On the Brink of Nuclear War

Special Report: As nuclear war looms in Korea, the life-or-death question is whether President Trump and his team can somehow marshal the skill and strength of President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, writes historian William R. Polk.

By William R. Polk

In the first part of this essay, I gave my interpretation of the background of the current confrontation in Korea. I argued that, while the past is the mother of the present, it has several fathers. What I remember is not necessarily what you remember; so, in this sense, the present also shapes or reshapes the past.

A nuclear test detonation carried out in Nevada on April 18, 1953.

In my experience as a policy planner, I found that only by taking note of the perception of events as they are differently held by the participants could one understand or deal with present actions and ideas. I have tried to sketch out views of the past as we, the North Koreans and the South Koreans, differently view them in Part 1 of this essay.

Now I want to undertake a refinement of the record I have laid out. I want first to show how our perception, the interpretation we place on the events that swirl past us, adds a new and formative element to them. Whether consciously or not, we tend to put events into a pattern. So the pattern itself becomes part of the problem we face in trying to understand events. Staking out a path – an interpretation or a theory of what random bits and pieces mean or how they will be interpreted and acted upon by others — is a complex and contentious task.

Getting it wrong can lead us astray or even be very dangerous. So the interpreter, the strategist, must always be tested to see if his interpretation makes sense and the path he lays out is the one we want to travel. I will make this explicit below.

My experience in what was certainly the most dangerous situation America ever experienced, the Cuban Missile Crisis, led me to believe that at least in a crisis how we think about events and what we remember of the past often determines our actions and may be the deciding difference between life and death. So here I will begin with the mindset that underlay American policy for the last half century.

Anyone who reads the press or watches TV is beset with countless scraps of information. In my experience in government service, the deluge of information was almost paralyzing. Some of my colleagues joked that the way to defeat our adversaries was to give them access to what passed over our desks every day. It would immobilize them as it sometimes immobilized us.

How to separate from the flow the merely interesting from the important and how to relate one event to others were demanding tasks. Making them useful has been undertaken by strategists time after time over the last several thousand years. Machiavelli is the best known among us, but he was far from the first. [I have dealt with these issues in detail in Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).]

Theory of Deterrence

The latest and arguably the most persuasive recent attempt to develop a sort of framework or matrix to bring some sense of order and some ability to understand events has been the theory of deterrence. While “just a theory,” it set American policy toward the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It was developed to understand and deal with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but it will determine much of what America tries to do with North Korea today.

President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation regarding the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

To simplify and summarize, Cold War strategists led by such men as Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling and Bernard Brodie believed that ultimately relationships among nations were mathematical. Deterrence thus meant gathering the elements that could be added up by both sides. If country “A” had overwhelming power, country “B” would be deterred in its own interest from actions that were detrimental to them. Failure to “do the sums” correctly in the “game of nations” was to “misplay.”

Emotion and even politics had no role; in the real world. It was realpolitik that governed. Put another way, the weak would add up their capabilities and would necessarily give way to the strong to avoid being destroyed.

The great Greek historian Thucydides long ago set the tone: “Right, as the world goes,” he wrote, “is only in question between equals in power; the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Only by acting in this mindset would the national interests, the real interests, of each country be preserved and peace among nations be achieved.

Deterrence worked reasonably well up to and including the Cuban Missile Crisis. But during that crisis, as some of the theory’s critics had long held, a potentially fatal flaw became evident.

The flaw is that “national interest” – what can be added up or quantified as the assets and what gives it its strength — is not necessarily always coincident with “interest of government.” That is, governments may not always be guided by a rational calculation of national interest. There are times when leaders cannot afford, even if they precisely add up the figures, to act according to such slow-moving impulses as national interest. They may be subject to quite different and more urgent impulses. They may be emotional or otherwise be irrational, fearful of their lives or worried that they would lose their positions, or they may be driven by public opinion or by the different calculations of such other centers of power as the military. Being guided by the abstract calculation of national interest may then be impossible.

Let me illustrate this from my experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis, then in a war game the Department of Defense (DOD) organized to reexamine the Missile Crisis and finally in a meeting in Moscow with my Russian counterparts.

In the Missile Crisis, both President Kennedy (certainly) and Chairman Khrushchev (probably) were under almost unbearable pressure not only in trying to figure out how to deal with the events but also from the warnings, importuning and urging of their colleagues, rivals, supporters and from their military commanders. Whether either leader was in danger of overthrow of his regime or assassination is still unknown, but both were at least potentially at risk because the stakes were, literally, the fate of the world and opinions on how to deal with the possibility of ruinous war were strongly held.

Obviously, the loss to both of their nations in the event of a nuclear exchange would have been catastrophic so the national interest of both was clear: it was to avoid war. But how to avoid it was disputatious. And it was not nations that were making decisions; it was the leaders, and their interests were only in part coincident with national interest.

We were lucky that at least Kennedy realized this dilemma and took steps to protect himself. What he did is not well understood so I will briefly summarize the main points. First, he identified General Lyman Lemnitzer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), as the main hawk. Lemnitzer was pushing him toward a nuclear war and had shown his hand by presenting a “black” plan (“Operation Northwoods”) to be carried out by the JCS to trigger war with Cuba.

[Curiously, “Operation Northwoods” is hardly known even today. It was described by the eminent scholar on intelligence James Bamford in Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 82 ff, as the “launching [of] a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an-ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba.” Provocations were to be manufactured: hijacking of aircraft, murders and the explosion of the rocket that was carrying astronaut John Glenn into space. Lemnitzer lied to Congress, denying the plan’s existence, and had many of documents destroyed. Although he was dismissed as chairman of the JCS by Kennedy, the organization he formed within the JCS continued to plan covert actions. It would have been surprising if Kennedy did not worry about a possible attempt on his government.]

