Sunday, August 26, 2018


Weekend Roundup

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The only thing that keeps Kim from doing so is the presence and projection of American military power over Korea.
  3. 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.
  4. That against such a determined foe, the United States shouldn't do anything to reduce the pressure (like sanctions) on North Korea.
  5. 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 East Germany).

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 tweet here.)

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 coal." Also: 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 Reclaimed Russia.

  • 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:

  • 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 David Pecker (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 Duncan Hunter.

    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 generations.