North Korea 1.

Back in the 19th Century, a dynamic Europe challenged the major Asian nations.  Japan and China took different paths forward.  China clung to tradition and soon fell under foreign domination.  Japan copied the West in some things in order to be able to preserve its core culture in other things, and thrived.[1]  One thing the Japanese copied was imperialism.  They took over the neighboring Korean peninsula, long a tributary kingdom of China.  At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide Korea into temporary occupation zones pending the eventual unification of a single, independent Korean nation.

Almost immediately, the Cold War began.  The two great powers began to turn their occupation zones into rival states.  In June 1950, North Korea—armed and probably poked in the backside by the Russkies—invaded South Korea.  The Americans poured in troops, then kicked the behinds of the North Koreans.  Chased them all the way to the Yalu River (the border with China), while the American commander (Douglas MacArthur) talked about using nuclear weapons and carrying the war to newly-Communist China.  The Chi-Coms, in their turn, poured in troops.  Three years of gory war followed.[2]  The war ended in a truce in 1953.  Two new states emerged, North Korea and South Korea.

There are two things to say about North Korea since 1953.[3]  First, the country has become a hereditary monarchy with a dynasty of murderous tyrants at the helm.  Kim Jong Chee, Kim Jong Il and his blue-eyed boy, Kim Jong Un have ruled the country since 1950.[4]  Kim Jong Un took over in 2011.  Since then, he’s murdered a lot of government officials.  He’s also had his uncle and his half-brother killed.  He is sometimes described as “paranoid and unpredictable.”  Psychological diagnoses done from afar aren’t much use.  Still, he’s got some bolts loose.

Second, almost from the end of the war, North Korea sought nuclear weapons of its own.  This went nowhere for a long time: North Korea is mountainous, resource-poor, and Communist.  The search really began to gather steam in the 1990s.[5]  Then Kim Jong Il launched a huge effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Almost immediately, the North Koreans got caught.  In 1994 North Korea agreed to halt progress on its nuclear program in return for aid.  Then in 2003, North Korea announced it had a nuclear weapon.  The US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all conferred with North Korea.  It was agreed that North Korea would halt its nuclear program in return for more aid.  Then, beginning in late 2015, North Korea began ahead testing bombs and the missiles to deliver them.  So the track record on negotiating with North Korea isn’t good.

Still, as late as March 2017, it seemed that North Korea remained three years away from posing a serious danger to other countries, most especially the distant United States.[6]  The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations all practiced a policy of “strategic patience.”  They hoped that a combination of economic sanctions, pressure on China, and computer hacking of the North Korean missile and atomic programs would keep the problem in check.  South Korea and Japan were within of North Korea’s medium range missiles.  So were the American military forces stationed in those countries.  However, ground-based and ship-based missile interceptor systems had a high rate of accuracy in tests.[7]

[1] See “The Last Samurai” (dir. Edward Zwick, 2003).

[2] See “Pork Chop Hill” (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1959).  Milestone also directed “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930).  The messages of the movies differ in ways that reveal the change of public mindset across thirty years.

[3] “The growing threat from North Korea,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 11.

[4] That first one was just a joke, OK, a joke!

[5] Was this a response to the very evident failure of the model of the centrally-planned economy?  Both Russia and China soon abandoned the model.  Turmoil followed in both countries.

[6] “Shielding the homeland,” The Week, 19 May 2017, p. 11.

[7] One hundred percent test success for the Air Force’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and eight-five percent success for the Navy’s Aegis system.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 18.

There is no longer a filibuster on judicial appointments, but there can be one on spending bills.  Since Republicans hold 52 Senate seats (rather than the 60 needed to stop a filibuster), they had to deal with the Democrats to pass a bill that covered government spending through September 2017.  What did the Republicans get out of the deal?  They got a big jump in defense spending ($12.5 billion) and in “securing the border” by non-wall means ($1.5 billion).  What did the Democrats get out of the deal?  Several of the federal agencies that President Trump wanted to put on short-rations came through relatively unscathed for the moment: the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.  Federal aid to Planned Parenthood is preserved.  There is no money for “the wall.”  American generally benefitted from not having a “government shutdown,” although President Trump raised the possibility of a more serious confrontation in September.[1]

The flip side of spending is taxation.  The Trump administration released a bare outline of proposed tax change legislation.  The plan proposed to create three tax brackets (10, 25, and 35 percent); cut the corporate tax rate from the nominal 35 percent (with a ton of loop-holes) to a standard 15 percent (pretty much the international norm); and get rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax and the Estate Tax.[2]  The intellectual concept behind this plan is that lower taxation will lead to a surge in economic growth that will generate more revenue over time than it costs.  Many people on both the left and the right are deeply skeptical–to put it mildly–of this belief.  The Trump administration pointed to the slow growth of the first quarter of 2017 as proof to the harmful effects of heavy regulation and high taxation.[3]