Fearing a Coup d’Etat

Apparently realizing that the plan could easily have been turned into a coup d’état, Kennedy removed Lemnitzer as far from Washington as he could (to Europe to be the NATO commander). Kennedy also assembled a group of elder statesmen, most of whom had served under the Eisenhower and Truman administrations in positions senior to the current military commanders and were identified as conservatives — far from Kennedy’s image as a liberal.

President John F. Kennedy meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev on June 3, 1961, in Vienna. (State Department photo)

Ostensibly, he sought their advice, but in practice what he sought was their approval of his decisions. He also was careful to instruct the public in his speech on the Monday, the first public acknowledgement of the crisis, that he was firmly in control and was determined to protect American interests.

Then, in the solution to the crisis, removing the American missiles from Turkey, he pretended that their removal was not a price he had to pay to end the crisis. Thus, in several ways, he neutralized potential critics, at least during the crucial time of the Crisis. But, not long afterwards, he was assassinated by persons, forces, or interests about whom and whose motivation there is still much controversy. At minimum, we know that powerful people, including Lemnitzer, thought Kennedy had sold out national interest in pursuit of the interest of his administration.

At the same time in Moscow, Mr. Khrushchev probably risked his life by accepting the humiliation imposed on his regime by the forced withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba. Apparently, for of course we do not know, he felt less immediate danger than Kennedy because the Soviet system had always distrusted and guarded against its military commanders. A Lemnitzer there would probably have been “disappeared,” not just sent into a polite exile. And hovering beside each of the senior officers of the Soviet army was a political commissar who was responsible to the civilian administration – that is, to the Communist Party leadership – for the officer’s every move, every contact, almost every thought. The military did what the civil leadership told it to do.

I presume Khrushchev believed that he had his colleagues with him, but that cannot have been very reassuring given the record of the Politburo. And, when he died, Khrushchev or at least his reputation paid a price: he was refused the supreme accolade of Soviet leadership; he was not buried with other Soviet heroes in the Kremlin Wall. That we know; what we cannot know is whether or not he thought he was, or actually was, in danger of being overthrown.

What is clear is that he was strong enough – and faced with no blatant or destructive action by America – that he was able to surmount the “interest of government” to protect “national interest.” In short, he was not backed into a corner.

Were it not for the strength and bravery of both men, we might not have survived the Missile Crisis. Obviously, we cannot always be so served. Sometimes, we are apt to be dependent on weaker, more timorous and less steady men. This is not an abstract issue, and it has come back to haunt us in the Korean confrontation as it surely will in other confrontations. Understanding it may be a matter of our survival. That was not just my view but was also was even then the nagging worry of the DOD.

Thus, in the aftermath of the crisis, the DOD sought reassurance that deterrence had worked and would continue to work. That is, it sought to test the theory that leaders would add up the sums and be governed by what they found rather than by political, emotional or other criteria.

A Nuclear War Game

To this end, the DOD commissioned the conflict strategist Thomas Schelling to design and run a politico-military war game to push the experience of the Missile Crisis to the extreme, that is to find out what the Russians would they do if they were dealt a severe, painful and humiliating nuclear blow?

A scene from “Dr. Strangelove,” in which the bomber pilot (played by actor Slim Pickens) rides a nuclear bomb to its target in the Soviet Union.

Schelling’s game pitted two small teams of senior, fully-briefed U.S. government officers against one another in the Pentagon. Red Team represented the USSR and Blue Team the U.S. Each was provided with all the information Khrushchev would have had. Shortly after assembling, we were told that Blue team destroyed a Red Team city with a nuclear weapon. What would Red Team do?

Since it was far weaker than the United States, by the deterrence theory it would cave in and not retaliate.

To Schelling’s exasperation, the game proved the opposite. It showed that action only in part depended on a rational calculation of national interest but rather in circumstances of crisis, would be governed by the political imperatives faced by the government. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere, but in brief, the members of Red Team, who were among the most experienced and gifted men from the State Department, the White House, the CIA and the DOD, chaired by the very conservative admiral who was Chief of Naval Operations, decided unanimously that Red Team had no option but to go to general war as fast and as powerfully as it could.

Shelling stopped the game, saying that we had “misplayed” and that if we were right he would have to give up the theory of deterrence. We laid out the reasons for our decision.

That decision was taken on two grounds: the first was that acquiescence was not politically possible. No government, Russian or American or other, could accept the humiliation of the loss of a city and survive the fury of those who felt betrayed. Even if at ruinous cost, it would strike back. This is a lesson apparently still unlearned.

Indeed, it could cause the death of each person reading this essay if applied in real life in a nuclear first strike as I will shortly make clear in discussing the Korean crisis.

The second basis for the decision was that, despite Kissinger, Schelling and other “limited nuclear war” advocates, there is no such thing as limited nuclear war in the real world. A nuclear strike would inevitably lead to retaliation, nuclear if possible, and that retaliation would lead to counter-retaliation.

In the war game, Red Team realized that if Mr. Khrushchev were to retaliate for America’s destruction of Baku by incinerating St. Louis, it would have posed a challenge, regardless of who was at fault or what the odds of success were, that Kennedy could not have ducked. He would certainly have been overthrown and almost certainly assassinated if he had not responded. He almost certainly would have destroyed a second Russian city.

Tit-for-tat had no stopping point. Each response would lead to the next and quickly to general war. So Red Team went immediately to the best of its bad options: hitting back immediately with everything it had: in short, we opted for general war.

Fortunately that scenario was not tested. In the real Cuban Missile Crisis, no city was incinerated. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev was pushed beyond “calculation.” But it was a very close call. My own hunch, from having been one of the 25 or so civilians closely involved in the real-life crisis, is that Kennedy and his team could not have held firm much longer than the Thursday or Friday of that terrible week.

