You might have heard that North Korea and the United States are not getting along. We mock their lack of electricity, they threaten to annihilate us with thermonuclear weapons, that sort of thing.
But why are we enemies?
I’ll sort it all out for you here.
Obviously the largest source of friction is that the United States and North Korea want very different things. And those different things are mutually exclusive. For example, we want to avoid nuclear war and they… okay, they also want to avoid nuclear war. But on most other issues, we want different things.
For example, North Korea doesn’t want the U.S. to invade their country. The United States, on the other hand, wants to invade North Korea about as much as we want rabid porcupines shoved up our asses. I guess you could say we’re on the same page on that too. But that’s only two points of agreement in this whole mess. You have to look at the big picture.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to establish himself as a credible nuclear power, partly for defense, and partly as a vehicle for national pride. So far, they have succeeded on the national pride part. The United States wishes they had not, but we agree it was an impressive achievement. So we’re on the same page about the national pride. They earned it.
Where we differ is that the United States and its ally, South Korea, would like to see a unified Korean peninsula someday, but we realize there is no-way-in-hell it can happen in our lifetimes. North Korea, on the other hand, wants to see a unified Korean peninsula someday, but they realize there is no-way-in-hell it can happen in their lifetimes. If you strip away the magical thinking and hard-wishing, we’re of the same opinion on unification: Nice, but not gonna happen while we’re alive.
Okay, okay, we’re mostly on the same page about all of the stuff I mentioned so far. But consider that North Korea would like to feed its people and grow its economy. The United States would like for them to do that too, so long as they leave us alone. Okay, I guess we’re on the same page there too.
The biggest problem the United States has with North Korea is that Kim Jong Un wants to avoid being killed or deposed and we don’t give a shit about him one way or another so long as he leaves us alone. So I guess we aren’t too far apart on that either, unless we want to be total dicks about it and kill him just for fun.
One of the biggest sticking points is that the United States has massive military assets in South Korea. North Korea doesn’t like that. Contrast that opinion to the normal citizen in the United States who doesn’t understand why-the-hell we have even one soldier in South Korea. What is the point of it? Are we preparing for the big push to conquer China? (Probably not.) Is South Korea unable to deter an attack from the North? (Not as long as they can afford American weapons systems, and the U.S. still has a navy.) So I guess Kim Jong Un and American voters are mostly on the same side about our presence in South Korea. We all understand that American military presence in South Korea once had a purpose, but not so much in 2017.
I confess to being under-informed about the situation with North Korea, but it seems to me that the issue boils down to magical thinking about future unification. North Korea wants to be on the winning side of any unification and so does South Korea. The problem is that no one knows how both sides could be the winners.
Except for me. This is right in my wheelhouse.
Let me reframe this for you. I won’t change any of the data, just the filter you apply to it.
The situation in North Korea involves a number of what I’d call “real” problems, such as the very real risk of nuclear war, and the very real artillery batteries in North Korea pointed at South Korea. When your security risks are the “real” kind, you hire an experienced military person to deal with it. General Mattis seems to have a good handle on the “real” risks.
Now let’s talk about the stuff that isn’t “real” in any physical sense. The first issue is North Korean national pride. I’m sure any negotiated settlement could keep that intact. For example, having direct talks with the United States would be a point of honor. And one can imagine a negotiated agreement that lets them keep nuclear power for energy while not building any ICBMs. Everyone’s pride stays intact.
But what about all the magical thinking about unification? That requires a magical-thinking solution. That’s where I come in. As a trained persuader, I have a suggested solution. I call it the hundred-year-plan for unification. Both sides would simply agree to work out the details over the next hundred years. The details might include loosening travel, establishing trade, eventual amnesty for leaders, that sort of thing. That way, both sides could claim victory. The victory would be in the imagination of both sides, not in the real world. But it still works, because a change in imagination is all you need to cure magical thinking. And unification in our lifetimes is, for all practical purposes, just magical thinking.
For more details on my 100-year-plan for Korean unification, see this blog post.
For my regular readers, recall that a year ago I was one of the few voices saying Kim Jong Un was rational while most pundits and “experts” were saying he was a total nut job. Today, most “experts” have evolved to my view that Kim Jong Un is a rational player.
Recall also that in 2015 I was one of the first public voices to proclaim candidate Trump was far more than the “clown” the public and pundits widely believed him to be. I mention both cases to bolster my credibility.
In summary, if you have “real” security problems, call General Mattis. But if your problems are in the realm of imagination and magical thinking, call a Master Persuader.
Better yet, elect him president.
