216: CNN, Explaining North Korea, Succession and the Free State of Jones

Chris Spangle, Gregory Lenz, and Cat Anagnos discuss Trump’s CNN GIF, explain the background and complexity of the North Korean crisis, and review a libertarian movie titled The Free State of Jones.


Topics: North Korea, Trump-Putin First Meeting, and Showtime’s Free State of Jones

Topic 1: North Korea

North Korea’s latest provocation—a successful test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM)—brings the long-building crisis on the Korean peninsula to a dangerous flashpoint.

For one thing, it’s clear evidence that North Korea aspires not merely to have a nuclear-weapons program, but to be able to target the continental US. And that’s a dangerous aspiration for a risk-tolerant pariah state to have.

The conundrum with North Korea is that none of the options are good. Despite Trump’s self-assuring rhetoric that the United States has “many options,” the reality is exactly the opposite.

U.S. military action, a last-ditch option that would pretty much guarantee the leveling of the South Korean capital, tens of thousands of civilian casualties, perhaps thousands of American casualties, and the highly likely prospect of further escalation between the two Koreas. Sure, this is one of Trump’s “many options,” but it’s not one that is particularly productive.

So, what other alternatives are there?

The Trump administration has so far thrown most of its chips in the China pot—pressuring and/or cajoling Chinese President Xi Jinping that it’s in his country’s interest and the region’s interest to sever the lifeblood of money flowing into North Korea courtesy of banks, middlemen, black-market smugglers and financial subsidiaries operating on Chinese soil.

Beijing has cut North Korean coal imports to near zero levels for the last three months, there is still plenty of business going on across the Chinese-North Korean border. The Treasury Department wouldn’t have recently sanctioned a top Chinese bank if the administration didn’t believe that Beijing needed a jolt to the arm.

So, if military action would be a disaster and the Chinese route looks less than fleeting, what other options are there?

  1. One is admitting the obvious: that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state whether America likes it or not, and that the time has come for a full U.S.-led containment strategy with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Containment would mean deploying more anti-missile defense systems in the area, expanding the THAAD system into Japan, placing an additional aircraft carrier permanently in the waters of the Pacific, and tripling down on missile defense to protect American cities on the West Coast.

Congress would certainly appreciate the extra investment in missile defense but would be absolutely livid if the White House simply accepted North Korea as a member of the nuclear club. The politics would be terrible for the administration and for the president personally, especially with members of his own party.

  1. The last option would require another round of diplomacy—a decision that is unpopular in Washington on a good day, but detested at present given Otto Warmbier’s untimely death and Pyongyang’s successful ICBM launch. The diplomatic route would require U.S. diplomats to sit down with the North Koreans and negotiate with them directly, a picture that would be revolting to a lot of Americans.

It would also require the United States to offer some concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for a suspension of its nuclear and missile testing, a stoppage of nuclear research and development, and a commitment that U.N. Security Council resolutions would no longer be violated every other day.

Kim Jong-un would certainly have a lot of asks; he’ll probably ask for the moon and the stars, perhaps calculating that the United States needs North Korea to cease its nuclear program more than North Korea needs Washington to provide sanctions relief. And there’s always a very good possibility that discussions with North break down entirely, which has happened so many times in the past that it’s become part of the script over the last two decades.

*The North Koreans are not stupid: They know they’re militarily outclassed by their enemies. So their strategy in the event of an out-and-out war, as far as outside analysts can tell, is to inflict overwhelming pain as quickly as possible:

To bombard South Korea, Japan, and any American forces they can find with missiles and artillery to the point where their stronger enemies lose their appetite for a protracted conflict.


  • Important Facts:



  • What happened?


      • While Americans were busy enjoying the July Fourth holiday, news broke that North Korea had crossed another military milestone: its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. This missile, the kind that could theoretically be tipped with a nuclear warhead, could travel far enough to hit Alaska.
      • Trump’s unequivocal declaration that “the year of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed and that the “patience is over,” was well and good for the cameras.
      • But the strong and forceful rhetoric Trump delivered wasn’t a policy, which is sorely what the administration needs if it has even a slim possibility of arresting the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs.


  • Who are the individuals, institutions, organizations, and area involved?



  • North Korea



  • United States



  • South Korea



  • China



  • Russia



  • Japan



  • South China Sea



  • What is the argument about? It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.



  • Why are they worth arguing over? Although largely uninhabited, the Paracels and the Spratlys may have reserves of natural resources around them. There has been little detailed exploration of the area, so estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas. The sea is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.



  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.


        1. At the heart of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea. They have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. The islands are controlled by Japan.

        2. They matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the US and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.