The implications are clear – and terrifying – but neither Shelling nor other Cold Warriors have accepted them. We are still today approaching the conflict in Korea with the mindset that our war game showed was fatally flawed.

The last test of the result of the war game came when I lectured on strategic planning and participated in a seminar on the Missile Crisis with the members of the then principal advisory group to the Politburo, the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In a word, my opposite numbers there agreed with the analysis I have just laid out: Khrushchev could not have accepted an American nuclear attack. He would have responded even though he realized that the overwhelming advantage – the “numbers” – were against him.

They also agreed that in practical terms there was no such thing as limited nuclear war. A “limited” nuclear strike would be, inevitably, the first step in a general war.

Lacking Wise Leaders

I will speculate below on how the actual events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the result of the war game might apply to the current conflict in Korea. Here let me anticipate by saying that we have no reason to believe that the men who will decide the issue are of the caliber of Kennedy and Khrushchev.

President Donald Trump, speaking in Warsaw, Poland, on July 6, 2017. (Screen shot from Whitehouse.gov)

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were strong, pragmatic, experienced and well supported men. In today’s conflict between the United States and North Korea, neither Donald Trump nor Kim Jong Un evince similar attributes. Some critics even question their sanity. But, they will make the decisions, so I focus on them, their motivations and their capacities. I begin with Mr. Trump.

I have never met Mr. Trump and our backgrounds are very different so I am driven to two, admittedly incomplete and questionable, ways of understanding him. The first of these is his own description of his thought process and way of acting. The three characteristics that seem to me most germane to foreign affairs and particularly to the confrontation in Korea are these:

–On November 12, 2015, Mr. Trump declared, “I love war.” In fact, as the record showed, he went to considerable trouble to deny himself the pleasures of going into harm’s way during the Vietnam War. And, now, should he decide to take America to war, he would not put his own life in danger.

In my time in Washington, such “war-lovers from afar“ were often referred to as “chicken-hawks.” They loved to talk about war and to urge others to get into it, but, like Mr. Trump, they never volunteered for action and never, in their pronouncements, dwelt on the horror of actual combat. For them war was another TV episode where the good guys got a bit dusted up but always won.

Mr. Trump presumably meant by the word “war” something very different from real war since he explained, “I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars on my own. I’m really good at war. I love war, in a certain way but only when we win.”

For Mr. Trump, as his actions show, every business deal was a sort of war. He conducted it as what military strategists call a zero-sum game: the winner took all and the loser got nothing. There was little or no negotiation. “Attack” was the operational mode and his opponent would be driven to defeat by the threat of financial ruin. This was the “certain way” he called his many “wars on my own.”

The record bears him out. He overwhelmed rivals with lawsuits against which they had to defend themselves at ruinous cost, convinced them that if they did not acquiesce he would destroy them and was unrelenting. He was very good at it. He made his fortune in this form of “war.” He seems to believe that he can apply his experience in business to international affairs. But nations are not so likely to go out of business as the rivals he met in real estate transactions and some of them are armed with nuclear weapons.

–On several occasions, Mr. Trump set out his understanding of the role of nuclear weapons. In 2015, as a candidate, he was quoted as saying, “For me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” But I find no evidence that he realizes what “devastation” really means. It is one thing to drive a business rival into bankruptcy and quite another to oversee the burning to death of hundreds of thousands or millions of people and relegating still more to homelessness and starvation in a ruined environment.

One supposes that he is aware of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they are misleading. Modern nuclear weapons are far more powerful: a one megaton weapon, for example, is about 50 times as powerful as the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. Those of us who dealt with the threat of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis were aware of the effects of such “standard” weapons.

I see no evidence that Mr. Trump knows what a nuclear war would actually do. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, “what is the point of having nuclear weapons if you don’t use them?” He will find advisers who will tell him that they must be used. The ghost of General Lemnitzer hovers near the Oval Office.

Proud of Unpredictability

–Mr. Trump prides himself on unpredictability. Unpredictability was his business strategy. As he told an interviewer from CBS on January 1, 2016, “You want to be unpredictable … And somebody recently said — I made a great business deal. And the person on the other side was interviewed by a newspaper. And how did Trump do this? And they said, he`s so unpredictable. And I didn`t know if he meant it positively or negative. It turned out he meant it positively.”

Graphic for “The Celebrity Apprentice” when it was starring Donald Trump.

Another time Trump said on TV “I want to be unpredictable.” The record shows his use of the ploy, but perhaps it is more than just a ploy. Perhaps it is a manifestation of his personality, so I want to probe its meaning.

Years ago, I was informed that the CIA maintained a staff of psychoanalysts to profile foreign leaders. If the office still exists, the doctors presumably do not practice their arts on American officials, and certainly not on the President. As part of their professional code, psychiatrists are not supposed to diagnose anyone they have not personally examined, and I doubt that anyone will be able to get Mr. Trump to lie down on the coach.

But, as psychiatrists Peter Kramer and Sally Satel have pointed out, Mr. Trump has shown himself to be “impulsive, erratic, belligerent and vengeful” so “many experts believe that Mr. Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder.” Reacting to having such a leader with his hand on the nuclear trigger, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin introduced a bill to establish an “Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity” (H.R. 1987) as authorized by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. It has not been acted upon and it allows the President latitude to “pardon” himself.

Since his actions and the efforts of others do not offer much insight, I suggest his actions lend themselves to a perhaps instructive analogy, the game of “chicken.”

–In “chicken,” two drivers aim their speeding cars at one another. The one who flinches, turns aside, or (as Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it to me during the Cuban Missile Crisis) “blinks,” is the chicken. The winner is the driver who convinces the loser that he is irrational, deaf to all appeals and blind to danger. He cannot get out of the way.

