Sunday, August 26, 2018
Laura and I were invited to a discussion on "the ethics of nuclear
weapons" at the UU Church last night. My late sister was a member of
that church, so it was nice to see a number of her old friends there.
We didn't really prepare for the official topic, but instead spent
most of the time talking about Korea. I wasn't very pleased with the
way the discussion went: mostly, it turned on one person's argument,
an intractable set of beliefs I'd sum up as follows:
- North Korea is controlled by a ruthless dictator, Kim Jong-un,
whose sole goal is to extend his power over the rest of Korea, united
under his rule.
- The only thing that keeps Kim from doing so is the presence and
projection of American military power over Korea.
- That the purpose of Kim's recent diplomatic ventures is to get
Trump to lower America's guard, so North Korea can invade the South.
- That against such a determined foe, the United States shouldn't
do anything to reduce the pressure (like sanctions) on North Korea.
- That the only "happy solution" to this conflict would be for the
North Korean government to abdicate, allowing Korea to be unified
under South Korea's government (like West Germany's absorption of
This is probably a pretty common cluster of beliefs, at least among
people who are old enough to have swallowed whole the dominant American
propaganda line of the late Cold War era, and the self-congratulatory
platitudes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. (At the time,
I likened this to a wrestling match, where one fighter collapses of a
heart attack in the ring, and the other pounces on top of the carcass
to claim victory.) As with most myth, there are kernels of fact buried
in the fantasy.
During WWII, the Soviet Union avoided a two-front war by signing a
non-aggression treaty with Japan, allowing them to concentrate their
war effort against Germany. After Hitler fell, Truman lobbied Stalin
to declare war on Japan. The Soviet Union complied, and two weeks
before the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet
troops invaded the Japanese puppet regime in Manchuria, pushing into
Korea. When Japan surrendered, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to
partition Korea (a Japanese colony since 1910) at the 38th Parallel.
Both powers installed presumably loyal dictators: Kim Il Sung in the
North, Syngman Rhee in the South. Both dictators harbored ambitions
of unifying Korea under their own rule, and started to arrest anyone
they suspected of sympathy for the other.
In June 1950, faced with massive arrests of communist sympathizers
in the South, Kim's forces invaded the South in an attempt to seize
power there. The South's forces were initially overwhelmed, but the
US organized a counterattack and by October had almost completely
conquered the North. At that point, Chinese "volunteers" infiltrated
North Korea, and forced US forces to retreat, eventually establishing
a stalemate along what in 1953 became the armistice line, flanked on
both sides by a demilitarized zone. With both sides claiming the right
to rule the whole of Korea, neither side was willing to declare the
war ended, or to normalize relations. However, 65 years later, despite
much ill will from both sides, that border has held, with neither side
showing any active interest in restarting a war which in 1950-53 had
been utterly devastating.
Since 1953, North and South Korea have evolved in very different
ways. The South eventually overthrew the US-installed dictatorship, and
developed into a flourishing democracy, with a strong export-driven
economy dominated by huge industrial combines. The command economy
in the Communist North grew rapidly through the 1960s, but stalled
after that, while the government itself, with its hugely expensive
military sector, grew increasingly isolated and paranoid. The US and
its allies had always shunned relations with North Korea, and the
North became even more isolated as the Soviet Union collapsed and
China focused increasingly on trade with the West. From the 1990s
on, the only times North Korea managed to get any attention from the
US was when they threatened to develop nuclear weapons -- something
they have now succeeded at, including ICBM rockets that can deliver
nuclear warheads to the continental US.
This raises a whole bunch of questions. To start at what's more
logically the end, why does the US care whether North Korea has nukes?
No nation has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when he US destroyed
two Japanese cities, killing some 250,000 people, but that happened
in a context that we haven't come close to reproducing since: at the
end of a genocidal World War which killed over 50 million people and
left two continents devastated, and at a time when the bombs were new,
poorly understood, and possessed by only one nation, one which had no
reason to fear retaliation. America's nuclear monopoly ended in 1947,
when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, shortly followed
by the UK (which had collaborated in the Manhattan Project), and in
the 1960s by France and China -- and later still by Israel, India,
Pakistan, South Africa (since dismantled), and North Korea..