  • What is the role of the US? The US and Japan forged a security alliance in the wake of World War II and formalised it in 1960. Under the deal, the US is given military bases in Japan in return for its promise to defend Japan in the event of an attack.
    This means if conflict were to erupt between China and Japan, Japan would expect US military back-up.



  • Korean War



  • When did it happen?


      • While Americans were busy enjoying the July Fourth holiday, news broke that North Korea had crossed another military milestone: its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
      • President Donald Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in strutted up to two podiums in the White House Rose Garden with two major objectives. The first—to reassure Americans, South Koreans and the rest of the international community that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is as solid as a rock, even with Trump at the helm—was for the most part successful. The second, which entailed warning North Korea that it better behave soon or else certain options would be taken in response, was more of a public-relations show than anything else.


  • Why did it happen?


      • The North Korean crisis is even scarier than you think. That isn’t because the country’s supreme leader, 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, is totally irrational — a “crazy fat kid,” as Sen. John McCain once termed him.
      • The impoverished North Korean regime is deeply insecure, so worried about its own survival that it is willing to go to dangerously provocative lengths to scare the United States and South Korea out of any potential attack.
      • Given North Korea’s massive conventional military and unknown number of nuclear weapons, conflict on the Korean Peninsula would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.
        • That’s not to say that war between the US and North Korea is likely, even after the new missile test. It isn’t. Rather, it’s that the risk of a catastrophic conflict is much higher than anyone should feel comfortable with, arguably more likely than anywhere else in the world.


  • What solutions are available?


      • Diplomatic Options: China’s gone back to pushing its idea of ‘a cap for a cap’: a freeze on North Korea’s programs in exchange for a freeze on US – South Korean military exercises. To be frank, that idea’s unappealing. While there’s some residual value in ‘freezing’ programs that have already demonstrated a considerable measure of success, staying in a freeze isn’t a long-term option.
      • Pyongyang has stated bluntly that it has no intention of denuclearising. (Indeed, it has written its nuclear status into its Constitution.) Not to mention that US – South Korean exercises are a necessary part of ensuring the effectiveness of the alliance.
      • Economic Options: Sanctions could surely be tightened. But they are so blunt, slow and uneven that it would take years to ensure they exercised decisive leverage upon Pyongyang’s policy choices.
      • North Korean economy’s in relatively good shape today—comparatively speaking, of course. It’s absolutely no match for the South Korean economy, but nor is Kim Jong-un’s regime under real economic duress. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has developed considerable skill in sanctions-busting, especially through the judicious use of front companies.


  • Military Options: One option would be to return US tactical nuclear warheads to South Korea. But Washington is reluctant to do that, not least because it would suggest that it’s ‘balancing’ North Korea as a recognised nuclear power.



  • Similarly, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s remarks on the election hustings last year, Washington isn’t keen to see South Korea and Japan construct their own indigenous nuclear arsenals. That would open a Pandora’s box of proliferation worries both in Asia and elsewhere.


      • A second option would be to take direct steps against the North’s missile program, for example. A concerted effort of cyber warfare, electronic warfare and ballistic missile defence could slow the program. Slowing it beyond that might require provocative steps, such as pre-emptive attacks on launch facilities. But that option will become steadily more difficult as the North ‘hardens’ potential cyber targets and moves towards the greater use of mobile missile launchers—something it’s already doing.


      • A direct military attack on North Korea to degrade its nuclear and missile programs would be the most serious of all military options. In the long run, it’s probably the surest path to the end goal—but in the short run, Pyongyang would have available to it a set of response options that would do serious damage to both Seoul and, perhaps, Tokyo.
      • Some analysts have their fingers crossed that the situation can slide—however ungracefully—into a long-term relationship of nuclear deterrence between North Korea and the US. But is that really a tolerable outcome? During the Cold War, the Soviet Union endured a relationship with France under which Paris threatened to ‘rip the arm off’ the USSR and leave it a one-armed superpower.
      • Would the US be prepared to endure a similar relationship with North Korea? To be honest, it’s a doubtful proposition. North Korea is not France. It’s a pariah state. Even leaving it as a long-term nuclear-armed actor is bad enough—because Pyongyang might eventually decide to sell key weapons technologies or actual devices to others.
      • The latest missile test can only sharpen worries in Seoul about a potential decoupling of the US from security on the peninsula. The South Koreans have long worried that the development of a North Korean ICBM capability would make Washington more hesitant to come to the South’s aid in any possible nuclear showdown with the North.


  • Important Questions:


What is foundation or principle in question? State sovereignty, Humanitarian implications, Authority to maintain global order

      • How did we get here?
      • What do the North Koreans want?
      • What does the United States want?
      • What concessions would the US have to make to China to get them to step in and put an end to this for a while?
      • Who would such concessions anger? Japan
      • Why? The still yet to be resolved situation in South China Sea between Japan and China.


