Playing the long game

Tyler Cowen may have just answered the Big Question about North Korea, namely: What does Kim want?

If we think through the North Korea nuclear weapons dilemma using game theory, one aspect of the problem deserves more attention, namely the age of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un: 33. Because peaceful exile doesn’t appear to be an option — his escaping the country safely would be hard — Kim needs strategies for hanging on to power for 50 years or more. That’s a tall order, but it helps us understand that his apparently crazy tactics are probably driven by some very reasonable calculations, albeit selfish and evil ones. […]

So if you are a dictator planning for long-term survival under a wide range of possible outcomes, what might you do? You don’t know who your enemies and your friends will be over those 50 years, so you will choose a porcupine-like strategy and appear prickly to everyone. […]

One way to interpret Kim’s spat with U.S. President Donald Trump is that he is signaling to the Chinese that they shouldn’t try to take him down because he is willing to countenance “crazy” retaliation. In this view, Beijing is a more likely target for one of his nukes than is Seattle.

More radically, think of Kim as auditioning to the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India as a potential buffer against Chinese expansion. If he played his hand more passively and calmly, hardly anyone would think that such a small country had this capacity. By picking a fight with the U.S., he is showing the ability to deter just about anyone.

This explanation feels right to me. At least, I haven’t heard a better one. In which case, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the North Korean regime is neither irrational nor suicidal. Kim is not Jim (Jones), and a “nuclear Kool-Aid” scenario is most unlikely. North Korea will be a serious irritant, but not a genuine threat. Indeed, by spurring Japan and/or South Korea to get their own nukes, Kim could even (paradoxically) make the region safer – in theory.

The bad news? Under this interpretation, Kim is a skilled and strategic leader who is motivated to stay in power forever. His nukes shield him from external attack and, for all his bluster and provocations, he is cunning enough to stop just short of crossing any lines that would trigger a military response by an adversary. The rest of the world would simply have to learn to live with him, because there is no alternative. Meaning, we could be looking at another 50 years of Kim’s nonsense. Maybe a lot longer, if radical life extension technology allows for it.

“He brought reforms and unexpectedly high rates of growth to the North Korean economy, and he seems to have retained the loyalty of a significant fraction of the North Korean populace,” Cowen writes. North Korean GDP grew by an estimated 3.9% in 2016, the fastest pace since 1999. This raises the interesting possibility that Kim could reinvent himself as a Deng Xiaoping-type reformer who ushers in a new era of growth and rising living standards just by continuing to ease up on some of the totalitarian controls on the economy. If successful, that would boost his popularity, of course, which would further shore up his power.

I think Cowen’s guess is right, and Kim is in this for long haul. The very long haul.

Just 50 more years of this

Wild card

George Friedman of Stratfor singles out South Korea as the wild card in the dangerous North Korea game:

[The North Koreans] seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

Comment on this from an author and military vet:

Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea. If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue. That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea’s aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Note that I said “sell” – in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control. China would instantly have kittens – a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn’t be far behind that. If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

It’s worth pointing out that a growing number of South Koreans want nukes of their own:

Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States had stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea. Then, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, and Moscow reciprocated.

The debate over redeploying those weapons is sharply dividing South Korean politics. […]

Still, 60 percent of South Koreans in theory support nuclear weapons for their country, according to Gallup Korea. A poll by YTN, a cable news channel, in August found that 68 percent of respondents supported redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

After South Korea’s defense minister said earlier this month that it was worth reviewing a redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, other administration officials have distanced the Blue House — South Korea’s executive mansion — from the proposal. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said this week that South Korea is not considering the option and has not discussed it with Washington, but she acknowledged that public opinion is shifting toward supporting the option. […]

“The mainstream view is now changing in South Korea,” Kim said. “Even within the governing party, we are now hearing some of these voices who are supporting redeployment or South Korea going nuclear by herself, particularly after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.”

Defense chiefs James Mattis and Song Young-Moo

As for Japan going nuclear:

Then there is the anomaly of Japan’s nuclear status. Defense analysis privately agree that Japan, like Israel, is an undeclared member of the nuclear weapons club. The point was made explicitly in an article by Nick Rufford in the London Sunday Times in 1994. The British Defense Ministry, Rufford reported, had informed Prime Minister John Major that “Japan has acquired all the parts necessary for a nuclear weapon and may even have built a bomb which required only enriched uranium for completion.” Moreover, Japan has long held enormous stockpiles of plutonium for its nuclear power program, and its H-2 rocket, which has launched two satellites into orbit, is regarded as capable of delivering a nuclear strike. Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Marc Dean Millot commented: “This is the stuff of virtual nuclear power. Only a political decision is needed to make it real.”