You’re in better hands than you know.
That doesn’t mean everything will turn out well with North Korea, but it does mean you have the right team in place for the first time, capable of managing both the “real” and the imaginary dimensions. And in Kim Jong Un I suspect we have a negotiating partner who understands all dimensions.
We are closer to war with North Korea than at any time in recent memory. But we are also closer than we have ever been to a permanent solution. My optimism about North Korea is that for the first time in history we have players on the field who understand the nature of the problem as partly real and partly imaginary, and they have the tools to deal with all of it. I don’t think we’ve had the right people on the job until now.
Have you noticed that our Insulter-in-Chief has been going easy on Kim Jong Un in the verbal sparring? President Trump has been downright respectful.
It isn’t an accident.
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Though a lot of people in my line of work tend to be accused of “doom mongering,” I have to say personally I am not a big believer in “doom.” I think the concept of “apocalypse” is rather lazy – unless we are talking about a movie scenario, like a meteor the size of Kentucky or Michelle Obama’s Adam’s apple hurtling towards the Earth. Human civilization is more likely to change in the face of crisis rather than end completely.
Until we accept that government lies to us as a matter of course we will never grasp the immorality of government. Yet like an abused spouse who returns to her husband on his promises that the abuse will end, the American people buy the new war propaganda.
Wouldn’t you know it; the exact moment Kim Jong Un decides to go full “James Bond villain” is the same moment the radioactive can kicked down the road by successive Administrations came to rest at the feet of a guy who – to put it mildly – lacks compunction. This little tableau couldn’t look more perfect for the war machine and its engineers if they had set it themselves.
While the propaganda media and establishment elites try to “scare people to death” over North Korea and the prospect of nuclear war – and, by implication, instant or quick death — with a country that can’t feed its people or hit a target smaller than the ocean with its missiles, multinational corporations with U.S. sanction are killing crops, pollinators and Americans slowly with chemical deaths.
North Korea keeps testing missiles that can reach the United States. China could turn off trade with North Korea, and effectively force them to stop, but that isn’t happening. Why the hell not?
A story in Newsweek says the bulk of Chinese trade with North Korea involves just ten Chinese companies. The working assumption is that those ten companies are so “connected” and powerful that even the Chinese government can’t influence them, or might not want to try.
Fair enough. That makes the government of China common observers in this drama. Embarrassing for them.
But those ten companies are certainly our enemies. I’d say those ten companies are fair game for a cyberattack, a financial attack, competitive attack, and any other kind of non-military attack we can mount. My understanding is that only our government knows which ten companies are involved. If we aren’t moving against them, I don’t understand why. The Chinese government would try to stop us, but I’m betting they wouldn’t try that hard, if you catch my drift.
By the way, how do we know ten companies are the villains in this story? Sounds like the sort of thing a clever president would leak to the press to foreshadow what might be happening behind the scenes. I’d hate to be an owner of any of those ten companies.
Keep in mind that none of us has the required knowledge to distinguish a good idea from a bad one in this realm. I offer this sort of blog post to diversify the pool of ideas. That in itself can often be good.
You might enjoy reading my book because I published two blog posts for you today and reciprocity is hardwired in humans.
An interior monologue by North Korea’s dictator might go something like this: I can see myself as if I were back at the Liebefeld-Steinholzi school in Bern, Switzerland, with everyone convinced I was crazy because I talked little and was fixated on my PlayStation, keeping quiet for hours on end, observing others. What is… Read More »
In the year 2017, most of our national problems are information problems. And by that I mean having the right information would allow us to solve most problems.
Consider the nuclear threat from North Korea. That’s an information problem disguised as a military problem.
I hope that statement seems wrong to you, so you will be extra-impressed when I change your mind in the next hundred seconds.
If the U.S. government tries to strongarm China to control North Korea’s nuclear program, that might cause more problems than it solves. No one likes a government-to-government confrontation of that type. China would have to push back. It could get ugly fast.
But imagine what would happen if American consumers knew which American companies were doing the most business with China.
And imagine American consumers understanding that China can turn off the economy of North Korea, like a switch, any time it wants, thus controlling North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Now connect the dots.
If you treat the North Korean nuclear threat as a military problem, it becomes one. If you treat it as an information problem, with an economic variable, it becomes that instead.
I’m in favor of my government trying to negotiate an agreement with China, Russia, and North Korea. But if our leaders can’t get it done, I ask the government to get out of the way. Citizens can take care of this one directly.
All we need is some information.
I think that took me less than a hundred seconds.
You might enjoy reading my book while enjoying a delicious beverage because it is hot outside.
