This is what you get for electing a game show host who lied to your face about everything you believe in.
Until last week, Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States of America, thought China could easily solve the North Korea problem. 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 (Paywall? Here’s Vox.) that, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
He went on: “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea . . . But it’s not what you would think.” Again, this was to The Wall Street Journal. 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 wiretapping is complicated. Turns out the import-export bank is complicated.
This means Trump assumed he could make a simple business deal with China and didn’t think to ask even one of dozens of defense officials who are experts on North Korea for their advice, or even a thorough explanation of the problem. He gets his national security information, remember, from pictures and cable TV. And, apparently, leaders of foreign adversaries.
Flash forward one week: North Korea is planning a nuclear test and we’ve got an aircraft carrier fleet heading there now. And the man in charge of all this firepower has seven days’ working knowledge of the country he’s threatening with nuclear submarines.
Yesterday, NBC News broke the controversial story that the United States was considering a range of military options, including a preemptive strike, should North Korea move forward with the test. That story got a lot of pushback from the Pentagon, but only on one word: preemptive. It’s understandable they’d be pissed about that word, because it’s a pretty damn big deal to threaten a preemptive strike on anyone, let alone North Korea. And the leak of that information could be quite dangerous, and probably somewhat affected our response calculus, and at least caused a diplomatic scramble.
But everything I mention below is still on the table, because a retaliatory strike is definitely still on the table. I’d also like to note that NBC cited “multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials” in their report, and they haven’t retracted a word of it. Even if the report is wrong, this means that not everyone is on the same page when it comes to a military strike that might lead to a nuclear war.
To be clear: the North Korea problem is too complicated. I admit I have no idea what the right thing to do actually is. I have an informed opinion though, and I know the U.S. military considers any form of military response to be extremely, extremely risky. It’s quite unlikely, in my opinion, that if North Korea tests we will actually physically attack them. But there’s also a good chance I’m wrong.
The following, then, is simply a presentation of the most factually likely scenarios, given certain responses and reactions. At the end I weigh in, because I am, as someone recently told me, a lunatic liberal. But I’m an informed one. Here’s what I know.
First, what we’d be up against: North Korea has one of the largest (and worst-fed) standing armies in the world. Over a million strong, with about eight million more troops in reserve. A few days ago, China moved 150,000 troops to the North Korea border.
We have a ton of firepower and some military bases in the region too. And South Korea has troops on its border with North Korea. And Japan is also ready. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is within range of hundreds of North Korean artillery installments on the border. The Pentagon estimates that if North Korea let the artillery fly, one million people in Seoul would be killed in four hours.
If North Korea goes ahead with its nuclear test and we attack in response, we risk more than a million lives and a ground war involving China. At the most extreme, nukes get involved.
If we don’t attack no one will take our president at his word—if they even do now. And if we don’t respond at all North Korea goes unpunished.
The North Korean regime wants nukes really, really badly, and they seem willing to do anything, no matter the cost to their own people, to get them. That sounds like Dr. Evil-type stuff. And yes, we think of North Korea, especially its dictators, as lunatics. They aren’t. They’re some of the most rational leaders in the world.
Of course, they’re also horrific people who do unspeakably horrific things to human beings and don’t let their people engage in any capacity with the rest of the world. The place is Mars even to South Koreans, who only a few decades ago shared their country and culture. But Kim Jong Un was educated in Switzerland. He knows something about the world, and he’s not crazy. Like I said, he’s one of the most predictable leaders in the world, if not the most, once you understand what North Korea wants:
To stay in power.
That’s it. North Korea is a small, very weak country, and they know they don’t stand a chance should the world (read: China) decide enough is enough. The only way the regime can stay in power is if it has an enormous bargaining chip, and it’s 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.
What’s more, they already have the technology to make a nuclear bomb. Right now, they’re just working on their miniaturization program, trying to find a way to make a bomb small enough they can put it on a warhead and threaten San Francisco. We estimate this will take something like two to five years.
And then there’s China: they eventually want to control the region. That means at some point they’ll have to cut the North Korea anchor, because as long as they support NK, they won’t get anywhere with Japan or South Korea.