Blast from the past: Where’s the beef?

Unearthed below is a post I wrote in 2009, regarding a visit to Seoul during an interesting and puzzling episode of mass protest in the capital of South Korea:

The great beef protests of June 2008. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, candles in hand, to denounce President Lee Myung-bak, less than four months after he took office in a landslide win. The occasion for the protests was Lee’s lifting of a ban on imports of U.S. beef, which were widely believed to be infected with mad cow disease. I was shocked that such a silly issue could precipitate such a huge outpouring of rage and hysteria, though in fairness, the demonstrators had a laundry list of other complaints against the government. It seems that Lee had outraged many Koreans by running roughshod over public opinion and governing in a very arrogant, heavy-handed way. In any case, I witnessed some of the candlelight protesting in Seoul on the night of June 7. I had no idea that any demonstrations were going on until I saw bands of riot police gathering on the streets. The sight was a little ominous:

After nightfall, it was easy to find the huge crowd of candle-wielding protestors. The shrill amplified voice of a woman screaming something about the president in a chant of ever-increasing pitch added a tinge of menace to the scene. Otherwise, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed, at least in my corner of the crowd. Many people were sitting on the ground and seemed to be having a good time. Violent clashes between police and protestors broke out in the course of the June demonstrations, but fortunately (or unfortunately) I wasn’t around to see any of that:

As it turns out, I visited right around the peak of the protests, which reached 80,000 people on June 10 before tapering off.

Why were they protesting? According to Wiki:

The 2008 US beef protest in South Korea was a series of protest demonstrations between 24 May 2008 and about 18 July 2008 in Seoul, Korea. At its height, the protest involved tens of thousands of people. The protest began after the South Korean government reversed a ban on US beef imports. The ban had been in place since December 2003, when the prion responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or ‘mad cow disease’ was detected in US beef cattle.[1] The protests occurred on a background of talks concerning the US-Korea free trade agreement. Unrest was fanned by local media reports such as the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) PD Notebook program, “Is American Beef Really Safe from Mad Cow Disease?” televised on 27 April 2008.[2]

Mass protests over beef never really made much sense to me, so here’s an explanation that goes deeper into the socio-political context:

It is often said that history has a way of repeating itself. The massive candlelight vigils against the re-importation of U.S. beef reveal a social earthquake rumbling through Korea. […]

Thousands have reemerged with relit candles in central Seoul. The vigils today are symbolically encapsulated by the now ubiquitous image of “candlelight girl,” a cartoon drawing of a young girl holding aloft a lit candle. It is a powerful and poignant image, especially considering the fact that the original 2002 vigils were for the two young girls, Mi-seon and Hyo-soon.

Also poignant is that students roughly the same age as Mi-seon and Hyo-soon sparked the current uproar. Those students, rightly or wrongly, fear that mad-cow tainted beef is being forced down their throats by an uncaring government. Akin to 2002, the students’ outcries have snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon encompassing diverse groups banding together to collectively demand reparations for perceived injustices. The political establishment has again been shaken to its core. […]

Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow, depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.

An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say that everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.

However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent that the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.

At the outset of his term, his cabinet and secretarial appointments were a disaster. Now derisively nicknamed collectively after famous actresses “Kang Bu-ja” (pun using “Gangnam” and “bu-ja”, which means “wealthy” in Korean) or “Ko So-young” (pun referring to Lee cronies from Korea University, Somang Presbyterian Church or Yongnam Province), they presented an image of an elitist, “good old boy” network of people running the country.

The then-popular Lee vigorously set about with his agenda, pushing through policies that were not unanimously supported. Lee once told Bush that he was not the president, but the “CEO” of Korea. He was certain that disagreements over his plans could be overcome through his successful “bulldozing.” After all, he had done so at Hyundai Engineering and Construction and as Seoul mayor, specifically with the Cheonggyecheon project.

