Op - Ed
August 16, 2017

Is North Korea really the problem?

By David Russell

Editor’s note: This commentary is by David Russell of Perkinsville, who is a retired renewable energy and securities consultant and whose writing appears in venues including the The Hill and Huffington Post.

Military analysts surmise that North Korea has a small nuclear weapon it can mount on the ballistic missiles it has been testing. So the Economist runs a “what if” scenario regarding a war with North Korea and, aside from the nuclear fallout issues, projected that 300,000 people would die, but Kim Jong Un and his entire coterie of military adjuncts would be obliterated. Perhaps it was cruel to think in such a fashion, but it occurred to me that an estimated 2 million people died of famine in North Korea in the 1990s as a result of erratic government farming policies and the absence of infrastructure for floods; 500,000 Syrians are dead for failure of the civilized part of the world to address the humanitarian issues of its leadership; over 400,000 have died so far in the Sudanese conflict; and less than 20 years ago over 800,000 died in the Rwanda genocide.

Three hundred thousand casualties don’t sound so bad if they were to eliminate a real threat. I am reminded of a comment made by Al Franken when he was the comedian speaking at the 1996 Correspondents’ dinner. He suggested that 30 percent of medical expenses occur in the last three years of a person’s life so great savings could be achieved by using older people for space experiments. Both levels of indifference are offensive.

Perhaps you don’t find much humor in such dark contrasts. I mention them only to provoke thinking about what constitutes a real threat to the U.S. and just how concerned should we be about North Korea as a military threat. The good news is that such thoughts have been temporarily placed “on hold” since China and Russia combined with the rest of the U.N. Security Council in issuing a series of sanctions to North Korea for its continued testing of ballistic missiles. The sanctions are designed to cut up to one third of North Korea’s exports and therefore deprive the country of a significant portion of its GDP.

Both China and Russia have heretofore resisted most efforts to stop North Korea’s military adventures because they did not appear to be any direct threat to them, cutting trade or imposing sanctions would be a hardship to their respective economies. Most importantly, North Korea was a desirably clear and persistent irritant to the U.S. which was good, plus the country provided a buffer to America’s presence on the Korean peninsula. It was the Russians, after all, who got the North Koreans started on their nuclear program in 2006 by selling them technology and equipment.

The passage of the U.N. sanctions represents a real feather in the cap of one Donald Trump. It is Trump who has chastised China for not doing more to contain its militaristic neighbor. It is Trump who issued sanctions on Chinese banks dealing with North Korea and threatened trade restrictions for failure to heed his appeal. It is Trump who made the “military option” a real threat, maybe not to North Korea but perhaps to China and Russia.

The question, however, persists. Just how much of a threat is North Korea to the U.S.? North Korea is a country of 25 million people with a GDP that amounts to 25 percent of Bill Gates’ net worth. Much fun is made of North Korea because of its “mouse that roared” status in the world. Examples include: there are only 28 types of haircut that are legal; only military and government officials can own motor vehicles; schoolchildren provide their own desks and chairs; pot is legal; there are almost no working traffic lights; accordions are a big deal; the list goes on.

On the other hand, North Korea’s regime gets much of its income by exporting counterfeit pharmaceuticals such as Viagra to Japan and elsewhere, narcotics such as methamphetamine, counterfeit cigarettes and fake $100 U.S. bills, and by selling small arms and missile parts to terror groups and rogue nations. The border between North and South Korea is one of the most militarized in the world, according to the State Department. Pyongyang has about 1.2 million military personnel compared with 680,000 troops in South Korea, where 28,000 U.S. troops are also stationed. Nearly 6 million North Koreans are reservists in the worker/peasant guard, compulsory to the age of 60.

In almost all scenarios regarding conflict with North Korea, the issue is not so much what damage could be inflicted upon the U.S., as the amount of carnage that would be visited upon the South Koreans and the Japanese. In a very real sense U.S. media discredits itself by hyping the immediacy of the nuclear threat when, in fact, there is little likelihood Kim Jon Un is irrational enough to attack. Even the most conservative hawks argue that he must realize that an attack would lead to his being vaporized.

More importantly, these latest sanctions are credited to the U.S. leader who may be more impulsive, bombastic or downright crazier than Kim Jong Un. Trump’s threat of “all options on the table” has generated a meaningful international response despite a trail of 10 years of failed negotiations. So Trump’s tweets, in addition to scaring the pants off his fellow countrymen, may have had a similar effect on China, Russia and even North Korea.

It may well turn out that our crazy leader’s bravado has finally been put to good use. He may have been even scarier than Kim Jong Un. How about that?

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