Every Take on North Korea Is Dumb

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Every Take on North Korea Is Dumb

North Korea is the most predictable government in the world. They’re far from irrational. Look how many people have gloated over their recent flip-flop on the summit with Trump. It’s so obvious that would happen!


Well, that’s a dumb take. One of many floating around out there. North Korea didn’t flip-flop on the meeting. They just made it clear that they weren’t going unilaterally to give up their nuclear weapons, which is the same position they held a month ago, and the same one they’ve always held. They didn’t, as the Washington Post reported, “move the goal posts.”

Truth is we don’t know very much about North Korea, not even the Americans with the deepest knowledge truly know all that much about the regime, and they’d probably be the first to tell you. We don’t really know what their plans are, or what they’ve been saying privately to other countries, such as, say, China. And we don’t know whether they’ll cancel the meeting with Trump because we don’t know for sure why they suddenly wanted one, or how badly they feel they need to strike a peace agreement.

In other words, we know exactly one half of this story, and we’re either not interested or simply not capable of allowing for narrative possibility on the other side. That’s why every single take on North Korea is dumb. (Except mine, clearly.) Here are some of the dumbest.

Kim Jong Un is a madman and there’s no reasoning with him

I’m no North Korea expert, but in the course of my professional life I’ve worked closely with experts. I can’t read KJU’s mind, but I can tell you for sure that he isn’t irrational, and that he’s been thinking this through for years. In fact, KJU, like his father Kim Jong-Il, has probably been the single most predictable actor on the world stage. See all those people making fun of Trump because North Korea’s flakiness was totally predictable? You can’t point that out and also hold the belief that KJU is a madman. He’s not. KJU was educated in Switzerland and understands Western thought. He has articulated very clearly, for years, that North Korea prizes nuclear weapons above all else. Why? Not because he wants to use them to commit mass suicide, but because it’s the only way his tiny, poor country can deter foreign invasion or military action from the United States. In that light, it’s a totally reasonable policy.

Actually, that’s not the whole story. Kim Jong Un also wants to modernize North Korea’s economy, and he’s been going about it for years. Kim spent much of his first speech as “Supreme Leader” talking about the economy, and considering the severe sanctions on them now he might be prepared to make concessions on his nuclear program in exchange for economic aid or openings in trade. We know he wants this with South Korea.

Yes, it’s true that North Korea says insane sounding things, and their propaganda in general appears insane to us. But theirs is a hermetic society, and the propaganda is as much as a control mechanism for their own people as it is an aggression against their enemies.

Bottom line is Kim can be reasoned with, the problem is that neither they nor we want to give any ground: They say won’t give up nukes; we say we won’t sign a deal unless they give up nukes.

Except our position seems to have weakened. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently indicated Trump might not demand that North Korea denuclearize, but instead limit its ICBM program so it can’t strike America. This would be us moving our own goalposts towards North Korea, and it would also anger South Korea and Japan: We’re only out for guaranteeing our own safety. This pushes those countries towards China and away from us. We lose in the long run.

Kim is a cruel and murderous leader, but he’s not irrational. And he seems to be winning this one.

Speaking of irrational…

Trump is a genius and if this deal goes through he deserves the Nobel Prize


The rationale here goes that Trump deserves a Peace Prize because he threatened nuclear war and made fun of a head of state. That’s a supremely dumb take. No one in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize has won it for threatening a war, which — it’s weird that people have to point this out — is the opposite of peace. In fact, the whole reason Alfred Nobel started the Peace Prize is because he was mortified that his invention, dynamite, was being used as a bomb, and he wanted to do what he could to cancel that out.

Also, even if a major peace deal or breakthrough happens, there’s no reason to believe Trump is the person we should thank for it. North Korea has been clear that Trump’s aggression has actually made a peace agreement less likely. Note also that Trump didn’t reach out for the meeting: Kim did. Kim also didn’t meet with Trump first, but with the heads of state of South Korea and China (multiple times now). One way to read this is that Kim might want to firm up those diplomatic relationships so that regional peace talks can still go ahead even if (and when) things go sideways with the U.S.

He doesn’t need Trump. He just needs South Korea and China, and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

Further, Kim extended the olive branch to South Korea in his New Year’s speech, which was also, and not coincidentally, the famous “nuclear button” speech where he singled out the United States as a belligerent force. The message: We want peace with our East Asian neighbors, but we don’t trust the United States.

