Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

The news yesterday that the U.N. passed a watered-down set of sanctions against North Korea is cause to consider whether conventional solutions will ever be enough. Steve tries to take a few steps out of the box.

Terrible storms ravage two huge population centers. The scars of Charlottesville linger. New evidence piles up shredding Trump’s assertions that he had “no dealings with Russia.” An executive order that protected nearly a million “dreamers” is callously rescinded.

And, lurking throughout, a delusional wanna-be tyrant with a ridiculous haircut and small, stubby hands surrounds himself with obedient family, stern military, and a motley staff of sycophants, and rants wildly about destroying his adversary in a horrific pre-emptive nuclear strike. 

Meanwhile, back in North Korea, Kim Jong-un seems ready to lose his temper, too.  

Yesterday, the United Nations passed new sanctions on North Korea, but the New York Times noted that “they fell significantly short of the far-reaching penalties that the Trump administration had demanded just days ago.”

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

There is no doubt: it is an extremely complicated problem with a very long history, and it seems that each and every path to attempt to thwart Kim Jong-un is fraught with peril, risk, unintended consequences and competing objectives. It’s a mess, they all say. A puzzle inside a conundrum. Incomprehensible.  Unsolvable.

Why, it reminds one of that lovely melody from The Sound of Music...

How do you solve a problem like Korea?
Their leader is nuts and we haven’t got a plan.
Now he can send an H-Bomb to Chicago,
Hey China, we’re begging you, you gotta lend us a hand!

The gang in Pyongyang’s devoted to their dear leader
He’s ready to launch a Seoul-searching riposte
But how do we make him bow?
Cause we’ve got to move right now!
Before Kim Jong-un can take out the whole West Coast.

Ah, how do you solve a problem like Korea?
When Donald Trump is the leader of your land?

Ah, we laugh that we may not cry.

The combination of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is modern civilization’s worst nightmare, two wildly erratic and ignorant egomaniacs who together can trigger the power to destroy all life forms on earth and are each prisoner of the Id-driven impulse to act now and think later.  With all due respect to tax reform, Obamacare, immigration policy, dreamers, Charlottesville, horrific storm carnage, and the Russia investigation, if North Korea blows, we may not even last long enough as a species to be rendered extinct by climate change.

Let us begin with a quick summary of the conundrum.

Kim Jong-un is producing ever more powerful nuclear devices and ever more accurate missiles at a rate that makes a Chinese iPhone factory look like the back office at the Connecticut DMV.

As the superb NBC Chief International Correspondent Richard Engle explained so crisply last week on All In with Chris Hayes, the United States therefore sits at a moment of rapidly shortening opportunity.  Right now, we can wage war, knowing that in the worst case scenario, Kim Jong-un does not have the capacity to threaten us with “mutual assured destruction,” the Cold War doctrine that served as a the definitive deterrence that prevented superpowers from launching their nuclear arsenals.

Therefore, Engle explained, the United States has a very short window in which it could launch a highly targeted strike designed to completely cripple North Korea’s nuclear capability. In this scenario, the United States would send Pyongyang a message – simultaneous with the attack – that if Kim Jong-un made any move to retaliate against the United States or any of its allies, the United States would initiate a second launch that would bring about the complete destruction of Kim Jong-un, his regime, and probably a huge chunk of North Korea in the process.

If this is indeed what the Trump administration is contemplating, it is a terrifying and chilling gambit. If Washington is wrong in their guess that Kim Jung-un would stand down, the casualties from conventional weapons aimed toward South Korea would be appalling. Perhaps the North Koreans might even have time to launch nuclear weapons toward Seoul, Tokyo, or even Los Angeles. It is an unbelievably high risk first strike. If this is the prevailing military option, it is too big a gamble and with too much downside to attempt.

So if the military option is untenable, what other options do we have? The obvious course of action is to continue to turn the screws on sanctions, on the hope that truly draconian measures – cutting the flow of all fuel and oil products into North Korea – could bring the country to its knees.

The problem with this approach is that the United States is completely dependent on China for such sanctions to have teeth. The Chinese dominate all import and export in and out of North Korea, and they could turn the screws tight on Kim Jong-un… if they wanted to. But what’s in it for China? They’ve pretty much reconciled themselves to a fully nuclearized North Korea, and they have little reason to worry about it.

Indeed, Kim Jong-un actually plays a fairly useful role for China. His satanic iron grip over his country means that China does not have to worry about a regime change that could prove friendlier to the West and even seek a reunification of Korea under leadership from Seoul. Kim Jong-un’s family has been the devil that China has known for decades, and the implementation of crushing sanctions against Korea could bring down Kim Jong-un and destabilize North Korea.