  • What historically relevant lessons exist? How so?


      • To understand why North Korea is so unstable, we need to start with something counterintuitive: North Korea is really weak.

        Pyongyang is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its GDP per capita is estimated at about $1,000, about 1/28th of South Korea’s. It faces chronic shortages of food and medical supplies, depending on Chinese aid to meet its citizens’ basic needs. There’s a real risk that the Kim regime collapses under the weight of its own mismanagement.

        Nor is the North secure from military attack. While its army is extremely large personnel-wise, with about 1.2 million soldiers, it uses antiquated Cold War technology while its neighbors to the South are equipped with top-of-line modern gear.
      • Moreover, the presence of 23,500 US troops in South Korea means any war between North and South Korea would draw in the world’s only superpower, though with potentially enormous American casualties.
      • Facing the twin dangers of domestic instability and foreign attack, the North has devised a strategy for survival that depends (somewhat counterintuitively) on provoking the South and the United States.

        The North will do something that it knows will infuriate its enemies, like testing an intercontinental ballistic missile or shelling a South Korean military base. This limit-pushing behavior is designed to show that the North is willing to escalate aggressively in the event of any kind of action from Washington or Seoul that threatens the regime, thus deterring them from making even the slightest move to undermine the Kim regime.
      • It also sends a signal to the North Korean people that they’re constantly under threat from foreign invasions, and that they need to support their government unconditionally to survive as a nation.

        The problem is that this strategy is inherently unstable. There’s always a risk that one of these manufactured crises spirals out of control, leading to a conflict that no one really wants. This is especially risky because the North Korean government is deeply insular.


  • Washington doesn’t have the kind of direct line of communication with the North that it had with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, which was vital in preventing standoffs like the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating.



  • Are there a moral implications?


      • What about the citizens trapped in North Korea under a tyrannical dictator?
      • Is there a moral balance in justifying lives lost on humanitarian pursuits (military and non-military)?
      • By relying on the Chinese, another dictatorial regime, on civil and social issues, is it preferable in reality despite accepting moral relativism in reality?


    • Relevant Lessons or Related Ideas (Mentally unpack the topic by explaining and referencing the historical setting and philosophically driven divide behind the reasoning of the opposing left / right / libertarian divide):


  • What caused the rift between the US and North Korea? Karl Marx and his writing of the Communist Manifesto.


    • At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the Allies decided to split Korea into two parts at the 38th parallel. North Korea became a Soviet-supported communist regime under the leadership of Kim Il-sung; South Korea became a U.S.-supported democratic state under Syngman Rhee.
    • When Japan fell during the Second World War, Korea was suddenly free, and hoped to finally be able to decide the fate of their own country. Most Koreans campaigned for a unified state.
    • However, the United States and the Soviet Union had different ideas. The Soviets wanted to expand the sphere of communist influence into Korea. The United States countered by encouraging the establishment of democracy. Additionally, the United States stressed the importance of containment, which is a foreign policy used to prevent the spread of communism.
    • The Cold War was an important cause in the Korean War. Relations between the two occupying powers were bad and when China became Communist in October 1949, the President of the USA, Harry Truman, was very worried that other countries around China may also become Communist, such as Japan.
    • The American Army was about one twelfth the size of five years earlier and Joseph Stalin had recently lost a Cold War dispute over the Berlin Blockade and subsequent airlift. This disagreement would eventually lead to the Korean War. The Korean War was the first battle of the Cold War.
    • On 17 October 1926, a teenage Kim Il-sung, who would later become North Korea’s first leader, set up the “Down-with-Imperialism Union”. It was founded, so the propaganda goes, to fight against Japanese imperialism and to promote Marxism-Leninism.
    • Kim Il-sung was something of an urban legend known for a daring raid on the town of Pochonbo in 1937 where, at the age of 24, he is said to have led a military unit to capture a Japanese-held town on the Korean border. It was seen as a major military success, even if it only lasted for a few hours.
    • The Soviets put him very much at the centre of the strange coalition that became the North Korean Workers Party. This included Chinese Korean activists, members of the ethnic Korean diaspora from Russia, South Korean Communists who migrated North and Kim’s guerrilla fighters.
    • Songbun “caste system” was adopted by the Communist Party. It was effectively a massive political purge of North Korean society through social classification.
      There are few definitive guides to the Songbun and it is known to be both complex and opaque but in essence people were divided into three main groups:


  • Core class
  • Wavering class


      • Hostile class: essentially those deemed a political threat, and had no hope of any personal or career advancement.
    • The North Korean propaganda machine would like to celebrate this as the anniversary of the Party’s foundation. For others, the true foundation is 1949, when South and North Korean Communists finally came together in a coalition that aimed to lead one unified Korea.
    • But 1945 saw the establishment of the North Korean Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea. This became the body which rules today.