Many other nations possess the know how and wherewithal to build
nuclear weapons -- the most obvious are Germany and Japan, which
build their own nuclear power plants (actually a good deal more
difficult than bombs: starting a nuclear reaction is much easier
than keeping it from blowing up) -- but others have given serious
thought to the prospect. The reasons should be obvious, but we in
the US have blind spots here. Such weapons are very expensive to
develop, and even more so to maintain. They threaten, but have no
practical utility. There are only two real reasons to develop them:
one is ego -- the idea that mastering nulear power shows the world
that a nation is a truly modern world power -- which seems to be
the main motivation for the UK and France, and has figured into
the calculations elsewhere. The other is to provide a deterrent
against attack by a hostile power: for the Soviet Union, that was
the US; for China the US and/or the Soviet Union; for India and
Pakistan, each other (although India and China had a border war
in the 1960s); for Israel, much larger neighboring Arab countries.
South Africa developed their bombs when they were the last white
colonial appendage left in Africa, and they dismantled them when
the apartheid regime gave up. North Korea, of course, has lived
under the threat of US nuclear weapons since the 1950-53 war
started. At that time, there were loud voices in the US calling
for using A-bombs there. It isn't clear whether those calls were
ever seriously considered, but one might argue that the threat
of Soviet retaliation quashed the idea. And ever since then US
politicians have repeatedly threatened North Korea with their
"all options are on the table" rhetoric. (Insert insane Trump
Given all this, a rational observer would conclude that the sole
reason North Korea developed nuclear weapons and missile delivery
capability was to deter a possible US attack. If the US had no such
plan, on what possible grounds could the US object? Yet the string
of US presidents from Clinton through Trump have repeatedly thrown
tantrums when faced with the prospect that North Korea might do to
us what we could do to them a thousand times over. Rather, they've
turned the issue of North Korea's potential capability into a test
of American power -- one that has clearly failed now. Still, this
is only a problem because American arrogance and obstinacy has made
it one. Trump could unilaterally dismiss this problem by declaring
that the United States has no desire ever to attack or impose its
will on North Korea, but remains confident that it can respond to
North Korean aggression -- even one employing nuclear weapons.
Of course, Trump won't do this, because his administration is
prisoner to a couple of serious misconceptions about how the world
works. Most important, they think that a strong military posture
makes us safe, and that from that position of strength they can
dictate terms the rest of the world will have to comply to. The
former is a stock line of American political debate which goes
back as far as the 1790s when Alexander Hamilton wanted to build
up the US Navy -- ostensibly for defense but more to poke our
noses into excluded colonies (in the 1800s this was rechristened
the Open Door policy; one door it opened was the rise of Japanese
militarism, culminating in WWII). In point of fact, America is
secure because we're a big, rich country that no other power can
intimidate, let alone conquer. On the other hand, spreading US
forces all around the world just invites resistance, making the
US look unjust and vulnerable. Attempting to dictate terms further
sets us up for failure, as we've seen all around the world: Cuba,
Vietnam, all over the Middle East, Venezuela, Ukraine, Korea.
But while most of the Korea problem is strictly in the heads of
politicos in Washington -- note that John Bolton is the worst possible
person to be directing national security -- two other questions need
to be asked: What does North Korea want? And what does South Korea want?
I don't doubt that Kim Il-sung never forgot his dream of reuniting
Korea under his rule, he found it increasingly difficult to mount any
sort of serious challenge, and died in 1994 with the country in crisis.
