear power since 2006? Victor Cha was the admin’s pick for ambassador to the Republic of Korea (ROK) until he advised the administration against a limited strike (bloody nose) against the north would be. His nomination for Ambassador to South Korea was removed and he was blacklisted.
We’re now at thirteen months into the administration and there is still no U.S. ambassador to South Korea. The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, so there wouldn’t be a U.S. ambassador to the DPRK (or vice versa). Beyond the Swedish Embassy in North Korea serving as the U.S. protecting power in some capacity and providing limited consular services to the US and other countries, there is no one who has deep knowledge of the situation that the administration will listen to. This is symptomatic of a deeper problem: the White House is hemorrhaging staff. With the Mueller investigation pulling top former inner circle staff in, no one of talent will work there.
To add further, with the State Dept eviscerated through personnel loss alone, U.S. diplomatic options are becoming increasingly narrow. A limited strike or further provocation is not only poor foreign policy, it’s grossly negligent if all diplomatic channels are not fully pursued.
The answer is one million Americans dead in 48 hours in a worst case scenario. It’s an ignored possible trajectory courtesy of hearts swooning over North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive that includes North Korean cheerleaders. The cheerleaders, dubbed the ‘Army of Beauties’, is a squad of eternally smiling women with cyborg-like synchronization that should be disturbing. DPRK has tried charm offensives before, and anyone won over by the Army of Beauties is likely equally as programmed. After the Olympics, Kim Jon-un will probably act provocatively, maybe with a missile test. Unless Jong-un tries longer term campaign to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.
The United States is unlikely to take any kind of preemptive strike absent something very provocative from the DPRK. The biggest issue here may be that the U.S. administration doesn’t have a Korean policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make a statement, for example, and President Trump will contradict him on Twitter moments later.
So the next question is what kind of missile test would Trump see as provocative? A missile overflight of Guam or Hawaii, or a missile impact close to either, would be seen as provocative by the current administration.. The DPRK has already conducted several missile overflights of Japan which activated Japanese air defense and civil defense responses.
Another source of clear provocation would be a North Korean sourced attack that involves the sale of fissionable material to a hostile non-state actor such as ISIS. Plutonium and enriched uranium can, to a degree be traced back to where it was enriched or developed. Also delivery systems and nuclear triggers can be traced with a degree of accuracy: working with fissionable material, the trigger or detonating mechanism, the delivery system, and the human chain that delivered a dirty bomb.
Which of the two is more likely, a missile test too close to home or a sale of fissionable material to a non-state actor? The answer is no one knows. Anticipating North Korea is like throwing chicken bones against the wall to predict the weather.
From North Korea’s perspective, rationale for launching a missile test uncomfortably close to U.S. territory could including threatening the US with follow through on demands for sanctions relief. The DPRK has done this before; it’s scripted behavior on their part.
Navigating the scene back at home, both National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense General Mattis have a strong team in their respective departments. The problem is President Trump doesn’t trust his own National Security Council or the intelligence community. Trump refuses to separate Russian election interference with possible campaign collusion. Adding further, with the Rob Porter scandal, Trump is even less likely to trust professionals in Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and in the intelligence community at large.
In the best of scenarios this is an impossible situation, let alone with Department of State gutted and a velvet war between intel community and the admin. Even on a good day, the DPRK needs to be viewed through the frame of what is the most likely scenario versus what is the most catastrophic scenario — then realize something entirely different could happen. It’s important to understand that Kim Jong-un is in many respects a third generation cult leader. We’re dealing with a cult leader whose two closest allies are share a domineering presence on the global state.
The DPRK’s chief ally is China. While the situation would dictate China’s response, in the case of U.S. preemptive strike, China would retaliate with economic sanctions and possible military action. China would also face a massive North Korean refugee crisis and would have to move to secure it’s border with the DPRK. Another ally is neighboring Russia. Russia is a transactional ally and shares a border with the DPRK, while DPRK is transactional in terms of alliances.
As of February 13th, 2018, South Korea has declared victory in bringing DPRK and the U.S. to the table to begin talks (not negotiations). For Trump the dealmaker, a deal here is what should create his legacy. If he can make it happen, it would be a greater victory than Israel/Palestine conflict in terms of American lives saved, because what is clear is that the North Korea situation makes the U.S. vulnerable in a way we haven’t been in generations. This makes a conversation with North Korea critical. For the sake of avoiding a worst case scenario, we don’t have the luxury of not being willing to sit across the table from someone, especially people our leadership has gridlocked us into a conflict with. That gridlock comes in part from Trump’s tendency to swing from insult to insult, generally treating everyone with a lack of courtesy and respect, which is particularly damaging in countries where courtesy is of paramount importance.
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