“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” – Hillary Clinton
“If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” – Donald Trump
Until this April, Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States of America, thought China could easily solve this pesky North Korea problem that’s been bugging world leaders for over 60 years now. But then he met with the President of China, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago resort, after which he told the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal that, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
Trump went on: “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea . . . But it’s not what you would think.” Again: The President of the United States assumed that because he didn’t know about something, no one else would know about it either, including the editor-in-chief of one of the country’s premiere news publications. Worse, that “something” he didn’t know about was this: turns out, North Korea is complicated.
Turns out, healthcare is complicated. Turns out, the import-export bank is complicated.
Four months later, this guy is threatening nuclear war.
Which brings us very quickly to my point: Trump cannot be President anymore. I know you had fun while it lasted, MAGAs (you won the election!), but if it hasn’t sunk in yet, Donald Trump is a bona fide existential threat. He’s not fit to command the U.S. military in a war. He has no relevant experience, no ideology beyond narcissism, no guiding light, no steady hand. He believes whatever the last person he spoke with said. He gets information not from his security team, but from bots and memes and Fox News. He’s a walking, talking turnstile. And he’s threatening nuclear war.
The biggest threat here isn’t that Trump just drops the big one on the NorKors, a scenario that, at least at this time, is thankfully still far-fetched. But there is a danger that Trump gets into an ever-escalating conflict, then makes blunders that beget reactions he’s not prepared for and that spiral out of control. He’s selfish, volatile, and vindictive, and in a time of crisis he’d be unpredictable, slave to the hot thrums of his angry little lizard brain. In other words, Trump is exactly the wrong person to lead a war. Trump, friends, is a less rational leader than Kim Jong-Un.
Beyond this, Trump, who took five deferments from Vietnam because of a bone spur in his feet, would be leading the most powerful human force in history into a ground war in Asia, and he doesn’t have a high-school understanding of world history. Worse, he can’t even recognize that he doesn’t have a high-school understanding of world history. And Trump doesn’t have a North Korea policy yet (he’s focus-grouped several different ideas on Twitter). Even if he did, he’s gutted the State Department, so we’d have few resources to negotiate and enforce whatever diplomatic solution he wanted to pursue.
So here’s a breakdown of what might happen next in the Korean peninsula, where war sadly seems more and more inevitable. It’s not a hopeful outlook, but it’s not hopeless, either: For one, there’s a chance Congress will remove Trump before we go to war, if war comes. (This isn’t a political wish. Give me Pence. Really.) And there are matters of Constitutionality that might (but probably won’t) hold Trump back. Here’s the bottom line:
After yesterday, Congress has a moral imperative: We cannot let Donald Trump, a reality TV game show host, have the chance to start a nuclear war. Now that we as a culture have been so directly confronted with this horrifying possibility that we’ve created, we can no longer abide it. Even if nothing comes of this conflict, we’ve got to understand now how far we’ve gone.
It’s in fact unlikely, in my opinion, that we will actually physically attack North Korea. Well, at least not in the next few weeks. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently hinted the U.S. might take military action in North Korea this fall. Coincidentally, around that same time the U.S. banned all travel to the country starting Sept. 1, and told all U.S. citizens there to leave. And that was before this mess yesterday.
If you want the tl;dr, there are three questions that inform our chances for nuclear war:
1. Most importantly: Is Kim Jong-un (at a given moment) prepared to die, sacrifice his family’s legacy, and surrender the regime? This is simple but true: If yes, he’ll use his nukes. If not, we’re good.
2. Next, how badly do Kim’s generals want to launch a coup to avert a war? This solution has the best odds of avoiding complete chaos on the Korean peninsula.
3. Will Donald Trump blunder his way into a conflict that will trigger reactions he’s unprepared for, which will spiral quickly beyond his limited control into a full-blown war? (Yes.)
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?
You can’t compare North Korea to the United States. You have to understand what they want: To stay in power. After that, it becomes clear that everything the North Korean government does, even the horrifying punishments it visits on its own people, is calculated to serve that one purpose. (Please don’t confuse “rational” with “moral.”)
This is why Kim Jong-un is a more rational actor than Donald Trump. In fact, Kim is one of the most reliable and predictable heads of state in the world. I know that sounds absurd because his country is such a bizarre place, but let me explain.