Therefore, the anger has more to do with Lee’s governing style than just simply the debate over whether American mad-cow was going to afflict the nation. The public resented the sense that Lee was the “CEO” and Koreans were merely employees expected to follow his orders. Somewhere along the way, his pledge to be a “servant to the people” got lost, and approval ratings below 20 percent reflect his extreme unpopularity. […]

President Lee has tried everything, to no avail. The en masse resignation of his secretariat and cabinet is unprecedented in Korean history, but it has been jeered by his opponents as a “political stunt.” Measures to ensure that 30-month-old U.S. beef will not enter the country are not placating the citizenry. Unpopular plans like the cross-country canal project and privatization of state firms have been shelved indefinitely, but, still, the people protest.

The fear is that the current vigils, which have so far taken on a somewhat festive atmosphere, may evolve into a socially precarious situation.

North Korean satellites

I’m sure there’s an excellent reason why North Korean satellites are allowed to orbit directly over US territory:

In February and March of 2015, former senior national security officials of the Reagan and Clinton administrations warned that North Korea should be regarded as capable of delivering by satellite a small nuclear warhead, specially designed to make a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States. According to the Congressional EMP Commission, a single warhead delivered by North Korean satellite could blackout the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for over a year—killing 9 of 10 Americans by starvation and societal collapse.

Two North Korean satellites, the KMS-3 and KMS-4, presently orbit over the U.S. on trajectories consistent with surprise EMP attack.

Of course, the idea of North Korea attempting an EMP attack on the US is wildly implausible and borderline insane. Unfortunately, North Korea is now, in effect, threatening to do just that:

The North said in its statement Sunday that its H-bomb “is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals.”

More background on North Korea’s satellites from a rocket scientist who was there in 2012:

In my view, the US needs to consider whether we can ever risk letting an absolutely unknown payload from North Korea ever fly across the United States again, and how we can be confident that the next satellite launch is carrying a non-hazardous cargo. For our once-in-a-lifetime visit in 2012, the North Koreans promised to prove their peaceful intent, and failed. We still need that promise to be fulfilled.

Somebody we can trust needs to be watching whatever the North Koreans mount on their next satellite rocket. Or we have to be ready to act based on valid suspicions and on the potentially all-too-terrible cost of relying entirely on hoping for the best from a madman.

Now may be a good time to give this a read:

And prepare.

Fake department store

This is one of the most insane things I’ve ever read. A British author visits a North Korean department store without minders (don’t try this at home):

I went several times during the festival to Pyongyang Department Store Number 1. This is in the very centre of the city. Its shelves and counters were groaning with locally produced goods, piled into impressive pyramids or in fan-like displays, perfectly arranged, throughout the several floors of the building. On the ground floor was a wide variety of tinned foods, hardware and alcoholic drinks, including a strong Korean liqueur with a whole snake pickled or marinated in the bottle, presumably as an aphrodisiac. Everything glittered with perfection, the tidiness was remarkable.

It didn’t take long to discover that this was no ordinary department store. It was filled with thousands of people, going up and down the escalators, standing at the corners, going in and out of the front entrance in a constant stream both ways – yet nothing was being bought or sold. I checked this by standing at the entrance for half an hour. The people coming out were carrying no more than the people entering. Their shopping bags contained as much, or as little, when they left as when they entered. In some cases, I recognised people coming out as those who had gone in a few minutes before, only to see them re-entering the store almost immediately. And I watched a hardware counter for fifteen minutes. There were perhaps twenty people standing at it; there were two assistants behind the counter, but they paid no attention to the ‘customers’. The latter and the assistants stared past each other in a straight line, neither moving nor speaking.

Eventually, they grew uncomfortably aware that they were under my observation. They began to shuffle their feet and wriggle, as if my regard pinned them like live insects to a board. The assistants too became restless and began to wonder what to do in these unforeseen circumstances. They decided that there was nothing for it but to distribute something under the eyes of this inquisitive foreigner. And so, all of a sudden, they started to hand out plastic wash bowls to the twenty ‘customers’, who took them (without any pretence of payment). Was it their good luck, then? Had they received something for nothing? No, their problems had just begun. What were they to do with their plastic wash bowls? (All of them were brown incidentally, for the assistants did not have sufficient initiative to distribute a variety of goods to give verisimilitude to the performance, not even to the extent of giving out differently coloured bowls.)

They milled around the counter in a bewildered fashion, clutching their bowls in one hand as if they were hats they had just doffed in the presence of a master. Some took them to the counter opposite to hand them in; some just waited until I had gone away. I would have taken a photograph, but I remembered just in time that these people were not participating in this charade from choice, that they were victims, and that – despite their expressionless faces and lack of animation – they were men with chajusong, that is to say creativity and consciousness, and to have photographed them would only have added to their degradation. I left the hardware counter, but returned briefly a little later: the same people were standing at it, sans brown plastic bowls, which were neatly re-piled on the shelf.