All this means that Nikki Haley can talk tough in the U.N., but China and Russia still have veto power on the Security Council, so – as yesterday’s vote indicated – truly crippling sanctions are not going to happen. And when Donald Trump threatened to stop trade with any country that does business with North Korea, everyone in Beijing had a great chuckle. Who’s going to make those iPhones – the Connecticut DMV?

So, you can’t bomb ‘em and you can’t starve ‘em. What is a global superpower like the United States supposed to do?

So how do you solve a problem like Korea?

Well, there is that old saw about Einstein's definition of insanity, which is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We don’t pretend to be smarter and we certainly don’t know one-tenth of what the career experts at the State Department know, but there is a certain point at which the question is no longer “how can we make our current strategy work harder?” but rather, “what radically different approaches could we take?” It is time to think outside this terrible little box we are in.

Here goes…

It’s interesting to note that when Teddy Roosevelt said, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the first suggestion in the phrase is not the part about the “big stick.” The first step is to “speak softly.”  The first and best way to resolve any conflict is with words rather than bombs, and there is little evidence that we are using the power of communication to the fullest.  

We have a Secretary of State who believes his job is to downsize the State Department, and we have a new ambassador to China who has only been in place since May. Donald Trump is railing about “fire and fury,” which is pretty much the opposite of what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind.

Are we really doing everything we can to do to communicate effectively with all of the relevant players in this conflict?

First: Are we communicating effectively with China?

Let’s begin by attacking the core premise that China does not have a strong motivation to deter North Korea from its nuclear build-up.  It seems impossible to believe that the evolution of North Korea into a nuclear superpower is truly in China’s best interest. 

Consider the worst-case scenario: if China stands idly by and allows a nuclear war to occur between the United States and North Korea, who do they think is going to clean up the mess afterwards? It is an absolute certainty that China would have to devote billions in personnel and treasure to rescue, repair, and rebuild an obliterated North Korea, lest they leave an opening for South Korea, Japan, and the United States to race into the power vacuum, creating a united Korea led from Seoul.  Are we doing a good enough job of communicating with China about what a post-apocalyptic North Korea would mean for them?

But even the notion that a continuation of the status quo is tenable for China seems at odds with reality. Kim Jong-un is proving to be an unguided missile incarnate, an undisciplined provocateur who fires missiles that have an accuracy rating comparable to Donald Trump’s average stump speech. All it would take is one careless trigonometry error to accidentally trigger a regional crisis across the Pacific Rim. Why would China want this particular whack-job in charge of a nuclear arsenal that sits at their doorstep?

Consider this way, way out-of-the-box and extremely contrarian notion: why doesn’t the United States introduce a motion in the United Nations proposing the China annex North Korea?  Suppose the United Nations endorsed the idea that North Korea is proving to be a dangerous rogue nation and that the world of nations would prefer to cede this territory to China in exchange for China taking active responsibility for its governance.  At the very least, simply introducing the idea would shine a spotlight on China as the superpower that must own this problem.

The bottom line is simple: this problem cannot be solved without China, and it’s never going to get solved if China doesn’t believe it is even a problem. 

Have we even really engaged China at that basic level? They know that we have a problem with a North Korea as a nuclear superpower. But can we persuade them that they should have every much a problem with that as we do?

Second: Is it time to try communicating directly with Kim Jong-un?

There is apparently a conviction in diplomatic circles that it is bad policy to reward a rogue player with the recognition and respect that is accorded in proposing direct contact with the United States.

Are we going to stick with that dogma all the way to Armageddon?

Perhaps we can admit the reality that the man has gotten our attention. Pretending he is not worthy of recognition seems to be one of those rules that works until it no longer works. It no longer works.

The fact is that we succeeded in dissuading Muammar Gaddafi from pursuing his nascent nuclear weapons program through quiet back-channel diplomacy premised on a carrot and a stick. We made clear that his country would be economically rewarded by giving up his nuclear program. This, of course, is the exact same strategy that the Obama White House used to create the Iran nuclear deal. 

Why aren’t we recognizing that it is time to bring Kim Jong-un to the table and enter into a dialog? In the worst case scenario, we at least look like the grown-ups in the room who tried to solve the matter through diplomacy.

Third: Are we communicating effectively with the people of North Korea?

It is clear that North Korea is a rigidly contained and controlled state, and that this extends to an extreme editorial grip on all mass media, including television, radio, print, and the internet.  Why? Because far more than fearing the United States, Japan, or South Korea, Kim Jong-un fears a massive uprising from his own people.

