Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 June 2018

North Korea Facts and Myth

[For my second post on training new voters, click here. For a brief, preliminary reaction to Trump’s and Kim’s meeting in Singapore, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

1. North Korea can destroy or maim Seoul, on command, without nuclear weapons; and there’s not much anyone could do to stop it

2. North Korea’s nuclear program only increases North Korea’s pre-existing menace toward the South

3. The real significance of the North’s nuclear program is to expand the North’s menace geographically, from South Korea to the entire Earth, including especially Japan, all of Southeast Asia and even the United States.

4. Kim can never actually use his nuclear arsenal because doing so would end his own life, his twisted regime’s existence, and his country’s survival

5. At the moment, Kim’s global nuclear menace is only nascent and theoretical

6. Kim’s aims are unknown but cannot include war

7. Diplomacy’s the thing with which to capture the conscience of the Kim


It’s hard to see straight through the fog that chills our lives: Trump’s and Kim’s lies, bluster and “show,” Fox’ propaganda, other pols’ lies and “spin,” and long-held assumptions about North Korea that may or may not still apply. Together, the foggers create something like the proverbial “fog of war,” before the fact.

So let’s start by marshaling the bare facts about North Korea—things we really know. Then we can address the speculations and fears and maybe come to some rational conclusions. We take the facts in rough order of their importance for diplomacy.

1. North Korea can destroy or maim Seoul, on command, without nuclear weapons; and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it.

North Korea has some 10,000 conventional rockets and artillery pieces hidden within range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. These weapons are under camouflage and in caves and tunnels, just across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The nearest parts of Seoul are just 35 miles from the DMZ, which separates North from South Korea.

This menace has nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear programs. North Korea has had this capability since at least eleven years ago, when I wrote an essay about it. Apparently, the North’s conventional weapons are well-enough dispersed, hidden and/or buried that even a surprise nuclear assault on them could not reliably neutralize them, at least not without threatening Seoul itself with radiation and radioactive fallout.

This is the primary reason why our expert military leaders uniformly believe that “there is no military solution” to the dispute between the North and South or the North and the US. The North holds a gun to Seoul’s head. In any war, the first hour would see thousands of conventional weapons rain down on Seoul, causing tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties, all without a single nuclear blast.

Seoul is modern marvel of a city and a gem of Asia. It was even eleven years ago. It is also and one of the world’s best advertisements for liberal democracy. In less than seventy years, Seoul in a democratic South Korea has risen from the rubble of the Korean War, which made it look much like Aleppo today. It’s now an extraordinarily impressive example of the constructive and creative power of our species at peace. So no one in the West wants to see the gun to its head fire.

2. North Korea’s nuclear program only increases North Korea’s pre-existing menace toward the South.

South Korea is one of those countries in which the capital city has extraordinary predominance. It’s not just a commercial center, a governmental center, and a political center, but all three combined. For South Koreans, it’s like a single city combining New York and Washington, D.C., Moscow and St. Petersburg, or Rome and Milan.

So insofar as concerns the South, the North’s nuclear weapons add little to its existential threat. Destruction is destruction, whether by conventional or nuclear means. The North’s nuclear weapons, if used against Seoul, would merely make the destruction quicker and (due to fallout and radiation) longer-lasting.

3. The real significance of the North’s nuclear program is to expand North’s menace geographically, from South Korea to the entire Earth, including especially Japan, all of Southeast Asia and even the United States.

Before the recent success of Kim’s nuclear program, nothing that Kim controlled raised a direct threat outside the Korean Peninsula. All of Kim’s armies and weapons were focused there, most within striking distance of the DMZ. Now Kim’s nuclear weapons, combined with his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), make North Korea a potential threat to its neighbors, the United States and (in theory) the entire world.

This is why it’s absurd to think that President Trump “sold the store” to Kim merely by agreeing to meet with him. Before the North’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the diplomatic nicety of reserving presidential meetings for concluding significant agreements might have applied. But no longer.

Once Kim had a stash of nuclear weapons, demonstrated by actual tests, and missiles that can reach most of the civilized world, his twisted regime became, ipso facto, a player in global politics. Now we must all take North Korea seriously—more seriously than we take Israel, India, Pakistan and (if it ever goes nuclear) Iran. For unlike, Korea, all of these countries have shown no interest in global threats or becoming a global menace; they fear their neighbors alone.

It’s troubling and sad that Kim has chosen the path of arms and threats to achieve global status and improve his country, rather than cooperation, alliances and trade. But facts are facts.

We Americans used to deal with facts as such. Yet recently our ability to accept facts and reason from them has taken multiple hard hits. It has suffered from a generation of Fox propaganda and Republican “small government” dogma, from the apotheosis of “spin,” PR and sensationalism in our media, and from a focus on what amounts to gossip (Trump’s lies and most of his Tweets) rather than facts and hard analysis. The daily “news” creates such a dense fog of irrelevancies that’s hard for the best of us to think through. But think we must, lest our inability to reason turn our present gentle national decline into a rout.