His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, was 9 when the war started, so it
remained a living memory for him, he took over during a famine and was
preoccupied to his death in 2011 with consolidating his family hold on
power, which he did through a quasi-religious personal cult combined
with a major militarization of society. However, his successor, Kim
Jong-un, wasn't born until 1983, long after the war, his formative
years marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the market reforms
of China, and the rise of South Korea to affluence: very different
circumstances that should prefigure a different approach. I think it's
fair to say that no one in America really understands how politics
works in North Korea -- especially what sort of factions/coalitions
exist and how power shifts between them -- but I think it is telling
that Kim Jong-un hasn't adopted the Great/Dear Leader persona of his
ancestors. He has continued the process of introducing market reforms
started by his father, but those have been hampered by trade limits
imposed by US and UN sanctions. It makes sense that he thinks that
if he can end the sanctions, he can lead North Korea into an era of
much greater prosperity. He just needs to be able to do that without
surrendering political power. (Again, China is the model.) And it's
long been speculated that more than deterrence North Korea's doomsday
assets might be the one trading card the US might pay attention to.
In short, what North Korea wants is security, continuity for the
regime, and economic opportunity. In order to give up major defense
forces, Kim has to be convinced that the US and South Korea aren't
going to take advantage of his weakness and attack or try to subvert
his regime. Trump has as much as said that he would take that deal.
(He'd even be willing to consummate with a Trump golf resort on one
of North Korea's beaches.) The problem doesn't seem to be where both
want to wind up, but Trump's so enthralled by the notion that America
has the power to bully others into submission that he's unwilling to
take the obvious first step in suspending the sanctions (even after
Kim suspended all bomb and missile testing -- the rationale for the
sanctions in the first place).
As for South Korea, it looks like the "happy solution" of the South
absorbing the North into a single country and economy has lost much of
its previous sentimental appeal. The two nations have been separate
for 65 years, and the South has done very well as a result. It would
be nice not to have the military threat the North poses hanging over
them -- e.g., the thousands of pieces of artillery that could reduce
Seoul (metro population 25.6 million) to rubble in hours. Moreover,
they must realize that all these years the US has been "protecting"
them from the North, the US has also been taunting the North, making
their own lives more precarious. Beyond that, of course, opening up
the North to travel and trade would be a plus. Throughout the recent
negotiations, the Moon government has been the essential intermediary
between North Korea and the US, flattering both to reduce tension and
get things done. Moon is in a position where he could force the US to
accept whatever deal he and Kim agree to.
At the meeting we had some discussion of how the "German model"
might apply to Korea. South Korea has about twice the population of
the North (51-25 million), but about 60 times the GDP ($41,388 per
capita vs. $1,800), a much tougher merger case than Germany, where
the West had approximately 4 times the population (63-16 million)
but only six times the GDP ($15,714 per capital vs. $9,679 in the
East. Moreover, only an American would see German reunification as
a "happy ending": it was very difficult, very expensive, and hasn't
worked out all that well (25 years later, East German GDP is still
just 67% of West). The "cold shock" models for converting previously
Communist economies in Russia and Eastern Europe fared even worse
in most cases. Nobody knows how to merge two economies so different,
least of all anyone who thinks it's possible.
Of course, most Americans can't even conceive of such a problem.
But then they also have shown themselves to be remarkably indifferent
to the harm their government thoughtlessly inflicts on other people.
In fact, Republicans don't even seem to care about the harm their
ideological policies and corrupt politics inflict on most Americans.
Some Korea links:
Some scattered links this week:
Lisa Friedman: Cost of New EPA Coal Rules: Up to 1,400 More Death a
Year. As Donald Trump sez: "We love clean, beautiful West Virginia
Eric Lipton: EPA Rule Change Could Let Dirtiest Coal Plants Keep Running
(and Stay Dirty); also:
Brad Plumer: Trump Put a Low Cost on Carbon Emissions. Here's Why It
Matters. For a longer list, see:
76 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump.
Umair Irfan/Emily Stewart: Hurricane Lane weakens to a tropical storm
as heavy winds and rain continue.
