Got the Pyongyang Blues Again

September 8, 2017–There is a troubling quality to the way this North Korea crisis is ballooning before our eyes. Kim Jong Un’s armaments program is not a phony issue, but neither was the Pakistani nuclear program, the Indian one, the Israeli or, for that matter, the Chinese or French. But, with the exception of the Pakistanis, with whom a few hotheads indulged in fantasies of SOF raids; and the Chinese, made the object of higher-level but equally unrealistic maunderings; no one has threatened anyone conducting weapons development with nuclear war. Those who are analogizing the North Korea matter to the Cuban missile crisis are pouring accelerant onto the pile and playing with matches. The Cuban crisis involved real nuclear-tipped missiles, not hypothetical (that is, technology currently still in R&D) ones, and reliable systems that without doubt put the United States in the crosshairs. The North Korean threat exists mostly in the rhetoric of Pyongyang’s ruler.

As if that were not bad enough, people who should know better are speaking of pre-emptive attack as a rational way out of this morass. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, apart from its many other defects, had the deplorable aspect of suggesting that pre-emption is an admissible form of war. In the bad old days of theorizing about nuclear conflict, analysts conceived pre-emption as a means of blunting the adversary’s nuclear attack by launching upon warning, but in those concepts the war was underway and the pre-emption effectively preserved forces. In its most urgent form this tactic was described as “launch-under-attack.” What we’re hearing today is people talking seriously about “launch-upon-test,” or “launch-upon-speech.” What we’re hearing is ridiculous.

One woman’s pre-emption is another person’s aggression. At Nuremberg an allied world sent people to the gallows for waging aggressive war. The United States helped create the framework of international law that criminalizes aggression. Today there exists an International Criminal Court that could sit in judgment of aggressors. A United States act of force against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would invite that kind of treatment. Moreover, taken together with Bush administration action against Iraq, it would brand the U.S. as a repeat offender. This is no place for us to be.

Just as bad, a pre-emption against the DPRK invokes the issue of war powers in U.S. law. I hate to add to the pile of things which Congress hasn’t done, but the muddled constitutional issue of authorization for war should be high on the list. The Constitution gives the Congress the sole power to declare war. Consider this: if Donald Trump launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea he will be making war, aggressive war–and if he uses nuclear weapons he will be breaking a taboo that has existed since the one time the nuclear threshold was breached–and that will be without any approval from the body with the constitutional authority for war. It will also be in the face of the War Powers Act. The way this is usually pitched in the U.S. is the president relies on his constitutional power as commander-in-chief of the military. So you can have an aggression, even a nuclear attack, unleashed without congressional approval, by a president with little skill or knowledge of foreign affairs, in “launch-upon-test” mode. What a mess!

Today’s papers contain more deplorable news. The New York Times actually discusses pre-emption as one of the possible remedies to the DPRK weapons program. But its casting of the action involves the idea that U.S. attackers would blow up single North Korean missiles on the launch pad, sort of like kicking over each ant hill as it is built. No doubt some dim official or military officer retailed that idea as an option for arresting the DPRK program. But how do you think Kim is going to respond when the DPRK is struck by force? When you’re speaking of military “practicality,” it is clear that the only feasible option is to simultaneously destroy all North Korean test facilities, all nuclear plants, command centers, air bases, potential weapons bunkers, and more. Since the DPRK’s missiles are road-mobile, the pre-emption would have to include total area destruction of all potential deployment zones for Kim’s missiles. The only way you accomplish that is with nuclear weapons. This is not “tank plinking” in the Gulf War it is massive aggression.

Not to be outdone, today’s Washington Post carries a piece by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell that argues the DPRK already has a functional intercontinental nuclear attack capability. He suggests that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. shares that view. Readers of this space will know we have long labeled Clapper the “Fearful Leader” for his propensity to maximize the perceptible threat. He may be hedging against the CIA being accused of an intelligence failure in the case of North Korea–I was asked just yesterday whether I thought such a failure has occurred. Morell correctly argues against a pre-emptive attack–but he comes out saying that pre-emption may lead to just what Americans want to avoid, a nuclear strike on a U.S. city. There are two points to be made about that statement–first, Morell is thinking of pre-emption as nuke-plinking (as above); second, he confirms our sketch of the “practical” pre-emption option. You can see why we have the Pyongyang Blues.


Mr. Clapper Goes to Pyongyang

November 10, 2014–If there is a senior U.S. official in need of some good PR–other than President Barack Obama, of course– that person would be General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). So, unlike when Clapper denied under Senate questioning that hundreds of millions of citizens are being spied upon by the NSA, last week when the opportunity arose for a good photo op Clapper was right on the case. Even better, the occasion was a quintessential feel-good moment–when American citizens are being released from hard labor in a hostile land and Clapper can be seen to be rescuing them.

Kenneth Bae, held by the North Koreans for two years, has been in declining health, in and out of hospitals. The Koreans alleged he’d planned a “religious coup d’état”–a novel way to characterize Christian evangelical proselytizing. Matthew Todd Miller reportedly sought to defect. He entered North Korea this past spring, destroyed his visa, and reportedly sought asylum. The North Koreans prosecuted him instead–and sentenced Miller to hard labor for “unruly behavior.”  Pyongyang’s release of the two Americans comes on top of another liberation last month. It’s an odd sort of charm offensive the Koreans are up to, but they have done it before. Lately the state of that nation–and even the status of its dictator, Kim Jong-un–have been uncertain, and Kim may need all the help he can get.

North Korea is an enigmatic nation. Its leaders have received basketball stars as potentates, politicians as government emissaries, and senior diplomats as the equivalent of heads of state. The seizure of foreign nationals as bargaining chips, and the presentation of visits from foreign officials as tokens of international esteem, seem to have become standard devices in Pyongyang’s tool box–as have missile tests and preparations for nuclear explosions.

But don’t ask the CIA! North Korea has been a “denied area” in the agency’s jargon, a place into which it is impossible to insert spies, recruit enemy agents, or obtain much information at all. At the moment the spooks have not even decided whether Mr. Kim is still alive, much less the status of his power in Pyongyang, or whether North Korea has a weaponized nuclear warhead for its latest-generation missiles.

The Obama White House portrayed General Clapper as having gone to listen to what the North Koreans would like to say to us. He is a senior enough official to satisfy Pyongyang that Washington is serious about dealing with them, and he can be depended upon to relay North Korea’s messages to Washington. If Clapper’s quick visit last weekend encouraged Kim Jong-un out of hiding, the CIA may even get an intelligence windfall out of this operation.

On the other hand, Fearful Leader Clapper can be expected to retail North Korean developments in the most alarming light possible. Back in mid-October, at a conference held at the University of Texas, Clapper was virtually taking a victory lap on the war on terror–underlining observations in this space previously about the extent to which the real terrorism threat has receded. But that means the DNI and CIA need a new threat to help fill their rice bowls. which can help shield U.S. intelligence budgets from the chopping block during the months ahead. And the photo-0p rescuing Americans from a despotic regime shows General Clapper in an active, positive role. I, for one, would be more comfortable with a DNI who was less political.