4. Kim can never actually use his nuclear arsenal because doing so would end his own life, his twisted regime’s existence, and his country’s survival.

North Korea is a small country in both population and area. It’s 2016 population was less than 25.5 million. That’s less than the population of Greater Tokyo. In area, North Korea is less than 10% larger than Honduras. It if came to that, two or three 50-megaton bombs could completely wipe North Korea off the face of the Earth, killing Kim and the vast majority of his population.

The United States could deliver those bombs by several means, including stealth bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched cruise missiles. North Korea has no viable defenses against any of these means of delivery. Nor does it have viable defenses against any of the the other means of attack, involving less “collateral damage,” that our armament makes possible.

Kim is a smart man, far more intelligent and well-educated than our current president. He was educated in Switzerland and reportedly speaks English and French. He has had his entire lifetime to gather strategic intelligence about his small nation’s geopolitical status and position. No doubt he is privy to both Chinese and Russian assessments of the United States’ weapons and capabilities.

So it is inconceivable (though remotely possible) that Kim thinks he or his regime can survive a nuclear exchange with the United States. A single expert within his regime—and he undoubtedly has many—would disabuse him of that fantasy in a microsecond.

5. At the moment, Kim’s global nuclear menace is only nascent and theoretical.

By observed testing, Kim has demonstrated two essential military technologies that work: his nukes and his ICBMs. But engineering reality requires two additional complex technologies before his nuclear capability can threaten Kim’s neighbors or the world. First, he must be able to miniaturize his nuclear warheads to fit them on the tips of missiles. Second, he must be able to harden those warheads to survive the furnace-like heat that an ICBM generates when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

There is no evidence that Kim has developed either of these technologies. In theory, he might test them secretly. But only small nukes can be tested in caves or caverns without showing up on seismographic records or releasing radiation into the atmosphere, where it can be detected downwind. (Here the small size of Kim’s nation is a decided disadvantage; there’s not much space to hide exploding nukes underground.)

The only way to be sure that miniaturized warheads work and can survive re-entry is to test them on real ICBMs and cause real nuclear explosions far from the launch pad. Kim has never done that.

Kim is probably reluctant to do that for two reasons. First, any such test would enrage the world, including all nuclear powers, which have avoided atmospheric nuclear tests since the 1960s. (Such tests pollute the atmosphere with radioactive fallout, some of which preferentially ends up in milk and human thyroid glands.) Second, North Korea’s geographic position creates the risk of such a test falling on the territory of an ally like China, or on the territory of adversaries (virtually all the rest of Asia). That kind of accidental catastrophe might produce crushing sanctions from China (which accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade), or an accidental war.

There are other engineering challenges, too. North Korea’s ballistic-missile tests have all used high arcs to not-so-remote ocean targets, probably in an effort to reduce, as much as possible, the risk of hitting anyone else’s territory by accident or mistake. From the height and length of those high arcs, scientists can calculate the theoretical range of Kim’s missiles. Hence the fear of hitting US cities.

But those calculations are only theoretical. There is no evidence that Kim’s missiles have the precise aiming and/or guidance mechanisms needed to send an ICBM accurately to a city a continent away. The only hard evidence to show such capability would be a missile test naming a far-flung ocean-based target in advance and hitting it accurately. North Korea has never made such a test, nor, apparently, has any planned.

6. Kim’s aims are unknown but cannot include war.

Kim’s precise aims are hard to fathom. He’s the leader of the worlds’ most isolated, totalitarian nation, analogous to a medieval monarch in the twenty-first century. China is Kim’s only real friend, and Xi Jinping, apparently, isn’t talking. So apart from re-reading Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” or scraping up crumbs from the table of China’s intelligence, there isn’t much we Americans can do to gauge Kim’s precise aims. Talking with him personally, as President Trump is doing, may give us some clues.

But Kim cannot want war for two reasons. First, a nuclear war would destroy him and his regime and/or Seoul. But unifying Korea under his own rule has to be Kim’s wet dream. You don’t destroy what you covet and want to acquire, namely Seoul and the South.

Second, like many tyrannies, Kim’s absolute rule depends on his people believing that they are under constant and serious threat of attack. In an instant, a first-strike by Kim himself would give the lie to that myth and might result in Kim’s assassination. To maintain control over his people, Kim must maintain the myth that the South and the US are about to attack any minute, while the attack never comes.