Fred Kaplan: Make No Mistake: The Goal of Trump's Iran Policy Is Regime
Change: North Korea is evidently so committed to making some kind
of denuclearization deal with the US that it's chosen to ignore the way
Trump has handled Iran: first by tearing up a deal Obama signed that,
in exchange for relief from economic sanctions, ended any development
that might lead to Iran possessing nuclear weapons, then by piling new
sanctions onto Iran, in the evident hope that those sanctions will drive
the Iranian people to overthrow their government. The main difference
between the two cases is that North Korea actually has nuclear weapons
and an intercontinental missile delivery system, where all Iran had was
centrifuges and some enriched uranium. The obvious lesson here is that
Trump cannot be trusted to make and keep a deal. Also that Trump's true
goal in both cases is not to reach a normal working relationship but to
undermine and end the regime he's dealing with.
Still, there is one difference between Iran and North Korea that
Kaplan doesn't mention: US policy toward Iran is evidently dictated
by Israel and Saudi Arabia, whereas Trump presumably has the autonomy
to formulate his own policy viz. North Korea. (Kaplan does say that
"most military and intelligence officials -- in the United States,
Europe, and Israel -- support the deal," but obviously Netanyaho's
strident opposition to the Iran deal carries more weight with Trump.)
Ezra Klein: The truth about the Trump economy: Not the whole truth,
not even nothing but the truth. The main point seems to be that top-line
economic indicators since Trump became president are not much different
from the later years under Obama. (Subtitle: "Did Trump unleash an economic
miracle, or take credit for Obama's work?") The most obvious thing missing
is any analysis of distribution trends under Trump. Increasing inequality
has meant that virtually all of the gains from economic growth have gone
to an ever-thinner slice of the wealthiest: the 1%, the 0.1%, etc. Obama
did little to slow that trend down -- a modest increase in marginal tax
rates had a little impact, but didn't change the fundamentals driving
inequality. Trump, on the other hand, has done a couple of things that
are already exacerbating inequality. First, of course, is a massive tax
cut that especially benefits corporations. Secondly, Trump's deregulation
agenda lets businesses cut corners and engage in riskier, more careless
behavior, including fraud. Both of these have increased speculation and
fueled a stock bubble, which in the short term disproportionately favors
the already rich. These top-line figures give Republican flacks lots of
positive talking points, but you have to wonder who will believe them.
I doubt, for instance, that most Trump voters have seen or will see any
real gains in their living standards, or hopes for their children. Of
course, the donors who spent millions getting Trump/Republicans elected
are reaping huge returns, but there aren't many such people. And even
them haven't factored in the downsides: risks compound, bubbles burst,
pollution and corruption accumulate, unattended infrastructure decays,
and unjustly impoverished people grow bitter.
Paul Krugman: Capitalism, Socialism, and Unfreedom: Intro and
endorsement of two notable pieces:
Corey Robin: The New Socialists, and
Neil Irwin: Are Superstar Firms and Amazon Effects Reshaping the Economy?
Krugman agrees that these authors are right to critique neoliberalism,
and that neoliberalism is the right word for what they're critiquing.
Word of the days; monopsony (markets with only one buyer). Also related here:
Joseph E Stiglitz: Meet the 'Change Agents' Who Are Enabling Inequality:
a review of Anand Giridharadas's book, Winners Take All: The Elite
Chaade of Changing the World. Talks about rich people who want to do
"virtuous side projects instead of doing their day jobs more honorably."
Jill Lepore: Measuring Presidents' Misdeeds: Recalls a survey a
bunch of historians did in the wake of Nixon's scandals, to put them
in perspective by comparing them to scandals of previous presidents.
The historians who undertook the project dropped everything to do it.
"Found not much to tell on F.D.R.; quite a lot under Truman," James
Boylan now recalls. James Banner, who as a young professor at Princeton
wrote the reports on Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, said that he worked
on them out of a sense of the "civic office of the historian." He came
to see a pattern. Serious malfeasance really began with Jackson, reached
a pitch with Buchanan, then quieted down until the Presidencies of Grant
and Harding, but all these shenanigans, he thought, seemed quaint compared
with what Nixon stood accused of. . . .
Those never-befores ought to have become never-agains. But they haven't.