North Korea is a small, very weak country, and they know they don’t stand a chance should the world (i.e., China) decide enough is enough. The only way the regime can stay in power is if it has an enormous bargaining chip, and it has calculated that the only such bargaining chip it can reasonably get, given its resources, is a nuclear weapon. They don’t want to make nukes so they can immediately bomb us. They just want to have the real threat so we don’t bother them. Once you understand this, everything they do makes more sense. And given how hard we’ve tried to stop them from getting the Bomb, their reasoning seems pretty spot-on. So no matter how fucked up that place seems, no matter how wack their official statements sound, if you’re talking in geopolitical terms, Kim Jong-un is rational to an extreme. So was his father and grandfather.
Proof: The Korean war ended in 1953. Considering how poor and weak that country is, the fact the North Korean regime has survived 64 years, with a clean succession of only three leaders, while resisting economic and military threats from China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, ought to tell you they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing.
Sure, North Korea furthered its nuclear program while four U.S. administrations folded their arms and said it was unacceptable (and Obama carried out a secret cyberwar on its missiles). As Gary Kasparov put it yesterday, “Inaction is also a choice, one with real consequences.” But this kind of thinking shows no regard for the current crisis, and little regard for the rest of the world. The truth is there’s never been a North Korea solution that didn’t risk at minimum the destruction of Seoul, and at maximum millions of lives and a humanitarian crisis in east Asia. The United States has led this failing effort, yes, but until now, the last minute, we’ve been checked by the UN—largely because of China. So we do bear blame, but it has nothing to do with “strength”: there’s never been a “strong” (i.e., military) solution that didn’t risk tens of thousands of South Koreans (and American troops) we’re sworn to protect.
The best geopolitical minds in the world haven’t been able to solve this problem, for decades, including the George W. Bush “axis of evil” military hawks. As for assassination, a palace in Pyongyang isn’t the same as a compound in Abottabad.
No: North Korea, small and weak as it is, has boxed us in. For a bunch of people we write off as being crazy, the plan they’ve devised and adhered to for decades sure seems to have worked pretty well…
Now here’s what Trump is getting into.
North Korea has one of the largest (and worst-fed) standing armies in the world. Their troops number over a million strong, with about eight million more in reserve. Also, China recently moved somewhere around 150,000 troops to the North Korea border. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is in an unfortunate place, within range of hundreds of North Korean artillery installments on the border. The Pentagon estimates that if North Korea let those shells fly, a million people would be killed in four hours. There are also 30,000 U.S. personnel living within range. This means that if we attack, we’re risking more than a million lives we’re sworn to protect, not to mention the risk of blundering into a ground war involving China. At the most extreme, nukes get involved.
If Trump doesn’t mount an attack, the status quo continues, and North Korea keeps advancing its program. But this also means peace for the time being. If we attack, it’ll likely be precision airstrikes on known North Korean missile and nuke sites. Kinda like what we did in Syria, but with a lot more on the line.
Trump really fucked up there, though: Such an attack has to be strong enough to convince KJU that the United States not only is serious about using that power. You don’t make threats about using military force on the world stage unless you’re ready to back them up. As former Defense Secretary William J. Perry said, “Nuclear deterrence is only effective if threats are deemed credible—bluster hurts our national security posture.” Trump promised fire and fury if North Korea threatened us. North Korea promptly threatened to bomb our airbase in Guam. (A con knows a con when it sees one.) And Trump, inept and callow, insecure and wounded, full of bluster and cotton, did nothing.
This was a major fuck-up that’s gone largely unnoted. And that’s why you don’t elect a game show host President of the United States.
Let’s say we launch a targeted attack and North Korea retaliates. Even if they respond moderately, it will escalate within the region, considering the fears of Japan, China, and South Korea. Now add to this volatile mix Donald Fucking Trump, a full-blown narcissist with zero military experience, reeling from six months of losses, embarrassments, gaffes and an FBI investigation into the legitimacy of the very office he can use to start this war. And he’s sitting comfortably in a mansion he owns, nowhere near the violence, the wrath of the atom appearing to him not as “fire and fury” but as the two hefty suitcases containing the nuclear codes that he’s mulling over.
Anyway. Seoul goes up in flames, because NK has a ton of conventional missiles aimed there already. Possibly a million people die in four hours. The U.S. carries out massive airstrikes. South Korean soldiers fight North Korean soldiers on the border. One side probably invades the other. It’s a bloodbath. China either seals the border so North Koreans don’t flee by the many thousands, meaning probably some sort of conflict up there. China could also come down and support… who the fuck knows.