In Mr. Trump’s strategy of war, the irrational man wins because he cannot be reached with any warning, argument or advice. Knowing this, the other man loses precisely because he is rational. Three things follow from this analogy. They seem evident in Mr. Trump’s approach to the issues or war or peace:

The first is that irrationality, ironically becomes a rational strategy. If one can convince his opponents that he is cannot be reasoned with, he wins. This has worked for years in business for Mr. Trump. I see no reason to believe that he will give it up.

The second is that the driver of the car does not need information or advice. They are irrelevant or even detrimental to his strategy. So, we see that Mr. Trump pays no attention to the professionals who man the 16 agencies set up by previous administrations to provide information or intelligence.

One example where his professed plan of action flies in the face of the intelligence appreciation is Iran. As the former deputy director of the CIA David Cohen found “disconcerting,” Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that Iran was not abiding by the terms of the Iranian-American deal on nuclear weapons before “finding the intelligence to back it up.” But that is inherent in Trump’s strategy of confrontation. He surely knows – but does not care — that the entire intelligence community holds that Iran has abided by the deal.

In Trump’s mind, intelligence analysts are “back seat drivers” and should keep quiet. By questioning his blindness, they suggest to the driver of the other car that Mr. Trump might swerve aside. Thus, they threaten to destroy the irrationality that is the essence of his strategy.

And, third, what Mr. Trump, the “driver” of the car in the “chicken” confrontation, does need is absolute loyalty. Those who sit beside him must never question how he is driving. Any hint of their trying to dissuade his actions threatens to destroy his strategy. So, as we see almost daily, at any hint of disagreement, he pushes his copilots out of the car. Indeed, at least one hardly even got into the “car” before being pushed out the door.

His actions both in business and in the presidency illustrate these points. He takes pride in irrational actions, shifting from one position to another, even its opposite, on what appears to be a whim. He disdains advice even from the intelligence services and also from presumably loyal members of his inner circle. What he demands is absolute loyalty.

Finally, it seems to me that Mr. Trump has understood, far better than most of us, that the public likes to be entertained. It is bored by consistency. It doesn’t pay much attention to explanation or analysis. And as the financially successful record of the TV industry and the sorry record of the book publishing industry show, the public wants entertainment. Mr. Trump caters to popular taste: every episode is new; every remark, simple; every threat, dramatic; and, perhaps most powerfully of all, he echoes angers, disappointments, hurts, desires that many of his supporters also feel.

This mode of operation worked for Trump in the business world. His image of ruthlessness, determination and even irrationality caused some of the biggest potential rivals to get out of his way and many others to accept his terms rather than risk a collision. It is not Trump or his mode of operation that has changed but the context in which he operates. Citibank with which he clashed did not have nuclear weapons; North Korea does. So how does Kim Jong Un measure up?

Measuring Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un is the third generation of the North Korean leadership. That position is almost beyond the comprehension of modern Westerners. Ruling dynasties went out of fashion in the First World War. But perhaps consideration of “dynasty” can be made to yield useful insights. One who tried to learn what dynastic succession could tell us was the great medieval North African philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Observing Berber and Arab societies, Ibn Khaldun found that the first dynasty, sweeping in from the desert, was made up of men who were rough and vigorous; their sons still remembered times of struggle and retained their hardihood, but the third generation grew use to ease and settled into luxury. Its leaders kept power by relying on outside forces. The fourth generation lost it all.

The fit to Korea is far from exact, but it is provocative. Kim Il-sung was a guerrilla warrior, not unlike the warring tribal leaders with whom Ibn Khaldun dealt. Sweeping in from Siberia he took power (admittedly with Soviet help), ruled for nearly half a century and established the dynasty; in the second generation, his son Kim Jong-Il came seamlessly to power on his death in 1994. While he shared little of his father’s war-like experiences, he seems to have been a hard man, as Ibn Khaldun expected. But he gives just a hint of the growth of the enjoyment of the new environment. The luxury he enjoyed was exactly what Ibn Khaldun would have predicted. He took as his mistress a beautiful dancer. From this union came Kim Jong Un, the personification of the third dynasty.

Young Kim Jong Un grew up in what was, in Korean terms, the lap of luxury and as a child was allowed to play the child’s game of soldiers. His soldiers, however, were not toys; they were real. There is no certain information, but it is believed that he was made a senior officer in the North Korean army when he was just a child. When he was 12 years old, his father sent him to a private school in Switzerland. Being provided with a personal chef to cook Korean dishes as well as a tutor and a driver/bodyguard, he does not seem to have really been “in” Europe.

He was taken out of the Swiss school when he was 15 and put into a public school in Korea. Those few who knew him have commented that he was intensely patriotic. At his father’s choice, although he was not the elder son, he was singled out as the successor, the man of the third generation.

Despite this unusual background he seems remarkably like an ordinary American schoolboy: he loved sports, particularly basketball, spent a lot of time watching movies and was an indifferent student. This is just about all know about his background. He did not emerge in public until about the time his father was dying.

In 2009, he is thought to have married a beautiful young women who has been variously described as a singer in a popular music group, a cheerleader in a sports event and a doctoral candidate in a Korean university. When his father finally died in 2011, the 32-year-old Kim Jong-un became North Korea’s leader. But on assuming power, he showed himself a more ruthless, determined and absolute ruler than Ibn Khaldun would have predicted.

Almost immediately, he purged his father’s top general among other senior officials, and allegedly he ordered or tolerated the murder of his elder brother whom he must have seen as a potential rival. More generally, he proved himself skillful in organizing the bitter memories of the Korean War among his people to support his regime.

To explain in part the inconsistency of what he did and what was expected of the third generation, I suggest that that he must have constantly had before him lesson of Saddam Husain who lacked nuclear weapons, could not defend himself and was hanged. Watching these events as a young man, Kim Jong Un must have been convinced that he could not afford to give himself up to luxury. As his opponents charge, he may have many vices but sloth is not one of them.