Trump has already done some of them -- not secretly but publicly, gleefully,
and without consequence -- and is under investigation for more. William
Leuchtenburg, ninety-five, supervised the work from T.R. to L.B.J. "However
much Richard Nixon deserved impeachment and the end of his Presidency," he
says, "what he did does not match the Trump Presidency in its malfeasance,
and in the depth of his failure as President."
Cory Massimino: Atrocities in Yemen Speak to Trump's Moral Character:
Well, he doesn't have a moral compass, so of course he doesn't have any
sort of "moral character." In some ways that's refreshing, especially in
contrast to the hawks who try to guilt-trip us into foreign wars, and
the overarching conceit of judging other countries as evil if they don't
show us the submission we deem our due. For instance, when Trump dismisses
charges that Putin has killed his enemies by pointing out that "we kill
people too," he's at least conceding that standards should be universal
(although his standards don't seem to be bothered by killing opponents).
Of course, unlike Trump I do believe that moral principles should govern
one's own actions: in particular, we should not harm other people, nor
should we enable and encourage our so-called allies to harm others --
as we are clearly doing to Yemen.
Ella Nilsen: Sen. Elizabeth Warren just unveiled a dramatic plan to
eradicate Washington corruption: She calls it the Anti-Corruption
and Public Integrity Act, and it has a lot of good things in it. She's
on a roll as far as filing concrete bills to show off major policy
initiatives. Has no chance of passing the current Congress, and not
much chance even if the Democrats win in November.
Joshua Yaffa: How Bill Browder Became Russia's Most Wanted Man:
Long piece on the hedge fund manager who made a fortune in post-communist
Russia but eventually ran afoul of Putin and turned into his nemesis,
evidently responsible for some of the sanctions which currently hamper
Russia. I've read much of this before, but it resonated further after
reading Masha Gessen's The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism
Matthew Yglesias: John McCain, who died at 81, explained: Reviewed
is more like it. I'm not sure anyone can actually explain the various
contradictory impulses that McCain exhibited over his public life. We
live in an age when virtually all Republicans spout their rote talking
points and vote as they are told -- so much so that McCain's actually
infrequent deviations let him be played up as some sort of "maverick."
His willing enablers here were a great many journalists. It's hard to
think of any other political figure over the last 30-40 years who has
so fawned over by the media -- and not just the working press known
for trading favors for access, but even outsiders as talented as David
Foster Wallace, who turned a puff piece on "the straight-talk express"
into a short book. (All the more disappointing given that Wallace had
already wasted the perfect title on another book: Brief Interviews
With Hideous Men.) But then I've never noticed his legendary charm,
much as I've never felt that his so-called principles were rooted in
any genuine concern and respect for other people.
I suspect this all starts with his claim to be a "war hero." As far
as I'm concerned, the only Americans who did anything heroic during the
Vietnam War were the ones who opposed it, and that's something McCain
never did. He was the pampered son of a Navy admiral, a reckless "hot
shot" pilot, who got shot down in one of his bombing runs, and wound up
spending five years in prison while Nixon futilely protracted the war.
American hawks had long used "POW-MIA" soldiers as mascots to further
promote the war, and McCain fit their "hero" profile to a tee, so they
backed his political career, and he pledged undying loyalty to America's
war machine. Indeed, well before 9/11, before Bush's "axis of evil,"
McCain had established himself as America's foremost warmonger. When
he campaigned for president in 2000 he was the clear neocon favorite
(although Bush wound up stocking his administration with the very same
neocons who initially supported McCain). Bad as Bush was, there is no
reason to think McCain wouldn't have made the same horrific mess out
of the "war on terror" -- and indeed when he did differ from Bush, it
was invariably to favor more war (as with his memorable "bomb, bomb,
bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" chant). Even more terrifying was his knee-jerk
reaction to Russia's skirmish with Georgia. He was the most dangerously
unhinged major party presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater (his
immediately predecessor as US Senator from Arizona).