I also followed a few people around at random, as discreetly as I could. Some were occupied in ceaselessly going up and down the escalators; others wandered from counter to counter, spending a few minutes at each before moving on. They did not inspect the merchandise; they moved as listlessly as illiterates might, condemned to spend the day among the shelves of a library. I did not know whether to laugh or explode with anger or weep. But I knew I was seeing one of the most extraordinary sights of the twentieth century.

It’s an excerpt from the outstanding book The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World. You can read more here.

Checking out the merchandise

This makes me think of China’s department stores, such as Shanghai No. 1 Department Store, which are certainly not filled with fake shoppers as in the above anecdote, but they can’t be doing much better in terms of sales.

You can see the Communist influence in the clumsy payment process, where the sales clerk hands you a sales slip in triplicate for the item you want (such as an overpriced pair of ECCO shoes), then you have to leave the item with the clerk and take the sales slip to the cashier booth, where you pay and get all the copies of the sales slip stamped by the cashier, then walk back to the clerk and give her one of the stamped copies of the slip to collect your item – and repeat this process for every item you buy.

Which is just part of the reason why nobody shops at department stores in China anymore and the Shanghai No. 1 Department Store is closing for an overhaul.

It’s seen better days

A good question

The cartoonist gets it (sort of):

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.

This is where he’s wrong. The Chinese government is perfectly capable of bringing major corporations to heel when it wants to. The problem in this case is that the government doesn’t really want to. From the Newsweek article:

Other analysts simply believe that a nuclear North means a permanently divided peninsula, rather than one under Seoul’s rule, and that Beijing will forever be happy with that arrangement because it wants no part of a united Korea allied with the U.S. on its border.

 By the way, South Korea is fine with a divided peninsula too.

Adams again:

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.

That’s clever, and the account in the Newsweek article suggests that US policy is moving in that direction. Diplomatic and verbal measures have spectacularly failed. But the full range of non-kinetic options hasn’t been exhausted yet. Hopefully, something like this will work and the US won’t have to resort to war, because that would be an utter disaster for everyone.

Blast from the past: Loanwords

Originally posted June 16, 2013

Teaching business English to Japanese students in Shanghai has reminded me of one thing that I miss about South Korea, where I used to live: English loanwords. A loanword is a word from one language that gets adopted by another language. Modern-day Korean is littered with English loanwords, which often makes for curious listening; a foreigner who doesn’t understand Korean, listening to a Korean conversation, will hear a stream of completely unintelligible speech punctuated now and then by strangely pronounced English words such as “shopping” or “condition.”

As I discovered in my classes with Japanese students, the Japanese also borrow an enormous number of words from English, ranging from everyday items (konpyuuta for “computer”) to abstract concepts (moraru for “moral”). This provides Japanese ESL students with a large “built-in lexicon” of English words that they already know because they are commonly used in Japan.

In one class, I was amused to hear a student refer to a car horn as kurakushon, which I took to be a borrowing of the English word “correction” – quite an evocative way to describe a blaring horn. In fact, as I later learned, kurakushon comes from “klaxon,” the name for the electric horn that makes the classic ah-OO-gah sound of early cars and submarines.

Japanese and Koreans love to use English loanwords. But Chinese rarely use them, because the Chinese language is extremely loanword-resistant. Sometimes, in a relatively upscale venue such as Starbucks or a nice restaurant, I will hear people dropping English words, usually in a context where the speakers are working together or talking about work or business. As English is the default language of international business, its not surprising to hear actual English terms like “city manager” or “enterprise software” bandied about in China. But I generally don’t hear English loanwords at all.

Consider that in Japanese, “table” is teburu, “ice cream” is aisu kurimu, and “cheerleader” is chiagaru (“cheer girl”). In Korean, those words are rendered as te-i-beul, a-i-seu keu-rim, and chi-eo ri-deo, respectively.

In China you call them zhuozi, bingqilin, and lala duizhang – there is no borrowing from English at all.

By and large, the Chinese adopt foreign words by translating them semantically rather than transliterating them – that is, transferring the semantic information (meaning) rather than the phonetic information (sound). Thus, the Chinese word for “computer” is diannao, meaning literally, “electronic brain.” (Again, the Japanese word for “computer” is konpyuuta – a transliteration.) “Democracy” is minzhu, meaning “people rule.”

