With one hurricane having devastated Houston and another causing carnage in Florida, it’s easy to forget that we remain caught in what appears to be a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis with North Korea.
On the surface, it’s also easy to buy into the prevailing narrative that Kim Jong-un is a lunatic, playing nuclear chicken with the US and, to quote US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, “begging for war”.
But walk a mile in Kim’s shoes. Those who have studied North Korea say that its contradictory belligerence has to be viewed through the opaque prism that defines the North’s relationship with the rest of the world. Things look different from the other side of the fence.
Just over 60 years ago, the North endured three years of “rain and ruin” at the hands of the US air force. During the Korean War, the capital, Pyongyang, was razed; urban damage across the country exceeded the severity of that suffered by Germany and Japan in World War Two. Nearly one in 10 North Korean civilians were killed during the bombardment – it’s easy for Kim to remind his people of a time when the US brought mass slaughter to their land.
It goes without saying that Kim is a murderous tyrant, imprisoning perhaps 200,000 of his countrymen in concentration camps, and murdering his family members and anyone even suspected of being a threat to his absolute rule.
But Kim is not suicidal. He has seen the fate of Saddam Hussein, who found himself on the end of a noose because he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and it will not have escaped his notice that Muammar Gaddafi met his gruesome fate after he agreed to give up his WMDs. The defining principle for the North Korean regime is survival, and nuclear weaponry offers that much-sought guarantee.
The military calculus is well understood. Kim knows that any missile attack on a populated area, be it Japan, South Korea or distant Guam, would mean his own annihilation. The US and the West know that any conventional attack on the North will result in the destruction of Seoul, just over 50 kilometres from the border with the North, in a barrage of artillery shells.
Even Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist Steve Bannon knows this, telling American Prospect magazine last month that there was “no military solution (that) solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first thirty minutes”.
Bannon is right. There is no rational military option. Yet Trump tweets that “talking is not the answer”, and that “they only understand one thing”.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is one of the US government’s primary sources of intelligence on foreign threats. In 2013, the agency was headed by general Mike Flynn, who you now know as president Trump’s former national security adviser, forced from office after just 24 days in the job. In April of that year, the DIA issued a curious but historically resonant report, stating that, contrary to every other agency’s assessment, the North had developed nuclear weapons small enough to be delivered by ballistic missile.
The report caused shock across the US. Apparently North Korea had the technology to drop a nuke on Los Angeles or New York. There was just one problem. The report was completely wrong.
More than four years later, the DIA’s information has been entirely discredited, and despite numerous missile tests, until just weeks ago nearly all the world’s experts and intelligence bodies judged that while North Korea had the ability to explode a nuclear device, it was still years from achieving the leap in technology that allows such a device to be delivered on an intercontinental missile.
That consensus was shattered in August by a confidential DIA assessment, leaked to the Washington Post, that North Korea has now mastered the technology to fire nuclear missiles at mainland USA.
Assessments such as these are normally accompanied by corroboration from several other US agencies. That has not been the case here. The DIA is the glaring outlier, as it was in 2003 when it was the lead agency arguing that Iraq had nuclear weapon technology as the Bush administration beat the drums of war.
But as Trump’s domestic agenda collapses, and investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia draw closer, war offers the president a way out. Support for US presidents skyrockets when war is declared. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s approval rating briefly touched 90 percent. The leader of a nation at war can cast those seeking to undermine his presidency as unpatriotic, even treasonous. War would hand Trump full control of the country.
As hurricanes buffet the US, two unstable men are engaged in a nuclear face-off across the Pacific. The stakes couldn’t be higher. But it’s hard to escape the nagging notion that the president of the United States is the more volatile and dangerous of the protagonists.
George Grundy is the author of "Death of a Nation: 9/11 and the rise of fascism in America"