No matter what happens now, there’s a humanitarian crisis, but not only because North Koreans have one of the largest armies in the world and have gone full-on apocalyptic. More important than that, the North Korean people are starving and poor. They have literally no understanding of anything really happening in the world outside North Korea, and the country will quickly descend into unmanageable mass hysteria. Many, many innocent people will die there, and not from military action. They will die over several weeks, maybe months, from starvation, disease, and yeah, murder.
Eventually, the U.S. wins this war. Now we’re faced with a failed state and an unrivaled humanitarian crisis in East Asia, while escalating our involvement in the Middle East and toeing a thin line with an ambitious and very pleased Russia.
But maybe we don’t get all their nukes. Many are on mobile launchers. North Korea might go batshit and launch the possibly functional nukes it might have at South Korea and maybe Japan. Maybe us? So we could also full-on invade, or nuke the place.
Fire and fury!
Why the fuck would you want to nuke North Korea? That to me seems like the worst idea of all, which is probably why Trump likes it. The North Korean people are impoverished and innocent, almost in the way of Adam and Eve. They’re ignorant of the world that destroyed them, brainwashed and malnourished and sick, living in a perpetual, quotidian fear of death, imprisonment, torture, disease, famine, and destitution that’s unrecognizable to them in the way we don’t notice our stomachs are always full. And we incinerate them because 30% of America wants us to look “strong”?
That sounds exactly like the most plausible scenario under Donald Trump.
Remember: Kim doesn’t want to nuke us. He wants that card in his pocket to keep us in check. If he pushes the button, it’s over for him and for his dynasty. In fact, it’s much more likely that Trump drops a pre-emptive nuke than Kim.
What Does Trump Want?
This is a big question, but no one can answer it, including Donald J. Trump, who happens to command the most lethal force in the history of human civilization.
I mean, we all know what Kim Jong-un wants. But Trump? The approval of his father, maybe? To be liked? Seen as strong? Those are troubling and unstable motivators for a man devoid of ideology and bristling with weapons. Trump is a cipher who basically becomes whoever he spoke with most recently. And just look who he’s surrounded himself with in the White House. No one stable, no great leaders, no scholars. Just racist, warmongering bloggers and our two last hopes: Gens. John Kelly and H.R. McMaster.
I’d hope that if Trump’s learned one thing from his beauty pageants, “world peace” is at the top of his wish list, if a list there be. But there are a lot of complicating factors, known and unknown, that could make him change his priorities on a whim, with no rationale other than it’s something he wants to do at the time. We have tons of precedent for this.
Most relevantly, Mr. Trump famously vowed, again and again and again, to stay out of Syria. Then one day he saw some pictures that made his daughter sad, and 48 hours later the Trump administration threw its entire Syria policy out the window and attacked a Syrian airbase. With that in mind, here’s a look at one month of his North Korea policy. Policies.
But we do have a little time. The main problem for North Korea is not miniaturizing a warhead, which it’s done. They need to design a warhead that won’t burn up in the atmosphere when the missile heads back down to earth. We suspect they’re fairly far off from that, but the autumn military action timeline seems to indicate something else.
The Failing New York Times reported, however, that Trump’s military officials are presenting him with options for war. Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, said, “He said he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.” He added, though, that the administration would see “what can we do to make sure we exhaust our possibilities, and exhaust our other opportunities to accomplish this very clear objective of denuclearization of the peninsula short of war.”
So our hopes hang on General McMaster and General Mattis, who sent out this cryptic memo a few days ago. Note: “Even citizens who have never met us trust us to do the right thing.”
Some final observations. First, would a unilateral attack be Constitutional? Probably not, unless immediate self-defense was justified. But Trump has already shown in Syria he’d prefer to shoot first and ask permission later. If we’re counting on the Constitution to stand in the way of Donald Trump, we deserve what we get.
And guess who thinks nuclear war is actually a good thing? Robert Mercer, Trump’s mentor and financier.
At the end of the day, there’s only one true determining factor about whether things will go nuclear: Is Kim Jong Un prepared to die for his legacy at this given moment? If he can nuke a major U.S. city, maybe. If he senses he’s going down before he does, it’s almost a guarantee. But the risks and costs of war are many and varied, and Congress has a moral duty to use the 25th Amendment to remove Donald Trump before a war can begin. After that, we can step back and try to figure out what went wrong in a country that made it think it was okay that one human being, no matter how flawed, could have ultimate control over a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out civilization several times over. And why did we give that power to a reality TV game show host?