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a million “dreamers” is callously rescinded.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
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.
Why, it reminds one of that lovely melody from The Sound of Music...
do you solve a problem like Korea?
leader is nuts and we haven’t got a plan.
he can send an H-Bomb to Chicago,
China, we’re begging you, you gotta lend us a hand!
gang in Pyongyang’s devoted to their dear leader
ready to launch a Seoul-searching riposte
how do we make him bow?
we’ve got to move right now!
Kim Jong-un can take out the whole West Coast.
how do you solve a problem like Korea?
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
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
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
So, you can’t bomb ‘em and you can’t starve ‘em. What is
a global superpower like the United States supposed to do?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.