Policy Options

From this sketchy background of the two men whose hands are on the nuclear trigger, I turn to what their choices are. That is, what is the range of policies they must be considering or enacting to accomplish what they say are their objectives.

A map of the Korean Peninsula showing the 38th Parallel where the DMZ was established in 1953. (Wikipedia)

As I understand his objectives, the ruler of North Korea is determined to protect his regime (and of course his own life) and believes he can do so only if he has the capacity to deliver a blow sufficiently painful to any attacker that would deter him.

As Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has visited North Korea seven times and toured its nuclear facilities, has written (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 7 August 2017), Kim Jong Un “is determined to develop an effective deterrent to keep the United States out.” His answer is a missile-carried nuclear weapon.

Contrariwise, President Trump’s announced objective (which in general echoes that of previous administrations) is to get the North Korean government to stop its development of both nuclear weapons and missiles. He has, theoretically, a range of policies to effect his objective.

Taking back my former role as a policy planner, I would divide the possible courses of American action, the cost of each and its likelihood of being accomplished as follows:

–The first possible policy is what could be called “bluster and threat without armed action.” This is what President Trump is doing today. His outbursts apparently go over well with his loyal supporters but his words have not apparently at least so far affected Kim Jong Un.

However his words have delivered the worst possible result: it has increased North Korean fear of U.S. invasion, has increased Kim Jong Un’s determination to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and has probably stoked the war fever of the Koreans.

Thomas Schelling, with whom I disagreed on other issues, got this one right. As he wrote in The Strategy of Conflict, “madmen, like small children, can often not be controlled by threats” and “if he is not to react like a trapped lion, [an opponent] must be left some tolerable recourse. We have come to realize that a threat of all-out retaliation gives the enemy every incentive, in the event he should choose not to heed the threat, to initiate his transgression with an all-out strike on us; it eliminates lesser courses of action and forces him to choose between extremes.”

In making that choice, Kim Jong Un hears President Trump. threatening “fire and fury, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” (Kim responded with the threat to bomb America’s air base on Guam island “to teach the U.S. a severe lesson.”)

Mr. Trump said America was “locked and loaded” and its “patience is over.” And, in addition to remarks on the internet and to audiences all over America, he authorized a simulated war exercise (known as Foal Eagle 2017) by some 300,000 troops armed with live ammunition in and around South Korea which, of course, the government of the North regarded as provocative. But the U.S. did not alert its troops in South Korea nor its aircraft on Guam nor its ships at sea that an outbreak of hostilities was imminent. In short, the threat appeared all talk but no action.

Sen. John McCain, a man with some experience in combat, commented that President Trump’s recent fiery rhetoric on North Korea would only ratchet up the heat for a possible confrontation but nothing else.

As the conservative political commentator Anthony Cordesman wrote on August 5, 2017, “One would hope that the North Korean ‘crisis’ is moving away from bluster and counter bluster … [since] gross overreaction and issuing empty threats discredits the U.S. in terms of allies support and is not a meaningful bargaining tool in dealing with fellow blusterers like Kim Jong Un.”

Conclusion: the likelihood of this line of action accomplishing the stated objective of American policy is near zero, but the costs are twofold: first, the threat of intervention forces the North Korean government to accelerate its acquisition of the very weapons America wishes it to relinquish and serves to keep its armed forces on alert lest the Americans convert threat to attack or stumble into war; the second cost is that such a policy undercuts the image Americans wish to project as the upholders of peace and stability even if not always of democracy and independence.

The Limited Strike Option

–The second possible policy would be to attack selected targets, including members of North Korea’s government, with Special Forces and/or drones. Employment of such tactics even in less organized societies, such as Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, have created chaos but have not produced what their advocates predicted.

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

North Korea is a regimented state with a high level of “security” comparable to China. In the 1960s, I once was ordered to find out what the CIA might be able to do with this or a similar option to slow down Chinese nuclear development. The CIA was then sending agents into China from secret bases on Quemoy and Matsu. I asked what they found out. The responsible CIA officer replied that he did not know because none ever returned. That experience would probably be repeated in Korea.

Conclusion: the likelihood of such action accomplishing the stated objective of American policy is near zero, but the cost could be catastrophic: An American attack, even if denied and covert, almost certainly would trigger a North Korean response that might provoke an American counterstroke that could escalate to nuclear war.

–The third possible policy would be to encourage North Korea’s neighbors to attempt to coerce it to disarm and/or to scale back its military policy. Such a policy could aim to get China to control the North Koreans and possibly then encourage or allow Japan and/or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons and so, themselves, pose a threat to North Korea and indirectly to Chinese interests.

Mr. Trump has several times called on the Chinese to effect the American policy on North Korea and has expressed his disappointment that they have not done so. When their own interests were at stake, the Chinese did impose sanctions and cut back on the import of Korean coal, iron ore and seafood. But China can hardly be expected to lend itself to be a tool of American policy. It too has memories of the Korean War and of attempts to weaken or overthrow it. Today, it also sees the U.S. as its rival in the Pacific. So, it is unlikely that Mr. Trump’s saying that “they do Nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue” — will win Chinese support.

If not the Chinese, what about the Japanese? As I have pointed out in Part 1 of this essay, Japan is tarred by the nearly half century of its brutal regime in Korea. Korean “comfort women,” sexual slaves, are still seeking compensation for the misery inflicted on them and their plight is standard fare in Korean media.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been pushing for Japanese rearmament and is known for his hard line on North Korea, is not a good choice to convince North Korea to cooperate with America. Encouraging militarism in Japan will raise bitter memories all over East Asia.

Moreover, were Japan to rearm itself with nuclear weapons or were South Korea to be given them, as Mr. Cordesman thinks Mr. Trump may feel forced to do, the overall and long-range objectives of the United States would be severely damaged: the “cure would be worse than the malady.”