Some more examples:

  • hedonism: xiangle zhuyi (literally: “to seek pleasure” + “ideology”)
  • jeans: niuzai ku (lit: “cowboy trousers”)
  • mainstream: zhuliu (lit: “main” + “stream”)

These and similar modern coinages are fun to learn. Unlike the bland phonetic borrowings in Japanese and Korean, they are vivid, meaningful and organic expressions of the Chinese language, using native Chinese words to express new and/or foreign concepts.

But I have to say that there is something pleasing to me, as a native English speaker, about the abundance of English loanwords in Japanese and Korean. Above all, I miss the craziness of Konglish (Korean English), with its distorted borrowings of English words and phrases. Besides the simple transliterations mentioned earlier, such as shopping and ice cream, Korean also has a quirky lexicon of English loanwords with altered meanings and English words combined to form novel phrases. For instance, Koreans will routinely and unselfconsciously use expressions like these:

  • a-i syo-ping (“eye shopping”) = window shopping
  • geul-lae-meo (“glamour”) = voluptuous woman
  • mi-ting (“meeting”) = blind date
  • sa-i-deo (“cider”) = soft drink such as Coke or Pepsi
  • sel-peu kae-me-ra (“self camera”) = home/amateur video

I have also heard this one in Korea:

  • syeo-teo-maen (“shutter man”) = man who is financially dependent on his wife – thus his main job is to open and close the rolling steel door (shutter) of his wife’s shop every day

Chinglish, unfortunately, is no match for the glories of Konglish.

Update: On a related note, this is just funny.

More Korea stuff

The phrasing of this non-denial is impeccable (Scott Adams calls this the “Master Persuader answer”:

It happened again — a North Korean missile launch exploded in the air, over land, just a few minutes after launching on Friday.

While North Korea can still learn a lot from a failed missile test and use those lessons to advance their program, they’ve failed to demonstrate capability with missile types the US perfected in the 1970s — and cyber espionage may be to blame.

Asked about North Korea’s unsuccessful missile test by CBS’ John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, President Donald Trump refused to address whether or not the US had anything to do with the rogue nation’s missile failures.

“I’d rather not discuss it. But perhaps they’re just not very good missiles,” said Trump. Pressed further on possible US sabotage of North Korea’s missiles, Trump did not deny it. “I just don’t want to discuss it.”

Also of interest (from the same article):

Dr. Ken Geers, a cybersecurity expert for Comodo with experience in the NSA, told Business Insider that cyberoperations like the one against North Korea were actually the norm. [..]

North Korea’s internal networks are fiercely insulated and not connect to the larger internet, however, which poses a challenge for hackers in the US, but Geers said it’s “absolutely not the case” that computers need to connect to the internet to be hacked.

Furthermore, Geers said, because of the limited number of servers and access points to North Korea’s very restricted internet, “If it ever came to cyberwar between the US and North Korea, it would be an overwhelming victory for the West.”

“North Korea can do a Sony attack or attack the White House, but that’s cause that’s the nature of cyberspace,” Geers said. “But if war came, you’d see Cyber Command wipe out most other countries’ pretty quickly.”

A provocative comment by the POTUS on the Dear Leader:

Trump, asked if he considered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be rational, said he was operating from the assumption that he is rational. He noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Say what you want, but that is an interesting observation.

This too:

President Donald Trump labeled brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “a pretty smart cookie” in a wide-ranging interview aired Sunday.

“At a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie,” Trump told CBS News in an interview on “Face the Nation.”

And a policy twist of some consequence:

National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday that the U.S. will indeed pay for the roughly $1 billion THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, amid neighboring North Korea’s repeated ballistic test launches.

“What I told our South Korean counterpart is until any renegotiation, that the deals in place, we’ll adhere to our word,” McMaster told “Fox News Sunday.”

He spoke days after President Trump said South Korea should pay for the anti-missile system and hours after Seoul said that McMaster had assured its chief national security officer, Kim Kwan-jin, about the deal.

Hmm…

Fake news about Korea?

Well, the predictions of imminent war with North Korea were certainly premature:

Toward the end of last week [i.e. the week of April 10], the world was on edge and anticipating a conflict on the Korean peninsula, but talk of war appears to have been a product of miscommunication and media hype.

