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Wednesday, January 3, 2018


This morning, Trump responded to Kim Jong-Un's provocative assertion that he has a nuclear button on his desk with the response that his [Trump's] button is larger, and it works,  This is transparently a taunt that his [Trump's] genitalia are larger than Kim's and furthermore that he [Trump] can maintain an erection and is not impotent.  Let us leave to one side the demented character of this response and take note that Kim at the same time sought to re-open cross-border talks with South Korea in advance of South Korea's hosting of the 2018 winter Olympics.  If Kim Jong-Un is successful in weakening the long-standing USA/South Korea military alliance, he will have achieved an enormous victory.  It seems at least possible that this will also stabilize the region and reduce the risk of an extremely destructive conventional war or a catastrophic nuclear war.  There is not the remotest chance that this possibility has even crossed Trump's mind [such as it is], and such a rapprochement would be in direct contradiction to traditional American foreign and military policy, but it is conceivable that it might be the best outcome for the incorporation of a nuclear armed North Korea into the regional geopolitical system.


mesnenor said...

I'm trying to come up with a Freudian interpretation of the lapsus dactylographii in the title to this post, but I've got nothing. A reference to the Pope, perhaps?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nope. Just my fat fingers. I am the world's worst typist. I will go in and edit it.

Jerry Fresia said...


Also, there may be a chance of the North Koreans, who won't be participating, walking into the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea in February in solidarity of one Korea. I lived in South Korea for 2 years in the early 70s and based upon sentiments back then, which were supportive of North-South family reunions, this would be huge.

LFC said...

If Kim Jong-Un is successful in weakening the long-standing USA/South Korea military alliance, he will have achieved an enormous victory. It seems at least possible that this will also stabilize the region ... There is not the remotest chance that this possibility has even crossed Trump's mind [such as it is], and such a rapprochement would be in direct contradiction to traditional American foreign and military policy, but it is conceivable that it might be the best outcome for the incorporation of a nuclear armed North Korea into the regional geopolitical system.

A rapprochement of sorts between N. Korea and S. Korea would not necessarily weaken the U.S./South Korea alliance nor fundamentally change the regional geopolitical dynamics at least in the short run. I'm all for reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula, but an agreement for the North to send a team to the Olympics in S. Korea is not going to basically change the military balance or S. Korea's reliance on U.S. mil. power. Sending a N. Korean team to the Olympics might however lead to further and more significant steps later.

Worth keeping in mind, and I do not say this to demonize but simply to describe things, that N. Korea is one of the few regimes in the world to which the label totalitarian can be accurately applied. Recently a panel of distinguished int'l jurists examined evidence of N. Korea's concentration camp system for political prisoners and concluded that it was extensive (several hundred thousand people, as I recall the figures) and involved gross violations of human rights (unspeakably bad conditions, hard labor, insufficient food, etc.) Thomas Buergenthal, formerly a judge on the Intl Court of Justice and a child survivor of the Holocaust, was a member of the panel and was not hesitant to draw the comparison to the Third Reich. Whether or not that particular comparison is justified (and as far as I know, no one has accused Kim of genocide or other violations on anything like a Hitlerian scale), it is pretty indisputable that the DPRK is a totalitarian police state desperately trying to modernize its economy so that its population can at least be maintained at a subsistence level. A North-South rapprochement under these circumstances will be at best gradual and halting, I would think.

LFC said...

P.s. Also worth noting that there have been efforts at rapprochement and agreements on joint economic zones etc. before, and they've never led much of anywhere in terms of a more long-lasting detente. The past doesn't have to be prologue, but a cautionary note seems in order. The fact that the current S Korean leadership is more interested in negotiations etc than its predecessor is important but, again, we've been there before.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Let us be clear, I hold no brief for the North Koreans. I am just desperate to avoid a nuclear war. I fully appreciate the truth of what you have written.

Matt said...

There was significant rapprochement attempted between N and S Korea in the late 90's/early 2000s, with strong support by the Clinton administration. The South was very interested, and there was talk about re-opening the rail lines between the countries. (*) The Clinton administration was very supportive of this, so it seems not to be the case that the US _in general_ is opposed to this - the idea that US forces there are just a sort of imperial occupation force (or whatever it would mean for the US to be opposed to lessening tensions _in general_, as opposed to for the crazed short-term gain of the present administration) seems ill supported. The last attempt was short-circuited by the North, mostly, for fears of it weakening their control over the population. I'm not optimistic that much will come this time, but we can hope.

(*) I was especially interested in the rail line opening, as I had a Korean friend living in Seoul, and I was living in Russia at the time. I had the (vain) hope that when I left Russia, I might be able to take the train all the way to Seoul and fly back to the US from there. Alas, that turned out not to be possible.

David Palmeter said...

I really don’t see a way out of this mess. Your concern about avoiding nuclear war is one I share. Like Jerry Freisa, however, I’ve also spent a lot of time in Korea--probably amounting to 2 to 3 years over the 22 year span from 1976 to 1998. I have Korean friends and a soft spot in my heart for the country and its people. And I worry about what will happen to them in all of this.