We don’t need more nuclear weapons powers; the political history of South Korea gives little assurance of a “responsible” nuclear policy; and there is no reason to believe that a nuclear-armed South Korea or a nuclear-armed Japan would be more successful than a nuclear-armed America.

Worse, if South Korea and Japan were to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, such action might set off a scramble by other nations to acquire them. The world was already deadly dangerous when only two states had nuclear weapons; the danger of use by design or accident was multiplied when five more states acquired them and if the number keeps on growing accidental or deliberate use will become almost inevitable.

To spread weapons further is against America’s national interest although some of President Trump’s advisers apparently discount the danger and believe enhanced nuclear power at home and selective spread aboard is to the interest both of the nation and of his administration.

Conclusion: the likelihood of getting others to successfully accomplish American objectives vis-à-vis North Korea is near zero. Faced with nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan, North Korea would logically accelerate rather than cut back its weapons program. China has its own policies and is unlikely to serve as an American proxy. Moreover, the costs of giving South Korea and Japan nuclear weapons is potentially enormous.

The Nuclear Option

–The fourth theoretical policy option would be an American or American-led “coalition” attack on North Korea similar to our two attacks on Iraq and our attack on Afghanistan. America could hit the country with almost any level of destruction it chose from total annihilation to targeted demolition. Knowing that they could not prevent attacks, the North Koreans have adopted a policy that sounds very like America’s Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, mutual assured destruction or MAD. What would this amount to in the Korean conflict?

North Korean missile launch on March 6, 2017.

The cost of war to North Korea would be almost unimaginable. If nuclear weapons were used, much of North Korea would be rendered unlivable for a generation or more. General Douglas MacArthur had wanted to use the nuclear bomb during the first Korean War in the early 1950s, but even with only conventional weapons used in that conflict, the Koreans suffered casualties, reportedly, of about one in each three persons.

If the U.S. used nuclear weapons this time, millions, perhaps as many as 8 million to 12 million, would be killed and many of the rest of the 26 million inhabitants would be wounded or afflicted with radiation sickness. Once initiated, the attack would have done this damage in minutes or hours. So how would the North Koreans respond?

Their government would order them to retaliate. That is what they are constantly being trained to do. As the Korean War demonstrated, the North Koreans are determined fighters. It would be foolish to expect them to surrender.

The North Korean army is said to be the fourth largest in the world, roughly 1 million men, and is backed up by an active reserve about 5-6 times that many from a potential enrollment of about 10 million. This force is equipped with perhaps 10,000 tanks and self-propelled cannon.

The numbers are impressive but, as in chess, it is position that counts in war. The North is believed to have about 12,000 cannon and roughly 2,300 rockets within range of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Seoul has a population of somewhat more than 10 million people and, in the event of an American attack on North Korea, the North Koreans have said they would obliterate it.

As David Wood wrote on April 18, 2017, “In a matter of minutes, these heavy, low-tech weapons could begin the destruction of the South Korean capital with blizzards of glass shards, collapsed buildings and massive casualties that would decimate this vibrant U.S. ally and send shock waves through the global economy.”

In addition to the South Koreans who would suffer and die, there are about 30,000 US troops in the armistice zone. They, and the hundreds of thousands of dependents, supporters and families of the troops living in Seoul, are hostages to U.S. policy. They also would suffer terrible casualties.

Could the North Koreans carry out such massive counterstrikes? There seems little or no doubt that they could, even if they were subjected to massive first strikes even with nuclear weapons. The North Koreans learned from the first Korean War to use mobile, hard to detect or target, launchers and to go underground to prepared firing points.

Probably many of the North Korean weapons would be destroyed, but there are so many that the surviving pieces could inflict massive casualties. Almost incredible photos, from North Korean television, published in The Sun on April 26, 2017, showed demonstration by hundreds of North Korean artillery pieces and rocket launchers firing into the sea. In the event of war, they would be firing into Seoul.

Then there are the missiles. Japan generally and U.S. bases in Japan and on the island of Guam are within the range of North Korean mid-range rockets. And Alaska and the U.S. West Coast are either already or soon will be within range. Would North Korea use them as a counterstrike? On August 7, as Business Insider reported, “North Korea issued a stark warning to the US: If you attack us, we will retaliate with nuclear weapons.”

Judging from my experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis, I am sure that we would have done so. It is unlikely that Kim Jong Un would do less than John F. Kennedy.

Losing Los Angeles

If in reply to an American attack, the North Koreans struck the United States what would be the result? Loren Thompson speculated in the August 30, 2017 issue of Forbes on “What a Single North Korean Nuclear Warhead Could Do To Los Angeles.” He picked Los Angeles because it is or soon will be in range of North Korean missiles and would be an obvious choice against which to threaten retaliation. With a population of more than 13 million, it is the second largest city in America.

Illustration by Chesley Bonestell of nuclear bombs detonating over New York City, entitled “Hiroshima U.S.A.” Colliers, Aug. 5, 1950.

As I write this, North Korea appears to have demonstrated a somewhat less powerful thermonuclear weapon, about seven times the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima, but Thompson speculates on the result of Los Angeles being hit by a bomb that North Korea presumably will soon have, about 33 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Hit by it, all structures, no matter how securely built with reinforced concrete, within a radius of half a mile from ground zero “would be either totally destroyed or rendered permanently unusable.” The enormous pressure created by the fireball would heavily damage the adjoining circle of 2½ to 3 miles. Virtually all civic facilities (electrical grids, water mains, transport facilities, etc.) would be rendered inoperative and civil services (fire departments, police, hospitals, schools) would be destroyed or severely damaged.

A cloud of radioactive materials would be spread over a far larger area. And perhaps as many as a million people would have been burned to death immediately with many more grievously wounded and unable to get help. And that would be only in the first hours or days. In the following days, the wounded, often suffering from burns, hungry, thirsty, terrified and desperate, would limp out of the core area into the suburbs and surrounding towns, overwhelming their facilities.