But did Trump’s sanctions bring Kim to the table? Maybe. But that wasn’t just Trump. It was a multilateral effort in response to Kim’s surprising development of ICBMs and a hydrogen bomb. Even if sanctions were effective, it’s hardly the work of a Nobel laureate: Let’s starve them into peace!


Bottom line, Trump did exactly nothing to encourage peace until peace was offered to him. If anything, Kim tamed Trump. Does this mean — in some fantasy future in which peace happens — that Kim Jong Un would be to thank for this, and deserving the Nobel Peace Prize? No way in hell. He’s an evil force who tortures his own people and rules almost exclusively through cruelty and violence. Only human beings can win the Nobel Prize.

This leads us to a corollary bad take:

Liberals are against peace talks because it’s a win for Trump and they’re sore losers


No. If Trump can strike a good deal, I and my gaunt liberal friends will applaud him with our skeletal elitist hands, which are actually quite strong from typing. Trump has a great opportunity here. Will he succeed? Probably not. That doesn’t mean I don’t want him to succeed. I just don’t see it happening.

At least, it won’t be a long-term success. If Trump does sign a peace deal, it won’t likely be in our best interest. Short term it’s a win, because a deal got signed. Long term, North Korea will angle for a deal that slowly wedges the U.S. out of East Asia, and Trump would be pleased as punch to sacrifice that long-term loss (which today is abstract and easy to cover up or ignore altogether) for a short-term, cosmetic political victory. This is especially valuable in an election year, and especially especially if it allows conservatives to paint liberals who point out the deal’s flaws as being anti-American.

Our skepticism isn’t “because Trump.” Trump might prove me wrong. I hope he does.

Wow, who could have seen this coming?

True, Trump is a simpleminded and gullible egoist who predictably got far out ahead of his skis on this one, but he never said North Korea wouldn’t threaten to walk away from a meeting. And those who take this take should remember: North Korea hasn’t walked away. It’s just words. Your take has been ruled “dumb.” Which brings us to:

Charlie Brown and the Football


Again: Trump is a simpleminded and gullible egoist who predictably got far out ahead of his skis, but this Charlie Brown take is dumb, and at the very minimum the analogy is premature. That’s no defense of Trump: He’s running at the football, sure, but Lucy hasn’t pulled it away. This is partly because it’s not the last second yet. It’s also partly because North Korea hasn’t changed their position at all.

You know who apparently has, though? The United States. And not in a stronger way.

It’s also important to remember a great many people are trying to slow Trump’s run at the ball. And whether you want to admit it or not, it seems these people have met recently with at least a little success. Which brings us to:

John Bolton Is Dumb


Again, North Korea didn’t threaten to walk away from talks with the U.S. because we went ahead with these annual joint military exercises with South Korea. They did, of course, cancel a meeting with South Korea. But their threat to us was in direct response to John Bolton’s remarks over the weekend on Fox News that our model for North Korea negotiations should follow that of our nuclear negotiations with Libya. That’s a non-starter, and anyone with any sense knows that’s exactly what North Korea doesn’t want. Libya ended in the overthrow of the government and execution of their dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

But Bolton isn’t anywhere near as dumb as this take. He spends his waking hours plotting against Iran and North Korea, and he said this for a reason, and he chose to say it on TV precisely to ensure North Korea heard him. I’m lucky enough not to live in John Bolton’s deranged head, so I can’t say with absolute certainty what that reason would be, but he might be trying to convince North Korea that, in spite of Trump, we aren’t entering talks from a position of weakness or naïveté.

He might also be trying to sabotage a future peace deal, a thought which itself would need explaining. One explanation might be that Bolton wants Trump to abandon his efforts with North Korea and focus instead on Iran, knowing we can’t handle both at once. Also possible, Bolton might want to prompt North Korea to abandon talks with the United States so he can make the argument to Trump that the only solution to North Korea is a military strike. (The above two explanations can’t both be true.)

But this brings us to another dumb take:

John Bolton Wants War with North Korea!