Can Korea really depend on the US in the case of an attack from the North? The North’s conventional superiority is so great that if they were to invade, they could not be stopped conventionally. Is the US willing to go nuclear if necessary to defend the South in the face of North Korean nuclear capability? Are you? Am I?

If I were in the Korean Defense Ministry, I certainly would be worrying about this question--Does the US have our backs? I think I’d doubt that the US does. I think I’d conclude that the US wouldn’t risk a nuclear attack on Los Angeles or New York in order to defend Seoul or Busan. And I think that I’d conclude that it’s time for a little clandestine nuclear weapon research on our part.

That would rip a new and very large hole in the already porous Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

We can thank the last two Republican presidents for this. The North began its nuclear weapons program under Clinton, but it went into high gear after Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. He proceeded to attack one of them, Iraq, and the other two, Iran and North Korea, ramped up their programs to make damn sure that they weren’t next.

LFC said...

@David Palmeter

I'm no expert on the technical aspects of military matters nor on the Korean issue, for that matter, but I think it's possible you may be underestimating the conventional assets, naval and air specifically, that the U.S. could bring to bear in the event of a N. Korean invasion of the South.

My own guess is that a N. Korean invasion of the South is unlikely, the current situation notwithstanding. My premise is that Kim Jong Un is basically rational (in the narrow cost-benefit sense), and there's not much he has to gain by actually testing the proposition that the U.S. would do little in response to a N. Korean move, whether it's an artillery or missile assault on Seoul or a ground invasion. The presence of 28,000 U.S. soldiers in S. Korea, plus the joint U.S./S. Korean exercises that the North objects to, are signals to Kim that if he guesses wrong about the U.S. commitment to defend the South, things would get v. messy.

As to whether the S. Korean govt is nervous about whether the U.S. "has its back" and is toying w a nuclear weapons program, I have no idea.

But, as someone who has spent some time thinking about U.S. foreign policy, I judge it EXTREMELY unlikely that any U.S. administration, including the present one, would fail to honor its commitments and treaty obligations to S. Korea in the event of a conflict with the North. The U.S. defense agreements with South Korea and Japan are formal bilateral treaty obligations between sovereign governments. In military-security matters, that's about as serious as it gets. And as far as I know there are really no ambiguities, as there would be in a less formal situation, or as there might be in a situation where the legal instrument in question was a multilateral agreement rather than a bilateral pact between two governments.

Jerry Fresia said...

Whatever delegation Kim sends to the Olympics, actual participation would be minimal. Only two athletes thus far have qualified. However, it may be the case that the North Koreans, with its tiny delegation, may march into the arena alongside South Korean athletes, with Kim attending the games.

I still think this is huge in terms of North and South Korean relations - a much needed thaw, much like the ping-pong diplomacy that warmed relations with China. And my guess is that the Trumpians would be none too pleased. With Trump's international reputation in the toilet, the spirit of the many Koreans fervently hoping for reunification at some point (or at least a detente) could be lifted.

For a good analysis, by Gareth Porter, of how Cheney (channeling evil spymaster Allen Dulles) created the current missile crisis, go here:

David Palmeter said...

LFC--The key question is not whether a US administration would honor its commitments (although to me that is a question with Trump) but how a Korean defense minister would see it. It was one thing to have confidence in that commitment when the North could do little or nothing to the US and another to have confidence in it when the US itself could be vulnerable.

LFC said...

@ D. Palmeter

I guess if the S. Korean Defense ministry is harboring such doubts, it's not going to make them public. So outside of those w/ access to intel, no one really knows, and possibly even the U.S. intel agencies don't know.

Even if Kim Jong Un can fire a nuclear-armed ballistic missile w some reasonable hope or prospect of its reaching a U.S. city, that does not mean he will. He does not have the ability to knock out the U.S. second-strike capacity, so such a move would be suicidal for him. Or so I would think. And I would think the analysts in the S. Korean defense ministry would factor that into their reports and calculations. Just speculating here, to be sure.

s. wallerstein said...

I only know what the media says about Kim Jong Un, but if I put myself in his position, he has a great racket going for him, so why would he blow it by starting a war that he is going to lose?

He is all-powerful, rich, probably has access to all the women he wants, and has flunkies to cater to his every whim. Now admittedly Socrates would not consider that to be a good life, but most normal people would and if we assume that Kim is relatively normal (in the statistical sense of the word), he is going to do everything he can not to disturb the status quo, because things can only go downhill from here, as seen from his point of view.

Kim does not have to be a military genius or a master of strategy to realize that the U.S. can blow his kingdom (and his power and privileges) to bit in a matter of seconds and so unless he is really really crazy, he is going to look for a good deal that will preserve his neat little racket.

I assume that the sane minds in the Pentagon know the above too, although it may be beyond Trump's mental reach.

Anonymous said...

Since Trump disinterred Charles Lindberg's antisemitic slogan America First for his campaign, he live by it and sit on the sidelines while North and South Korea negotiate.