Los Angeles would be only one target. North Korea would have nothing to lose by using all of its missiles and bombs. Some might go astray or malfunction, but some might hit San Francisco, Seattle, perhaps Denver and more remotely St. Louis, Dallas and perhaps Chicago. If one reached New York, the damage would be far greater than in Los Angeles.

Conclusion: As Steven Bannon, President Trump’s former “Chief Strategist” is quoted as saying,There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

That may explain why he was fired. And retired Lt. General James Clapper, who as the former Director of National Intelligence was not in danger of losing his job, told CNN, we must “accept the fact that they are a nuclear power.”

An attack on North Korea, while almost certainly devastating to North Korea, would be prohibitively expensive for America. Moreover, while it would temporarily prevent North Korea from posing a nuclear threat, it would create another area of chaos, like those created in Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan. Attacking North Korea is not a rational policy choice.

Trying to Talk

–The remaining policy option is negotiation. What would be negotiable and what not? What would be the modalities? What would constitute success and what would be the result of failure? How could a result be made believable and how could it be enforced?

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses the Security Council ministerial-level meeting on the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs of North Korea. At right is U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Behind Tillerson is U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

I think we must begin by recognizing that it would be irrational for North Korea to give up missiles and nuclear weapons. Despite the horror with which I view nuclear weapons, they are very attractive to small nations. They level the playing field. A Texas saying from my youth sums it up: Mr. Colt’s invention of the cowboy’s pistol “made all men equal.” The nuclear weapon is pistol writ large. It is the ultimate defense.

For Kim Yong Un to give up his nuclear weapons, while we keep ours and have announced that we intend to overthrow his regime, would be tantamount to his committing suicide. He may be evil, as many believe, but there is no reason to believe that he is a fool.

Could not America offer in the course of negotiations a series of graduated steps in which over time a slow-down and ultimate elimination of missiles and nuclear weapons could be traded for ending of sanctions and increased aid? The answer, I think, is “yes, but.” The “but” is that Kim Yong Un would almost certainly insist on three things: the first is that he would not give up all his weapons and so would insist that North Korea be recognized as a nuclear power; the second is that he not be humiliated in the negotiated cut; and the third is that some formula be worked out to guarantee the deal. I have dealt with the first two issues above; I turn now to the third, how to guarantee the agreement.

The Bush administration invasion of Iraq in 2001 showed that America could create excuses to void any commitment it might make and provide excuses for any action it wished to take. The current push by the Trump administration to renege on the treaty made with Iran and written into American law by the Senate must convince the North Koreans that a treaty with America is just a scrap of paper. He must be convinced that America cannot be trusted.

But, if China and Russia were prepared to guarantee the deal and Japan and South Korea acquiesced to it and also gave up their option to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, that could be the first step in a phased series of steps that might be productive. At the same time, America would have to give up its ineffective sanctions, stop such provocative acts as the massive war game on the frontier and the barrage of threats and undertake a sort of Marshall Plan to lift North Korea out of poverty and hunger.

Conclusion: I am convinced that it will not be possible in the foreseeable future to get Kim Jong Un or any conceivable successor to give up deliverable nuclear weapons. Thus, there can be no “success,” as described in current policy statements by the Trump administration. But, arrangements can be created – by enlisting China and Russia as partners in negotiations and by renouncing threats and such damaging (and ineffective) policies as sanctions – to gradually create an atmosphere in which North Korea can be accepted as a partner in the nuclear “club.”

Failure to move in this direction will leave us, at best, in the limbo of fear and the possibility of stumbling into war. This is obviously a gambit that may fail. What is clear, however, is that none of the alternatives has worked or is likely to work. To embark on this path will require a degree of statesmanship, which we may not have.

How to Do It

If the United States government should decide to try this option, I think the following steps will have to be taken to start negotiations:

First, the U.S. government must accept the fact that North Korea is a nuclear power;

Second, it must commit itself formally and irrevocably to a no-first-strike policy. That was the policy envisaged by the Founding Fathers when they denied the chief executive the power to initiate aggressive war;

Third, it must remove sanctions on North Korea and begin to offer in a phased pattern aid to mitigate the current (and potentially future) famines caused by droughts and crop failures; helping North Korea to move toward prosperity, and reducing fear; and

Fourth, stop issuing threats and drop the unproductive and provocative war games on the DMZ.

Will, or even can, any American administration move in this direction? I think the answer will depend in large part on the education of the government leaders and the public among both of whom the level of ignorance of the real costs of war, especially nuclear war, is politically crippling.

As I have suggested, Mr. Trump has shown no comprehension of the costs of war in a nuclear context. Nor has the general public. The pictures of children on Guam being told not to look at the flash of the fireball reminds one of the ridiculous advice to school children in America in the Cold War to take refuge under their desks.

The reality of a modern war must be explained and taught. I do not know if Korean children are so taught, but their parents or grandparents knew it firsthand. This generation of Americans has never seen war up-close in America although some of their fathers saw it in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, memories fade and Americans today do not want to be informed of the danger of a new war. Escapism is one of the great dangers we face.

In the American tradition, the President is the nation’s teacher. We must insist he perform that task or we could pay the supreme price of falling off the edge into the dark void of nuclear war.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

102 comments for “On the Brink of Nuclear War

  1. September 19, 2017 at 05:25

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  3. Lawrence Fitton
    September 9, 2017 at 11:18

    wonderful piece of work by mr. polk. i think it’s time to make overtures of peace with north korea. also, reintegration with the south should be the ultimate goal.
    who thought that public enemy no.1, the soviet union, would collapse under its own weight? an event that led to the unification of east & west germany. no one expected such. our vaunted intelligence agencies(how many do we have, now?18 or 19) never saw it coming. just like 9/11.
    the unlikely & unexpected can happen.

