Enter The Boogeyman
“The ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfit for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of the real man.”
Taking a line from Michael Moore’s latest movie, when pondering “where to invade next,” the average citizen need only march to the sound of the rhetoric. As impoverished countries with values strange to us begin to appear in the mainstream media, you can lay pretty good odds those are the countries we plan to war on next.
Such is the case with North Korea and Syria. Although we have been engaged in hostilities with Syria for quite some time, the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration indicates any hope for peace in the near term is now lost. North Korea has long been the boogeyman of Northeast Asia and we could argue for with good reason. But in the past we had standard responses to their saber rattling and the kind of brinksmanship practiced since the time of Kim Il Sung and all of his successors.
Lately North Korea and its current leader, Kim Jung Un have been grabbing headlines by testing medium range ballistic missiles and bragging about their attempts to produce a nuclear weapon. For those who have been watching North Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) for a while can attest the lengths they will go to gain the attention of the world.
Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader was a master of playing brinksmanship with the West. He would rattle his saber and eventually some concession or deal would be made. This has been pretty much the pattern since the 1980’s when I was stationed on the peninsula as a young Army intelligence officer.
In the 1990’s North Korea experienced a devastating famine. Between 1994 and 2000 it is estimated that 330,000 people died of hunger and malnourishment reigned. The famine was caused by several factors that included mismanagement, collapse of Soviet Union and subsidies provided to North Korea, drought and flood. It should also not be lost on anyone that North Korea is not a prime agricultural locale. Only 17% of its landmass is arable and agricultural production is frustrated by short growing seasons, and irregular precipitation.
It is quite possible that North Korea could have followed the model of East Germany when it collapsed and unified with West Germany to create the Germany we know today. And if not for very generous donations of rice and other foodstuffs from South Korea and then many other countries to include the US, it may very well have collapsed. For instance, in 1995, South Korea and few other countries donated 544,000 tons of rice to North Korea. By 2002, the height of imports, North Korea received 1,178,000 tons of food aid from the world. Of that amount, 222,000 and 544,000 tons came from the US and South Korea respectively. Wow, that is a lot help to be providing an enemy!!
I had a conversation with a couple old Korea hands during that period and asked them why? Why so much effort to keep the North Korean regime propped up? Why not just let it fail? The response at the time was South Korean had studiously watch the reunification of Germany and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t afford it.. . . They looked at the cost the West German side had to assume to bring up the East German side and balked.
At the time, I also had to question US motivations. We currently have roughly 30,000 soldiers, sailors, airman and marines in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan. From the Korean peninsula the US can project military force throughout Northeast Asia. What happens when the peninsula unifies? Will there be a need for those force levels – any levels?
The famine in North Korea is long over but the food situation is still precarious. Reliable figures are often hard to come by, but it is estimated that North Korea produced 5,600,000 tons of foodstuffs in 2016. That is up significantly from a decade ago but last year they imprted 300,000 tons, mostly from China. Even with those imports, observers believe there is still a large gap when it comes to feeding the populace and staving off malnourishment in some areas.
The storyline unfolding in the press is that the North Korean regime is hell bent on developing nuclear weapons and a long-range ballistic missile system that could threaten the west coast of the United States. From a military standpoint, the North Korean military with 1,200,000 active, 7,200,000 reserve, and 200,000 paramilitary forces is threatening. And with many of its active forces positioned just across the demilitarized zone from South Korea, constant, unrelenting vigilance is required.
However, they are not, nor ever will be the threat they are being made out to be. Every nation wants nukes. The one lesson that was learned “by lesser nations” from the first and second Iraq wars was “don’t let the Americans mass, and have nukes.”
I have seen estimates that the North Koreans could have a nuclear weapon in four years. That would be 2020 or 2021. The Poles also want nukes. They don’t want them to attack with, rather to keep out the Russians they feel threatened by.
Unless someone wants to invite the nuclear incineration that would be visited on them by a United States, Russia or China, nukes have become essentially defensive. The way I look at how we can respond to this latest round of North Korean saber rattling is not with our own saber rattling, saber rattling that justifies our bloated war budgets, rather with Lakers tickets or simply allowing North Korea to collapse.
Imagine if the next time they have to choose between allowing their people to starve to death or buy ballistic missile technology and luxury goods for their elites, they are forced to choose the former. Their elites are further down the road to ruin than ours. If the system they are milking for all it’s worth changes, they are done for – caput! That is something they don’t want.
Yes, they could decide just before going dark to roll the dice and take chance. But they will fail. After enjoying early success, they will take Seoul, but at great cost and as they march south, they will attrited down, rolled up and defeated in a classic envelopment. The end game is the same, they’re gone.
And things are looking grim for Kim Jung Un and his cronies. North Korea’s nominal GDP is estimated at $25,000,000,000. That is roughly the size of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania metropolitan area’s GDP. Even if we allow for purchasing power parity, which as explained by Dmitry Orlov, is a way of calculating currency exchange rates based on how much a basket of goods costs in different national economies, and is often very different from market exchange rates. Using that concept, North Korea’s GDP jumps to $120,000,000,000 are perhaps four times that. Still, pretty meager when one considers they are maintaining a large military force, roads, ports, cities, etc., etc.
So, for now, North Korea will loom out there as the big boogeyman fitting perfectly into the neoconservative storyline as articulated in the documentary “Power of Nightmares” by Professor Stanley Rosen, a pupil of Leo Strauss (the granddaddy of America’s neocon movement), “the hero has a white hat; he’s faster on the draw than the bad man; the good guy wins. And it’s not just that the good guy wins, but that values are clear. That’s America! We’re gonna triumph over the evils of… of… that are trying to destroy us and the virtues of the Western frontier. Good and evil.”
Or, we could just offer Kim Jung Un a way out. . . We send Dennis Rodman back to Pyongyang with the following offer: “Kim, you like basketball, we will give you season tickets to the Lakers for the rest of your natural life, a swank condo in downtown Los Angeles that is an easy walk to the Staples Center, and $1,000,000,000.” Perhaps we even throw in a movie deal!
Would he take the deal? Would we even offer him the deal? Could the US military industrial complex survive the downfall of one of our biggest remaining boogeymen.