I have some spare time this morning so I thought I would solve the North Korean nuclear threat problem.
The current frame on how all sides are approaching the problem is a win-lose setup. Either North Korea wins – and develops nukes that can reach the mainland USA – or the United States wins, and North Korea abandons its nuclear plans, loses face, loses leverage, and loses security. Our current framing of the situation doesn’t have a path to success.
So how do you fix that situation?
First we must acknowledge that a win-lose model has no chance of success in this specific case because North Korea responds to threats by working harder to build nukes. That’s no good. You need some form of a win-win setup to make any kind of deal. That’s what I’m about to suggest. And by winning, I mean both sides get what they need, even if it isn’t exactly what they said they want.
What the U.S. wants is a nuclear-free North Korea. That would be our win.
What North Korea wants is an ironclad national defense, prestige, prosperity, and maybe even reunification of the Koreas on their terms. So let me describe a way to get there.
The main principle to keep in mind is that you can almost always reach a deal when two parties want different things. If we frame the situation as North Korea wanting nuclear weapons, and the U.S. not wanting them to have those nukes, no deal can be reached. There is no way for North Korea to simultaneously have nukes while having no nukes.
So you need to reframe the situation. The following deal structure does that.
Proposed North Korean Peace Deal
China, Russia, and U.S. sign a military security agreement to protect
North Korea and South Korea from attack
for 100 years, in return for North Korea suspending its ICBM and nuclear weapons programs and allowing inspectors to confirm they are sticking to the deal.
At the end of a hundred years, North Korea and South Korea agree to unify under one rule. No other details on how that happens will be in the agreement. North Korea will be free to tell its people that the Kim dynasty negotiated to be the rulers of the unified country in a hundred years. South Korea will be free to announce that unification is a goal with no details attached. We will all be dead in 100 years, so we can agree to anything today. (That’s the key to making this work – all players will be dead before the end of it.)
The U.S. withdraws military assets from South Korea.
South Korea and North Korea reduce their non-nuclear military assets that point at each other.
Over the course of the 100-year deal, there could be a number of confidence-building steps in the agreement. For example, in ten years you might have a robust tourist arrangement. In twenty years, perhaps you can do business across borders. In fifty years, perhaps a unified currency (by then digital).
A hundred years is plenty of time for the Kim family to make their fortunes and move to Switzerland, or wherever, before unification is an issue. The deal might require some sort of International amnesty agreement for any North Korean leaders looking to get out of the country before unification.
Under this proposed deal structure all sides get what they want. North Korea’s leader can tell his people that their nuclear program was a big success because it resulted in the United States withdrawing forces, and it led to an eventual Korean unification on his terms. There is no opposition press in North Korea to dispute that framing. This looks like total victory to North Korea. That’s a win.
For the United States, a credible deal to get rid of North Korean nukes is a win. China and Russia would look like the adults in the room. They win too.
South Korea wins too, obviously.
And this deal would probably result in Nobel Peace Prizes for the leaders of all countries involved.
Students of history will recall that Great Britain agreed to lease Hong Kong from China for 99 years to avoid any risk of China taking Hong Kong militarily. The long lease period allowed both countries to agree to a deal that could not have been reached for a shorter time period. And it gave everyone time to plan for the peaceful transfer. No two situations are alike, but you can see how a hundred-year deal makes it easy to agree to difficult things today. We’ll all be dead before any of it matters. And if you work toward a common goal for a hundred years, the odds are good that it can happen. One way or another.
This is the sort of deal that would have been impossible in prior years. But the Trump administration understands the structure of dealmaking. This solution is available for the taking.
Update: President Trump tweeted that trade between China and North Korea is up 40% in the first quarter. Look at how he frames it:
This is what I have been describing as Trump’s go-to strategy of creating two ways to win and no way to lose. In this case, China either clamped down on North Korea (we win), or we can say we tried to get them to help and they refused.
That’s a free pass to do whatever we need to do, no matter how much China dislikes it. Hey, we tried it the other way. Clearly it didn’t work.
And it sets the table for all sides to get more serious about solving this non-militarily. Would you want President Trump to have a free pass to kill you?
My suggested deal structure is the only non-military option, as far as I can tell.
You might enjoy reading my book because I should get the Nobel Peace Prize for unifying North and South Korea with my excellent ideas.
If North Korea (or any of our enemies) successfully takes down our power grid, there will be a number of daily activities we will need to adapt to our powerless state. Check out this great article from our friends over at 4Patriots that runs down five alternative ways to cook without electricity.