As tensions were rising, a U.S. Navy carrier strike group was believed to be moving into waters off Korea, and Pyongyang was suspected of preparing for another nuclear test. As it turns out, the carrier was sailing in the opposite direction, and North Korea was preparing for a parade and a failed ballistic missile test.

The strike group was last spotted off Indonesia, over 3,000 miles from the Korean peninsula, Defense News reported Tuesday.

This calls for another Department of Defense acronym. Say hello to MILDEC (military deception):

But the impression of what the Navy likes to call “4-and-a-half-acres of sovereign U.S. territory”—that would be the flight deck of a Nimitz-class carrier like the Vinson—steaming toward the Sea of Japan at flank speed might help stay the hand of someone like Kim Jong-un. It could distract him and his military while minimizing the risk of escalation. […]

The Pentagon, always leery of being spanked by the White House, quickly committed ritual rhetorical hari-kari for its sin. “We communicated this badly,” one defense official told the Wall Street Journal. Similar mea culpas echoed in other media outlets, showing that a chagrined Pentagon had learned its lesson.

Except for one thing. What’s amazing is that the press, hoodwinked as it was by the Pentagon’s fakery, was so eager to gobble up the morning-after line that it was all an innocent snafu, wrought by miscommunication and confusion.

Yea, right.

What is really going on? Here’s a compelling on read on what increasingly appears to be a crafty geopolitical strategy, with Rodrigo “This will be your final Merry Christmas” Duterte as pawn:

The Giant Panda can eliminate the problem that is Kim Jong Un.

ASEAN Chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, modifying the confrontational tone of Asian nations toward China is yet another useful carrot by U.S. President Trump to stimulate China’s increased pressure upon North Korea.

That’s a really big ‘get’ for President Xi Jinping.

MILDEC and geopolitical 4D chess notwithstanding, things could still get very kinetic on the Korean peninsula. Here’s a good discussion on the possibilities by ChinaFile. Comment from Bruce Klingner:

Since 2006, there have been numerous media articles with titles such as “Chinese anger signals policy shift toward North Korea.” Similarly, there have been periodic assurances by overoptimistic U.S. diplomats that China now “got it,” was on board with U.S. objectives, and would adopt a tougher policy toward North Korea.

Perhaps President Trump’s efforts, combined with growing regional fear of North Korea’s growing capabilities and belligerence, will be the catalyst to induce long-hoped for Chinese pressure on Pyongyang. Or, Trump may join the long line of American presidents duped into believing Chinese promises.

*

UPDATE: The POTUS confirms that the kinetic option for dealing with North Korea is still very much on the table:

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Trump said he wanted to peacefully resolve a crisis that has bedeviled multiple U.S. presidents, a path that he and his administration are emphasizing by preparing a variety of new economic sanctions while not taking the military option off the table.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.

 

Saturday links: Nuclear Jonestown edition

Cults and their consequences

1) Some provocative tweets on how things could go very wrong in Northeast Asia:

2) Speaking of Korea, as I had hoped, Michael Breen has given his reaction to the jailing of South Korea’s ousted president – in the form of satire:

Political parties and commentators have welcomed the court decision last week to put former President Park Geun-hye behind bars, saying it represents a victory for public sentiment-based democracy.

Presidential hopefuls for the upcoming election took a break from their illegal pre-campaign speeches and tours through markets to humbly credit voters and not themselves for the ruling.

“It’s what the people wanted,” said Park Mi-bum (no relation) of the minority People’s Party.

In a statement, the Prosecutor’s Office which had requested Park’s detention said jailing people before their trial is a necessary step when they are unpopular. “The people would have been angry if we had not made this request,” the statement said.

In a statement of their own, the people agreed.

“Had Park not been jailed, we would have been angry,” the people said.

For context, see this Breen article on the mob-rule aspect of South Korean democracy:

The preamble to the Constitution notwithstanding, “We the People” don’t exactly rule in the United States. A legal document, the Constitution, looms godlike over the affairs of Americans. Some form of that goes for most democracies. The laws are in charge, not the public — at least not directly.

South Korea presents an unusual case — and last week’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye is a case in point — of a country where the rulers and the ruled not only believe that the people exist but in fact accept that the people, or some mystical conception of their collective will, are directly in charge.

This notion lies behind the country’s feisty politics and helps explain why it is, arguably, the most directly democratic country in Asia. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how much you trust the people’s spontaneous collective judgment.

See also here and here.

3) On the decline of book-reading in Iran and the government’s plan to open the world’s largest bookstore (it will cover 484,376 sq ft).