The single most effective thing that the United States could be doing to combat North Korea is to create and foment a Korean Spring  a recognition among the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is a savage tyrant who is terrorizing, repressing, and starving his own people to save his own position.

It will not be easy. Kim Jong-un manufactures fake news on a scale of such appalling deception that he makes Donald Trump seem only as damaging as the weather anchor on Fox.  His geyser of fake news paints a picture of the United States as an unspeakably cruel agent of destruction bent on the obliteration of North Korea. And, yes, it does not help our cause when the President of the United States provides actual, real, unretouched video that says pretty much the same thing.

As a final daunting fact, we must recognize that the population of North Korea has been trained for three generations to believe that the family of Kim Jong-un carries a God-like entitlement to lead the country. In North Korea, the ruling family and the state are blurred to the point that they are indistinguishable, and the authenticity of Kim Jong-un as leader is akin to divine right.

Still: one has to believe that people who are smart enough to build a hydrogen bomb are smart enough to know that this fat little brat is not God.

I was fortunate enough this past weekend to listen to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal talk about the the situation in Korea. Off the top of this head, the extremely well-informed Senator quickly ticked off many of the points in a brisk and efficient summary of the conundrum.

I asked him if he thought that the people of North Korea knew who Bruce Springsteen was.

The point was simple. Are the people of North Korea so hopelessly brainwashed by their Dear Leader that they actually believe that everything in their country is tippety-top, state-of-the-art, best-it-can-be? Or do they have an inkling that they are actually living in a dark, lonely, repressed, sad world and being cruelly denied their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by a bad genetic mutation with a terrible haircut?

Are they truly content because they only know their own closed world, or do they feel bludgeoned and angry and resentful of the tyrant who crushes their spirit? Do they have a sense that there is food, opportunity, and the chance for a better life beyond the walls in which they are imprisoned?

Do they know who Bruce Springsteen is?

My definition of “Shock and Awe” would be to see Coldplay, Sting, Bruce, and Paul McCartney on one stage. My Williams College religion professor Mark Taylor remarked back in 2004 that he did not understand why we bombed Baghdad. “We should have just sent the Rolling Stones,” he mused.

The lesser part of his point was that entertainment is our most successful export, and that many of our entertainers are popular even in the most remote and barren regions where our political leaders are reviled.  Some of these people may claim to hate the United States, but they sure seem to like the people – the entertainers, the artists, the athletes, the celebrities – that they know so well.  Yikes, even Kim Jong-un loves Dennis Rodman, for chrissakes, and he seemed to be plenty up to date on Hollywood film releases when The Interview was about to open.

The broader point is that the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of freedom are the unfettered, loud, and powerful voices of a free society.

Why aren’t we waging the most aggressive and sophisticated communications program in history to let North Koreans know that their leader is a cruel tyrant who is endangering their families, repressing their freedom, killing their opportunity, and preventing them from joining in the prosperity and economic vibrancy of free nations?

Sure, it will be tough to get that message into North Korea, but we must.  Smuggle it, mail it, put it on flash drives and air-drop it. Put it in water-tight canisters – messages in a bottle -- that wash up on the shore. Put it, Trojan-horse style, in gifts. Yes, and have Lin-Manuel Miranda write it, Patty Jenkins direct it, Bruce Springsteen sing it, and Stephen Doyle design it.  We need to put a world class team of creative artists and media gurus to the task of communicating with the people of North Korea.

Advertisers know that for all the money they spend on television, the most powerful medium in the world is word of mouth. Once we get the fire started, there will be no stopping.

Like there was no stopping Lech Walesa,  the people from the east pouring through the gates of the Berlin Wall,  a man in front of a tank Tiananmen Square, Martin Luther King… or Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton.

Somewhere in North Korea right now, there is a man or woman who knows that babies are hungry because Kim Jong-un is spending every North Korean dollar on nuclear bombs. Bombs that, if ever used, will only guarantee the incineration of their families.  

We owe that person a message in a bottle.

We need to tell that person that help is on the way. We need to encourage that person to believe that a better world lies outside that crappy little armpit that Kim Jong-un has built while hiding his people behind the 38th parallel.

We need to let that person know that it is time to defy the tank and wield the unstoppable power of a people yearning to be free.  

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

To build on Teddy Roosevelt:  we should talk -- softly, loudly, clearly, persuasively... but we must do a far better job of communicating. And yes, we should offer a carrot, and carry a big stick.

But let’s not stop there. Let's figure out how to reach the people of North Korea themselves.

And maybe, just maybe, we should actually should try the sound of music. 

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