What’s really happening in North Korea

Six essential reads to understand the problem on the Korean Peninsula

Let me give you the punchline right up front: For the United States, there is no good solution to theNorth Korean “problem.” If all you want is the bottom line, that’s it. In the rest of this edition, I’ll attempt to explain why as succinctly as I can. The postscript is a little more imaginative this week, I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

Read widely. Read wisely.
- Max

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6 Recommended Readings on North Korea

1. Why North Korea Is Testing So Many Missiles
There are all sort of theories — none of them comforting

in The Economist (5 min)

Four theories to explain why North Korea continues to push the political envelope with weapons testing.


IT IS as if Kim Jong Un wants to be seen to be flinging his explosive toys about with ever more abandon. In recent months his rocketmen have fired off missiles in one test after another, often with the young, overfed dictator gleefully looking on. During his first two years in power (2012 and 2013), North Korea launched just eight missiles in total. Over the following three years, there were 15 tests a year on average. The tempo has risen again this year, with five firings since May 10th, when Moon Jae-in was inaugurated as president of South Korea. Rumours of a fresh underground nuclear test, which would be NorthKorea’s sixth, are growing. Korea-watchers are increasingly wondering what’s behind the ballistic frenzy.

2. Who Is Kim Jong-un?

by Andrew Nathan in The New York Review of Books (15 min)

Terrific insight into the rise of Kim Jong-un and the national culture of North Korea. Well worth reading.

The pudgy cheeks and flaring hairdo of North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un, his bromance with tattooed and pierced former basketball star Dennis Rodman, his boy-on-a-lark grin at missile firings, combine incongruously with the regime’s pledge to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire.” They elicit a mix of revulsion and ridicule in the West. Many predict that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot survive much longer, given its pervasive poverty, genocidal prison camp system identified by a UN commission of inquiry as committing crimes against humanity,1 self-imposed economic isolation, confrontations with all of its neighbors, and its leader’s youth and inexperience.
But North Korea’s other closest neighbors, the Chinese, have never expected the DPRK to surrender or collapse, and so far they have been correct.

3. How ‘Crazy’ Are the North Koreans?
by Joel Wit in The New York Times (5 min)

The main argument here: North Korea has succeeded despite the odds partly because we haven’t taken them seriously enough.

Reminds me of the analysis following Trump’s election and that famous line: His opponents took Trump literally but not seriously while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I take my hat off to the North Koreans. They have played their cards extremely well. Despite this episodic outrage, they have managed to become a full-fledged small nuclear power with a growing and increasingly sophisticated arsenal. Moreover, even as they have moved down the nuclear path, they have maintained fairly normal political, economic and other relations with many countries from China to Ethiopia. In effect, a large number of countries have tacitly accepted North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
How has the North been able to do this? There are, of course, wonky answers: Unilateral and multilateral sanctions haven’t been forceful enough, negotiators haven’t been tough enough. But a big reason you will not often hear is that Americans and the international community have a comic book image of North Korea. We simply don’t take them seriously.

4. What Does North Korea Want? An Expert Analyst on What’s Behind the Regime’s Provocations.

by Isaac Chotiner in Slate (8 min)

Interview with B.R. Myers, an analyst of North Korean propaganda and ideology at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and the author of The Cleanest Race and North Korea’s Juche Myth.

Selection from the article:
The goal of [North Korean] nuclear armament is not mere security from U.S. attack, which conventional weaponry trained on Seoul has preserved since 1953 — and through far greater crises than George W. Bush’s little “axis of evil” remark in 2002. As every NorthKorean knows, the whole point of the military-first policy is “final victory,” or the unification of the peninsula under North Korean rule. Many foreign observers refuse to believe this, on the grounds that Kim Jong-un could not possibly want a nuclear war. They’re missing the whole point.
North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960.

5. In North Korea, ‘Surgical Strike’ Could Spin Into ‘Worst Kind of Fighting’

by Motoko Rich in The New York Times (14 min)

Another terrific read if you are wondering why the U.S. doesn’t just take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities with an attack.

The standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program has long been shaped by the view that the United States has no viable military option to destroy it. Any attempt to do so, many say, would provoke a brutal counterattack against South Korea too bloody and damaging to risk.
The last time the United States is known to have seriously considered attacking the Northwas in 1994, more than a decade before its first nuclear test. The defense secretary at the time, William J. Perry, asked the Pentagon to prepare plans for a “surgical strike” on a nuclear reactor, but he backed off after concluding it would set off warfare that could leave hundreds of thousands dead.
The stakes are even higher now. American officials believe North Korea has built as many as a dozen nuclear bombs — perhaps many more — and can mount them on missiles capable of hitting much of Japan and South Korea.

6. What Can Trump Do About North Korea? His Options Are Few and Risky

by David Sanger in The New York Times (7 min)

Okay, I know, the third NYT piece in one issue. Sorry but they’ve had good coverage of North Korea and I’m sharing with you some of the best pieces I’ve read.

This one outlines the most discussed strategic options available to the U.S. for dealing with North Korea. Spoiler alert: none of them are good.

Mr. Tillerson…when he visited Seoul in mid-March…told reporters that he would probably reject any solution that would enshrine “a comprehensive set of capabilities” in the North. He has since softened his public comments. Administration officials now suggest that a freeze would not be a solution, but a way station to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula — in other words, an agreement that Mr. Kim would give up all his nuclear weapons and missiles.
But it is now clear that Mr. Kim has no interest in giving up that power. As he looks around the world, he sees cases like that of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, an authoritarian who gave up his nascent nuclear program, only to be deposed, with American help, as soon as his people turned against him. That is what Mr. Kim believes his nuclear program will prevent — an American effort to topple him.
He may be right.
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