In foreign affairs, the shock waves from the North Korea nuclear problem continued to rumble through America’s relationships in Asia.  China has supported and protected North Korea as a way of advancing its own agenda.  President Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience put off action in hopes that “something will turn up.”  While a wise policy at the time (like the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran), North Korea’s gains in nuclear weapons and missiles have now made that policy obsolete.  There are tens of thousands of American troops stationed in both South Korea and Japan.  The United States has defensive alliance with both countries.  A North Korean attack on either one is likely to kill a lot of Americans and would require an American response.  Hillary Clinton would have faced the same difficult choices as does Donald Trump.  It will be necessary to give China something if it reins-in (or overthrows) the North Korean lunatic-in-office.  To off-set any concessions to an expansive China, the Trump administration has sought to rally America’s allies in Asia.  To this end, Trump invited the homicidal Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, and ordered the Pentagon to move an anti-missile system to South Korea.[4]

A minor furor arose over President Trump’s question to an interviewer “Why was there a Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”  It’s a fair question that has pre-occupied academic historians for generations.  While heaping abuse on the historically-ignorant president, his critics seem to have missed reading Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

[1] “Congress agrees on spending deal,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 6.  Will President Trump be willing to force a shut-down in September as a way to shoulder his way back into a bargaining process in which mainstream Republicans are willing to ignore his priorities?

[2] “Trump’s tax plan: Who would benefit,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 8.

[3] “Issue of the week: Looking for a ‘Trump bump’,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 38.

[4] “Trump’s hand of friendship to Philippine strongman,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 7; “How they see us: Trump diplomacy rattles South Korea,” The Week, 12 May 2017, p. 17.

Small wars and demolition.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons.  Not really a problem.  FedEx doesn’t pick up in North Korea and the North Koreans don’t have a delivery system (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, ICBM).  Oh, wait, they just tested an intermediate range missile.  Well, that couldn’t reach the United States.  So, not really a problem, yet.  It could reach South Korea or Japan, however, and both are American allies.[1]  So, that’s a problem.

North Korea has been “carpet sanctioned” by the United Nations (U.N.) for its nuclear program and other things.[2]  Chinese support is North Korea’s only lifeline.  It seems to be widely agreed that Chinese pressure could bring an end to the regime.  According to President Trump, “China has control, absolute control, over North Korea.”  So, why doesn’t China topple the North Korean psychocracy?  It could be that North Korea isn’t any more trusting of China than it is of anyone else.  Perhaps lots of Chinese agents of influence and spies within the North Korean government keep ending up dead?  That could cut down the scope for action short of war.

Or, perhaps China sees North Korea as a desirable destabilizing force in the region.  China, The Peoples Republic, of has been intruding aggressively into the non-state waters of the South China Sea.  This program of reef-claiming, reef-enhancing, and reef-arming has put China at odds with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  In these alarming circumstances, North Korean aggression and the perception that China has a leash on North Korea may work to enhance China’s bargaining power.  In this context, China’s Foreigners Ministry has argued that the Americans should deal directly with North Korea.[3]

Meanwhile, the United States is at war with radical Islam.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban use safe-havens in Pakistan from which to wage war in their own country.  According to the local American military commander, the war is a “stalemate.”  A mere 8,400 American soldiers are trying to brace-up and train the Afghan army and police.  The Taliban seem able to learn how to fight a war without such trainers.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been battered into fragments.  Again, a small number of American troops are serving as trainers and advisers for Syrian and Iraqi troops, and as spotters for air strikes.  Still, several political problems remain on front-burners.  First, ISIS will not long survive as an organized military force or a political community.  What will become of the survivors as they flee the cauldron?  Will they attempt to return home, there to continue the struggle?[4]  Then, the defeat of ISIS is a long way from the defeat of radical Islam.  What new insurgency will pop up, either immediately or in the future?

Second, much of the heavy lifting in both Syria and Iraq has been done by Kurds.  Over the long-term, American support for the Kurds challenges the national integrity of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.  The Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria may be in no position—or no mood—to carry the fight to ISIS.  An Iraq riven by sectarian conflicts may find itself in the same boat.  That would leave Turkey—a NATO ally of the United States—as the chief opponent of Kurdish nationalism.  That, in turn, will create a dilemma for American diplomacy.  Will America back the Kurds[5] or the Turks?  In either case, the Russians will find an opening.

[1] “America’s Military Challenges,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 11.

[2] That doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

[3] The sloppy murder of the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in a Kuala Lumpur airport and the subsequent hasty execution of five North Korean intelligence officers may complicate matters for China.

[4] Or, alternatively, take up the rocker and thrill younger generations with their tales of daring-do?

[5] “Gratitude has a short half-life”—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.