7. Diplomacy’s the thing with which to capture the conscience of the Kim.

If somehow the West could suddenly make the entire North Korean people believe that they are under no threat, Kim’s regime might collapse overnight. But that’s impossible, because Kim’s people have been isolated from global information and fully propagandized from birth. Kim appears to understand that this cannot go on forever, let alone as the North comes into greater contact with the Internet and global commerce, which it must do to evolve as a nation.

So Kim must walk a fine tightrope. He must maintain the myth of imminent attack at the same time as he talks with the West (and with China!) about reducing tensions and opening his country up. But he must not reduce tensions so suddenly as to give the lie to the myth that has kept his family in absolute power for three generations.

One key to his intentions will be further testing, if any, of his nukes and missiles. It’s remotely possible that the talks are, for Kim, only a delaying tactic while his scientists and engineers solve the remaining problems to give his nukes a real global reach. Far more likely, however, is that Kim already has what he wants from his nuclear program: for the first time the US and the world are taking him seriously, despite his abysmal human-rights record and his regime’s long list of criminal conduct (including, probably, giving nuclear technology to Pakistan). The US, at least, is no longer relegating its talks with him to underlings; our president himself is involved.

Like it or not, Kim Jong-Un is now at the center of the global stage and occupying much of the world’s attention. Like it or not, the US is offering serious concessions for the first time in the two-plus decades of talks. Like it or not, the US government is yielding to the reality that arrogance and the demand “you concede first,” imposed on a much weaker, smaller party, has achieved zero results in twenty-four years and counting.

So there’s a lot of room to talk and make a deal. It’s not a question of nuclear war strategy. Any nuclear war between the United States and North Korea would result in the extinction of the Kim family and North Korea, whatever horrors might happen in a few American cities. What we are witnessing is more like rehabilitating a criminal about to have served his sentence, who does not quite know how to re-enter civil society. It’s a delicate balance requiring empathy and sensibility, but it’s well within the capability of smart men of good will.


The key thing to understand about the talks with North Korea is that they will inevitably be delicate and frustrating and take a long time. Part of the problem is the inherent ambivalence of Kim’s position. If the US and the South make too many concessions too early, the myth of imminent attack that has kept the Kim family in power will be debunked. If the US makes concessions too few or too late, Kim may get nervous and revert to threats and provocations, inflaming the US public and much of the world. So diplomacy will require a delicate balance and will take time.

The second concluding point relates to Kim. His personal isolation and absolute power made it unlikely for him ever to accept the results of dealing with US underlings. Now that President Trump is involved personally, he’s paying attention. He no doubt believes (not without reason!) that the success so far of his nuclear program is responsible for the serious attention he’s now getting. But he has agreed to suspend it, temporarily.

That suspension is of course open to instant reversal at his order. But his suspending it suggests that he, too, is open to dealing and is not running helter-skelter toward a suicidal nuclear conflict.

The third point relates to our Congress. Kim is no doubt aware that Trump is an extraordinarily controversial president. In canceling the Iran deal for the US, Trump has shown Kim irrevocably that one president’s word is not the United States’ bond. Kim probably knows enough about US history and government to demand that any final agreement be in the form of a treaty, which must be ratified by the Senate. So ratified, it becomes a formal and irrevocable commitment of the US government, which can be terminated or modified legally only according to its terms.

If the talks do produce a treaty, that will be good for everyone. It will give Kim confidence to trust the US’ word and to open more to global society. It will give North Korea’s people confidence that they are no longer under threat of imminent attack. Here at home, it will give Democrats and Republicans an opportunity to work together for something real, and to make sure that Trump hasn’t given away the store. And it will encourage our representatives and our people to restore the balance of foreign-affairs power between the Executive and legislative branches that our Founders intended.

Finally, since the talks will take a long time, they should proceed in stages, perhaps even separate treaties. Bill Clinton has suggested that the first step might involve a pledge of North Korea, for suitable reciprocal concessions, not to transfer its nuclear or missile technology to anyone else. Such a commitment of course would require verification, perhaps even monitoring of communications to certain suspect nations (such as Iran) and the searching of ships. More intrusive verification, involving searches of North Korea’s own internal military facilities, could come later, after compliance with earlier, less intrusive measures had developed a certain level of trust.

Insofar as North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is concerned, there is no alternative but making a sensible deal. Nuclear war is not an option. The reversible commitments made so far by both sides—the US suspension of “war games” with the South and the North’s suspension of testing nukes and missiles, are good first steps.

The goal of the talks will be to reduce the North’s and Kim’s paranoia and induce North Korea’s gradual transition from nuclear Sparta to something resembling a modern Athens. The transition will no doubt occupy several US presidential administrations, as have the failed talks so far. If Donald J. Trump can make a good start in the process, that will be one of the few genuine and lasting achievements of his time in the White House. In contrast, everything else he has done, including his immigration policy, his chipping away at Obamacare and his tax cuts, can be reversed or nullified by a Democratic president and Congress.

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