It’s true that Bolton is by all accounts a complete maniac. Or, as North Korea once inimitably put it:


We all know that Bolton, along with others in the Trump administration, has articulated support of military action against North Korea. Two things about that: First, we can’t say with certainty that Bolton wants what he says he wants, and we can’t rule out posturing. (This isn’t an argument to trust Bolton, by the way. It’s the opposite: He can’t be trusted.) Sure, we know Bolton supported and encouraged war in the past, most disturbingly in his history with Iraq. But North Korea is not the same as Iraq, and Bolton realizes this. The big difference: North Korea already has nukes, and in the event of military conflict they will use them. Plus, war with North Korea now also risks the annihilation of U.S. cities such as San Francisco. They’ll also incinerate Seoul with conventional artillery, and estimates say that when all is said and done as many as two million people will die, including many thousands of American soldiers and citizens abroad. Even though the United States would eventually subdue North Korea, the cost of that victory would be unbearable even to (and maybe especially to) a hard-line realist like Bolton, who knows Russia and Iran would take advantage of an overstretched U.S. to expand their power.

And check this out: The same people who worry Bolton wants war with North Korea also tend to worry Bolton wants war with Iran. No one in government is stupid enough to want both those conflicts — that would be the end of us, and it would plummet us and the rest of the world into a chaotic depression — and though Bolton might be a belligerent asshole, he isn’t a stupid person. We can’t fight North Korea and Iran, unless, of course, we pre-emptively nuke many millions of innocent people in what would be the most heinous war crime(s) in history.

Maybe you think Bolton is flat-out insane. He might be, and if you hold that position I probably can’t change your mind. Although it’s easy to say off the cuff that certain people are evil, I can’t conclude with intellectual honesty that anyone in government could be that monumentally evil, or that the American military would carry out such orders, which would be illegal and fair game to refuse.

If you think otherwise, I hate to say it, but the official World Takes judges have ruled your opinion as a dumb take.

War, or a “bloody nose” strike, which would by any calculation lead to war, is on the table, but it’s only on the table if North Korea makes overtly aggressive military moves against us or South Korea. They won’t do that unless they believe we’re going to attack them, because otherwise it’s simply mass suicide.

It’s not fair, logically, to say you know for certain that Bolton wants war with North Korea. It’s also logical that Bolton would want everyone (most importantly Kim Jong Un) to believe he’s prepared to go to war with North Korea at any cost, because he needs to convince North Korea we run things over there. After all, our overwhelming military advantage is literally our only bargaining chip. Bolton knows he needs to be a credible threat, or North Korea walks all over us in diplomacy.

Is it really a bluff, though? Or is Bolton guiding Trump on a policy path that leads inexorably to war?

The whole administration wants war!


But after North Korea’s response to Bolton’s remarks, the White House made it immediately clear that Bolton wasn’t running things.

In reference specifically to Bolton’s Libya remark, White House spokesperon Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she hadn’t “seen that as part of any discussions so I’m not aware that that’s a model that we’re using…. I know that that comment was made. There’s not a cookie cutter model on how this would work.”

Interesting: The White House seems to know they have to put Bolton in his place. It’s also maybe a signal to North Korea that, hey, we’re serious, but we’re also willing to reason with you on this one. Funnily enough, Bolton made this same point himself when he took to Fox News Radio to walk back his remarks and affirm that the meeting will likely go forward as planned. He framed his earlier position as “trying to be both optimistic and realistic at the same time.”

North Korea wants to embarrass Trump


Yeah, they probably do. But this is about 10% of a take, and to frame this take as being the thing that’s driving Kim’s moves here is officially Dumb.

Look, this isn’t a personal thing for Kim: He’s above Trump’s childish threats, though he’s happy to indulge the easily piqued president. No, KJU wants to make real moves. He’s met several times already with the heads of state from South Korea and China. He’s also made gestures (hostage releases; suspending all missile tests; signing a declaration of intent for detente) that, while falling short of anything new, aren’t insubstantial. The purpose of all of this isn’t to orchestrate the public humiliation of Donald Trump, who does a fine job of that himself. That’s simply a nice side benefit of Trump’s incompetence, which Kim is indeed trying to take advantage of in order to beat us at the table.

Bottom line: We focus too much on Trump’s personality, and too little on trying to understand North Korea with serious objectivity. It’s not as much fun, of course, and doesn’t give us the opportunity to take self-satisfying pot-shots at our speak-and-say President, but it’s also intellectually dishonest.

And a dumb take.

Much like this one:

Trump scared North Korea by tearing up the Iran deal


It’s not the same deal. Iran didn’t have nukes. North Korea does. Also, if we tear up the North Korea deal we tear up our allegiance with South Korea, which shares a border, culture, and history with North Korea and desperately wants peace. Put those things together and we see there are many more constraints on us with North Korea than there were with Iran. Also, it’s highly unlikely we would even ask for a deal that demands the North give up its weapons. We’ll have to live with a nuclear North Korea, in the way we don’t have to live with a nuclear Iran (yet).