All in all, Kim Jong Un has only two options: do it or don’t. That means that this weekend, there are:
1. North Korea doesn’t go through with test.
So far, the country hasn’t backed down from a nuclear test yet. Plus, they’ve conducted several missile tests already this year. Also, they always demonstrate some show of force on or around April 15, which is the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the country’s first leader, and is the country’s most important holiday. But perhaps this time they take the US threat seriously. After all, they saw we carried out a retaliatory strike in Syria (though that was a limited, precision strike).
If so, it’s a huge victory for Trump. The entire international dynamic in Asia would have changed in our favor; North Korea possibly comes to the negotiating table again; China actually helps us out; and Trump celebrates a very special Mar-a-Lago Easter.
2. North Korea goes through with the test
This has some suboptions.
A) We don’t attack. The status quo continues, and North Korea keeps advancing its program. But this also means peace. And remember, though time is running short, we still have years to work on this problem, and China has incentive to help. Trump celebrates a very special Mar-a-Lago Easter.
B) We attack and North Korea backs down. If we attack, it’ll likely be a precision attack on the test site, possibly other known North Korean missile and nuke sites. Kinda like what we did in Syria, but with a lot more on the line. Such an attack has to be strong enough to convince KJU that the United States not only is exponentially more powerful, but is serious about its threat to use that power. The attack also must be soft enough that it allows KJU to save face if he doesn’t retaliate. Either that, or China somehow convinces KJU to back down from a war. Trump celebrates a very special Mar-a-Lago Easter.
C) We attack and North Korea retaliates. We respond to the test by taking out strategic North Korea nuclear sites. Even if North Korea responds moderately, that will escalate in the region, considering Japan and South Korea’s fears. Eventually, Seoul goes up in flames, because NK has a ton of conventional missiles aimed there already. Possibly, a million people die there 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 (which just moved 150,000 troops to the NK border) either seals the border so North Koreans don’t flee by the many thousands, meaning probably some sort of conflict there, or comes down and supports . . . who the fuck knows which side?
No matter what happens now, it’s an incomprehensibly large 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 US wins this war though. 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 Russia.
Trump celebrates a very special Mar-a-Lago Easter and then resigns.
D) We don’t get all their nukes because many are on mobile launchers. North Korea goes full-out batshit and launches, or tries to, the possibly functional nukes it might have, targeting South Korea and maybe Japan. (Seoul still goes up in flames, no matter if the missiles work.)
More options: Trump’s call. Either i) nuke Pyongyang to teach the world what happens if you use nukes (I know, I know); or ii) full-on invade and destroy the regime.
If option i (nuke em): What the fuck? Those people are 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?
If option ii (invade): How the fuck did the United States of America allow a game show host to get us into a ground war involving China, in Asia, in LESS THAN THREE MONTHS?
Who the fuck knows? I work with North Korean experts, people who have actually lived there, and they can’t say whether Kim would attack, or whether he’d try to go nuclear. The questions here are: how apocalyptic he is and how badly his generals want to launch a coup and avert a war. We simply don’t know.
But if I know my Trump, he’s a scared little boy who, above all, doesn’t want to upset the ever-present ghost of his disapproving father. Trump, when the chips are down, won’t want to be responsible for the deaths of perhaps millions of innocent people. If Kim doesn’t back down, I think Trump will.
What, are you outraged because that would make us “look weak”? Is killing millions of people, innocent people who can’t defend themselves, an image of strength? Is that murder even worth making other countries think America is strong, as if we’re not seen as strong already? Do you think other countries will just go ahead and launch attacks because the only thing stopping them from doing it right now is the threat of America? If you think that, then you can’t also think the world thinks America looks weak.
This all might seem plausible in your head, but it’s not how the world works. It’s not even how middle school works. Bullies are dicks. They’re lonely and have no friends and do poorly in school, and no one likes them, and no one respects them, and no one wants to help them. The first chance someone gets, he’s going to humiliate the bully. And in the real geopolitical world, if we act that way, it only translates as being cruel, vindictive, and dangerous. It makes us look like a bully and cripples our credibility and capacity to lead. We won’t be respected. We’ll have a target on our back, and eventually, like the bully, we’ll fall, one way or another. The world is stronger than America.
No, despite the hyperbole on the far left, Trump won’t want to kill millions of people just to “look strong.” He’ll face the fact that he’s just going to be a sad sack of shit until the end. If we’re that lucky, the GOP better learn its lesson and get this toupeed national security threat the fuck out of the White House.