“’What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,’” Tillerson said. “’I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself.’” He said the U.S. “’will defend itself and its allies.’

“The comments put Tillerson once again in the role of translating the president’s aggressive rhetoric into more diplomatic terms, and of working to minimize the chances of public panic. In fact, Tillerson argued that North Korea’s escalating threats indicated it was feeling the pressure from a successful U.S. strategy.”

After the State Department has issued its position, the US Department of Defense issued the following statement by the Secretary of Defense, General Mattis:

“The United States and our allies have the demonstrated capabilities and unquestionable commitment to defend ourselves from an attack. Kim Jong Un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice, and statements from governments the world over, who agree the DPRK poses a threat to global security and stability.  The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.

“President Trump was informed of the growing threat last December and on taking office his first orders to me emphasized the readiness of our ballistic missile defense and nuclear deterrent forces. While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.  The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

The rhetoric is not consistent.  The inconsistency may be deliberate.  There are those who believe that the Administration is following a “Madman Theory” of diplomacy, a reference to a ploy used by President Nixon in bargaining with North Vietnam during the peace negotiations.  Nixon instructed his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to warn the North Vietnamese that Nixon was “out of control” and might amplify the bombing of North Vietnam if progress was not made in the peace negotiations.  Those threats also included a nuclear alert that was intended to send a message to the Soviet Union to stop supporting North Vietnamese intransigence.

If the Trump Administration is following the Madman Theory then it should also know that Nixon’s ploy failed.  It failed because North Vietnam was more committed to its policy than the US was to its policy–North Vietnam was willing to suffer more damage than the US was willing–not capable, but willing–to inflict.  Thus, the question is whether North Korea is more committed than the US is on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The US could probably overthrow the North Korean regime if it decided to bring the full force of its military power to bear.  I hesitate to accept that outcome as quickly as others appear to be.  There is considerable evidence that regimes are far more durable than most Americans assume.  It took time for the US to overthrow Hussein in Iraq in 2003, it has failed to overthrow Assad in Syria, it was unable to even find Osama bin Laden for almost 9 years.  Military power failed to achieve objectives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba.

But the costs of that effort would be very high for American allies, particularly South Korea and Japan.  The US is concerned that North Korea could potentially hit the American homeland with nuclear weapons at some point in the future; North Korea already has the ability to do so with South Korea and Japan.  If the US attacked North Korea with its full might, then there is nothing that the US could do to stop an attack upon its allies.  The missile defense systems already deployed in those countries are touted as eminently reliable.  They have never been tested in combat and just one failure of those systems would be catastrophic. Moreover, North Korea would not even need to use nuclear weapons to attack South Korea.  It has substantial conventional weaponry to inflict serious damage on the South Korean population.  According to Secretary Mattis in an interview with Meet the Press:

“A conflict in North Korea, John, would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes. Why do I say this? The North Korean regime has hundreds of artillery cannons and rocket launchers within range of one of the most densely populated cities on earth, which is the capital of South Korea.”

So the real question for the US is: how many non-American lives is it willing to sacrifice?  The answer to that question is probably not very many unless North Korea struck first.

The other side of the calculation is how committed North Korea is to its nuclear program?  Why does it refuse to even put the issue of its nuclear capabilities on the negotiating table?

There is little question that North Korea believes that nuclear weapons are its only defense against an American invasion.  Most Americans do not take this matter seriously enough because few Americans believe that the US intends to overthrow the Kim Jong-un regime.  However, analysts need to shed such preconceptions in order to understand the situation more clearly.

First, it is interesting that most Americans do not take the rhetoric of their government seriously.  The rhetoric about North Korea has been unremittingly hostile since the onset of the Korean War in 1950.  There is little to commend about the way North Korea is governed and its human rights abuses are despicable.  But North Korea was not, until very recently, a strategic threat to the US.  North Korea has witnessed the US overthrow of governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Cuba (1961) as well as numerous interventions in the internal affairs of other states such as the Congo in 1960 and Chile in 1973.

Second, North Korea refers to two historical examples of nations where the regime was overthrown by the US and attributes those overthrows to the absence of nuclear capabilities:  Libya and Iraq.

Iraq was on the “axis of evil” along with Iran and North Korea.  The phrase was coined by US President George W. Bush in 2002 after the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.  In March 2003, Iraq was invaded by the US ostensibly to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and the regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown and he was subsequently hung.  North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq. The implication was clear: North Korea believed that if Iraq had had a nuclear capability, the US would not have invaded it.  North Korea was not going to run the risk.

In December of 2003, Libya renounced its nuclear program, induced to do so by promises from Great Britain and the US that they would cease efforts to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddaffi.  However, in 2011, amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the US and its NATO allies bombed Libya and targeted Gaddaffi’s locations with aerial bombardment.  Ultimately, Gaddaffi was overthrown and murdered in the streets. Again, the North Koreans believed that Gaddaffi would not have been overthrown if he had had nuclear weapons.

We characterize North Korea as “irrational”.  However, it has clearly chosen a very risky strategy that it believes is its only defense against an American invasion.  And, so far, that strategy has worked.

 

On this day in 1995, Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia died.  Peace out, Jerry.