No, it’s not. North Korea’s recent statement is a clear demand, which in this case is just about the exact opposite of a trick: They’re not trying to fool us into believing they’re ready to denuclearize. No, North Korea just clarified, straight up, the position they’ve always held and, despite fuzzy and sometimes outright inaccurate reporting, never abandoned: They won’t have talks with the U.S. if we demand they unilaterally give up their nukes.

And check out how South Korea responded: They said they’d do everything they could to make sure peace talks still happen. And that’s even after North Korea actually did cancel a meeting with them. Take rating: Stone cold stupid.

But see? They canceled with South Korea! Why trust them? Okay, here’s that one.

North Korea’s Gonna Cancel!


Schumer got this way wrong. North Korea didn’t threaten to cancel our summit because of our military exercises. They made the threat over Bolton.

But also, everyone who’s now grown certain North Korea will cancel the meeting with Trump (which they haven’t) but who a week ago made fun of Trump for taking North Korea at its word needs to look in the mirror. (This isn’t incompatible with believing Trump is dangerously ignorant, btw.) You’re doing the same thing he did.

It’s a good rule not to project your own politics onto North Korea’s statements. It’s a little like a president tying his success to the stock market. It’s fickle. To do otherwise?


The truth is that, going by conditions as they stand right this minute, the meeting will most likely happen. North Korea really wants it to happen, and they have the upper hand here: We want to see what they’re willing to offer. The threat to cancel is most likely just a flex to show they’re the ones in a position of strength. And to be honest, in this specific instance they are. Trump’s stammering response, in contrast, revealed two things: He really wants the meeting to happen; and he’s powerless to ensure it happens.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also signaled that we’d be agreeable to allowing the North Koreans to hold on to a majority of their nukes, as long as they cap their program.

Along the same lines…

Trump Is Stupid to Think North Korea Would Stick to a Deal


This take is not dumb for a long time, but then it nose dives into dumb at the end solely because it wants to make Trump seem as stupid as possible.

Trump might be stupid, and he does seem to trust Kim to an unnerving degree, but there’s no reason to believe Kim would back out of a signed deal. They haven’t done that before. And whether Kim decides to back out or not isn’t a reflection on Trump’s intelligence: It’s Kim’s choice, and, as pointed out earlier, he won’t do it just to show Trump how dumb Trump is for trusting him.

In fact, North Korea has more reason to worry about us pulling out of a deal. Trump didn’t help things much in this regard when he scrapped our promises in the Iran deal, but our history with North Korea isn’t exactly pristine, either. We struck a nuclear deal with them in 1994, but that deal fell apart in 2002 because we failed to deliver on our end. North Korea often sounds volatile, and they prefer and probably in some way need to maintain that perception, but they haven’t backed out of any agreement before. They do make a lot of empty threats, many comical, and they’ve flaked out before, but they haven’t broken an agreement. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will, particularly if they can work a very favorable deal, which they likely will. To flat-out assume they’ll break their word is, sadly, presumptuous and arrogant.

And those things are things dumb takers do.

It’s North Korea’s fault!

Ah yes, blaming North Korea. They’re terrible people, sure, but we sometimes get things way wrong. For instance, this Vox piece about North Korea’s threat to abandon the summit opens with “North Korea may have undone months of diplomacy in only a few hours.”

They didn’t. The meeting is still on.

Also, it was Bolton’s intentionally provocative remarks that would have tanked the meeting, not North Korea. I mean, he went so far as to say North Korea should dismantle all its nukes and giver them to the United States, specifically to our nuclear science and energy facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where we would destroy them.

In fact, that sentence from Vox inadvertently illustrates that North Korea is in fact committed to making this thing happen: They value the months of diplomacy they’ve put in this year, and they’re not willing to capriciously toss all that work in the trash.

Overall take rating: Dumb.

So what do you think, big shot?

Actually, not all takes are dumb. Here are a few redeemers.




My hottest take on negotiations? We’d have better chances of resolving a nuclear conflict with North Korea if we began with making humanitarian demands and moved forward from there, not with the nuclear program, which is a non-starter. Help the people.

Or this. Come at me, bro.

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