      • 1945 – Japan’s colonial rule over Korea ends with its World War II surrender.
      • 1948 – Korea is divided between the Soviet-backed North and the US-backed South. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea proclaimed, with Kim Il-sung installed as leader. Soviet troops withdraw.
      • 1950-1953 – Korean War: South declares independence, sparking North Korean invasion and the Korean War.
      • June 25, 1950: North Korea invades South Korea across the 38th parallel and takes most of South Korea. The South Korean Army retreats to Busan. China starts to feel threatened with the war happening so close to them and tells the UN Army and the South Korean army to return to the border and that they have no business to fight so far into North Korea.
      • October 1950: The warning given by the Chinese is ignored by the UN (led by an American general, Douglas MacArthur) and so the Chinese army, called the People’s Liberation Army, invades North Korea and helps the North Koreans fight the UN until the UN forces are pushed past the border separating North and South Korea.
      • 1953 – Armistice ends Korean War.
      • 1968 January – North Korea captures USS Pueblo, a US naval intelligence ship. A political bloodbath took place between 1967 to 1971 when 17 senior officials were purged.
      • Purges targeted members of Kim Il-sung’s own original guerrilla faction and set up his control over the army as well. The military leadership in place when the USS Pueblo spy ship was captured by North Koreans in 1968 – a huge coup – were taken out. In contrast to other purges, some of them returned to power years later.
      • And after the 5th Party Congress in 1970, the party completed its transformation from a typical Marxist-Leninist political party to one that venerated Kim Il-sung and became responsible for implementing his will.
      • 1972 – North and South Korea issue joint statement on peaceful reunification.
      • 1974 February – Kim Il-sung designates eldest son, Kim Jong-il as his successor.
      • 1985 – North Korea joins the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, barring the country from producing nuclear weapons.
      • 1986 – Research nuclear reactor in Yongbyon becomes operational.
      • 1991 – North and South Korea join the United Nations.
      • 1993 – International Atomic Energy Agency accuses North Korea of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and demands inspectors be given access to nuclear waste storage sites. North Korea threatens to quit Treaty.
      • 1993 – North Korea test-fires a medium-range Rodong ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.
      • 1994 July – Death of Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il succeeds his father as leader. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and because of the wider social impact of the North Korean famine, known as The Arduous March, the Party became somewhat moribund. Its Central Committee did not hold a meeting, one they publicised anyway, from 1993 until 2010. Key vacancies remain unfilled. It still had administrative duties but as a political entity it was diminished.


  • But in 2010, Kim Jong-il revived the party as a political institution to cope with his declining health and to boost the succession of his son Kim Jong-un.


      • 1996 – Severe famine follows widespread floods; 3 million North Koreans reportedly die from starvation.
      • 1996 April – North Korea announces it will no longer abide by the armistice that ended the Korean War, and sends thousands of troops into the demilitarised zone.
      • 1998 August – North Korea fires a multistage long-range rocket which flies over Japan and lands in the Pacific Ocean, well beyond North Korea’s known capability.

      • 2000 – First-ever Inter-Korean summit
      • 2002 – US names North Korea as part of an “axis of evil”
      • 2003 – North Korea withdraws from Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
      • 2006 – North Korea conducts first underground nuclear test
      • 2011 – Kim Jong-il dies, succeeded by his youngest son Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un, the party has thrived as a political institution. He has been involved in the party’s revival since 2007, and as supreme leader, like his grandfather, he has used the party’s Political Bureau to publicly dismiss wayward officials as he did with former military chief of staff Ri Yong-ho and even his own uncle Jang Song-thaek. He is also building his power base through the party’s Central Military Commission.
      • 2016 November – UN Security Council further tightens sanctions by aiming to cut one of North Korea’s main exports, coal, by 60 per cent.

      • 2017 January – Kim Jong-un says North Korea is in the final stages of developing long-range guided missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

      • 2017 February – Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam is killed by a highly toxic nerve agent in Malaysia, with investigators suspecting North Korean involvement.

      • 2017 April – The US warns North Korea off nuclear and ballistic missile tests after several months of North Korean tests and rhetoric.



  • Different Perspectives (Individual Co-Host Opinion and Analysis)


  • Application to Libertarianism:



  • What would a libertarian approach to US-North Korean relations look like?

Topic 2: President Trump meets Vladimir Putin for their first face to face meeting

Topic 3: Free State of Jones

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