It's possible to pick your way through his career and find respectable
votes and gestures -- something, for instance, you cannot do with Trent
Lott or Mitch McConnell -- but it's harder to tell why he did any given
thing. Most recently he cast a crucial vote to keep the Senate from
repealing the ACA (i.e., more than a year ago). My favorite, for a while
anyway, was when he managed to derail a thoroughly crooked Boeing deal
to convert an obsolete generation of airliners for use as Air Force
tankers. (Eventually, Boeing prevailed, and they're already into cost
overruns and delivery delays, as was easily predicted.)
Other McCain-related links:
Read Senator John McCain's Farewell Statement: Nice thing about having
a ghostwriter is you get to keep writing (and hustling, and jiving) even
after you die.
Ben Norton: John McCain was an extreme right-wing lifelong warmonger. Here
are some of his greatest (bloodiest) hits. A similar, perhaps less
polemical, list (written by Jim Carey in 2017):
A Complete History of John McCain Calling for War Around the World.
Tara Golshan: Donald Trump is continuing his feud with John McCain -- even
after McCain's death: I'm not going to fault Trump for this, not that
he isn't being dumb and petulant. His refusal to step up and say the right
things is the closest he ever comes to integrity. Any other politician
would get in line and say the right things, while subtly trying to usurp
public sympathy into an endorsement of one's own political agenda. And
it's not like McCain didn't support Trump more often than not. Even their
disagreements were often because McCain was even more conservative, and
especially more hawkish, than Trump, but that shouldn't be a problem as
Trump's now laying claim to both of those banners. For pointers, look at
how Obama, Clinton, and Shumer are all fawning over McCain now -- not so
much because they actually respected the weasel as because now that he's
dead they figure they can use him as a wedge against Trump. (There's a
poll somewhere that shows that McCain has much higher approval ratings
among Democrats than Republicans.)
Emily Stewart/Dylan Scott: Who could be appointed to replace John McCain
in the Senate, and the process behind it, explained: The Republican
governor of Arizona gets to pick another right-wing replacement, who
will hold the seat until the people get a chance to vote in 2020. As
Alex Pareene tweeted, McCain's "last official act as a public servant
was declining, despite being unable to work, to resign and trigger a
special election, so that his Trump-supporting governor could appoint
a Trump-supporting senator who'll serve for two full years."
A much-too-early 2020 poll has some bad news for Donald Trump:
For starters, he's trailing Bernie Sanders 32% to 44%; same margin
with more "don't know" behind Joe Biden. Lesser-known Democrats trail
off, but losing almost all of their support to "don't know" -- Trump
himself never drops below 28%.
Matthew Yglesias: Donald Trump talks like a mob boss -- and reminds us
he has no idea what he's doing: There was actually quite a bit of
news last week on Trump's various legal threats, starting with guilty
verdicts on half of the charges against Paul Manaford (the other half
were hung with only one juror voting to acquit), a guilty plea deal
by Michael Cohen, grants of immunity for testimony from
(National Enquirer, who has repeatedly buried stories on Trump
while sensationalizing every innuendo against the Clintons) and
Allen Weisselberg (Trump Organization CFO), as well as other
entertainments from Rudy Giuliani and a new round of threats to
fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Trump-affiliated scandals like
He lies, repeatedly (but he always does that), seems to accidentally admit
to breaking campaign finance law, peddles bizarre conspiracies about the
FBI, and goes off on an extended tangent about how the main investigative
technique used in the United States to bring down organized crime operations
should be illegal.
But beyond that, on several different occasions he shows us that when
it comes to the core job of the presidency, he has simply no idea what he's
talking about. Even on his signature issue of trade, he can't begin to
describe the situation correctly -- much less outline a coherent strategy
for improving Americans' economic well-being.
There is also a long list of suspicions that have been noted by
Democrats but are scarcely being investigated by the Republicans: see
Matt Shuman: Report: Worried GOPers Privately List Potential Probes
If Dems Retake House.
Veteran left-wing journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery dies at 94:
Here's an important one -- a hero, if the term means anything honorable --
to mourn this week. For more, see:
Adam Keller: The Israeli peace activist who crossed enemy lines and shaped
Ask a question, or send a comment.