  4. Bernie
    September 8, 2017 at 17:52

    The U.S. has 14 submarines touring the oceans armed with nuclear armed missiles. (Actually there may be more. This is the official number listed in wikipedia.) So essentially we are a threat to every country in the world. So when the US freaked out when Russia staged missiles in Cuba, what can we expect from deploying these monsters of destruction for which few know their location? We have become the anti-hero, not Superman but Superbully ready to pounce on and incinerate any upstart who doesn’t play and pay for protection.

  5. Chronicler
    September 8, 2017 at 13:24

    “Fire and Fury” is very disappointing. So was “We came we saw he died”. As a Trump voter holding on to the few overtures to non-interventionism before the election, I can find no solace in being fooled. Thanks to Dimitri Babich for pointing out Schumpeter, I paraphrase: Rome near the end of the empire recognized the enemy only as barbarians who had no legitimacy.

  6. Bob Beal
    September 8, 2017 at 12:26
  7. AppealtoReason
    September 6, 2017 at 22:34

    Ahhh, the NeoCohens bringing us to the border of destruction again. Perhaps we need to bring out that great old movie “Threads” again so that we can see what a “small” 1 megaton bomb can do to a city. Ever hear what the average South Korean thinks about the prospect of having their capital obliterated? No. Carefully controlled dialogue and discourse of course, by the ziocohen media.

    Perhaps an antiwar march might be called for? I marched when Bush and his madness was in office (anyone remember this guy was judged a moron) and no one wanted to march under obama when he was bringing countries down because he was articulate and a nobel peace prize winner? Where is the outrage?

    As many stated and I will say that NK has a right to defend themselves with any weapon they can obtain. Where is the outrage when we launch a minuteman III ICBM for “readiness testing? Where is the outrage when we just certified a new B61 air dropped nuke?

    As mentioned, the boy wonder obama allowing the spending of a trillion dollar on upgrading out nuclear weapons, when we should be dismantling them as he campaigned on doing. All of this is something that men love:PORN!! Its just fear porn at this point.

  8. Kozmo
    September 6, 2017 at 17:29

    People keep reproducing that Wikipedia map — wrongly. The current DMZ is NOT the 38th Parallel. The 38th Parallel was the border pre-1950 invasion. It is no longer the border, altho’ the cease-fire line, the DMZ, lies close to it, but generally a bit to the north.

  9. George Hoffman
    September 6, 2017 at 15:51

    Professor Polk, thank you, for your insightful two-part essay, and of course, your account of the Cuban Missile Crisis which I found fascinating. You mentioned how our “Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief” has no real knowledge of the grim and brutal reality of war. But I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam (31 May 1967 – 31 May 1968). And to this day, though I am well into the autumn of my years, I have vivid memories of my tour of duty and the horrific things I saw as a naive young man. If there is really such a thing as karma, I want to come back as a civilian in my next life. But I would assert that President Donald Trump’s views on war are rather typical of my fellow baby boomers who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. He reminds me of a careless and impulsive child who wants to play catch with you. But with a live hand grenade. Yet I had to laugh when I read he had tweeted he was “locked and loaded” like a grunt in a Hollywood war movie and ready to take on Kim Sung Un. It’s as if if the great film director Stanley Kubrick has come back from the death and he is directing from the Oval Office a TV reality show of his classic satire on nuclear war, “Dr Strangleove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” My sense of humor seems to be my only defense against how absurd the world has become. It’s amazing how far into the future Kubrick saw the dark violent undercurrents in our country. Of course as a Veteran I would not wish war on my worst enemy. Let alone a nuclear war. Thankfully, Trump chose three generals – James Kelly, H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, into the inner circle of his cabinet, so at least Trump Is under adult supervision.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 6, 2017 at 16:29

      I’m impressed with your being a Medical Corpsman during the Vietnam War. I served between 1968-72 active duty in the Navy. In Boot Camp I wrote down Vietnam as a preferred duty station, but my Company Commander who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam, erased my Vietnam preference and told me to pick another duty station, like Norfolk, Va..

      I have a friend who served as a Corpsman in Nam and the stories he told me (he never brags or talks about it much, this was one rare occasion when he did) of how he had to go out into no man’s land to retrieve wounded and dying Marines, and how he just did it. He said, ‘if you thought long, you thought wrong’.

      So George I have as much respect for you, and what you did, as I can possibly have for another human being. What makes you even more special, is your well experienced soul has brought to this place where you hate all war. I feel the greatest honor we can pay our veterans, is too stop fighting these senseless wars, and learn how to create an atmosphere of detente, as we try as hard as we might to never fight another war. It’s time to give our men and woman in uniform a well needed R&R….or as us squid’s call it ‘Liberty’, and lots of time off.

      Good on you George, great comment posting. Joe

  10. Robert Shillenn
    September 6, 2017 at 14:05

    Excellent analysis: We can only hope that enough people among the decision-makers in the Trump administration come to similar conclusions.

  11. LJ
    September 6, 2017 at 13:40

    Relax, take a deep breath, maybe we should all take a collective poop instead of wallowing in BS. . Reagan had us on full scale RED for 30 days, no let up, when he was facing down Gorby and Scheveztraitor.. AND Informed sources in the room had Bobby Kennedy get up and take charge when JFK could not make a decision (After he’d already had his bimbo break and had probably dipped Tweetle Dee and Tweetle Dumb in the White House Pool) Saying, (of course I paraphrase) “My Brother is not going to go down in history as the Man who initiated a Nuclear Holocaust.’ End of Crisis. Maybe if Irma wipes out Florida we can change the narrative. That fat worthless punk (Genetically spawned malevolent dwarf) in N Korea is living large, he has his pretty wife and anything else he wants to play with, he’s not Saddam writing poetry who could still kick your ass in a fight, he’s no threat at all. Trump needs a new haircut, a makeover.

  12. Michael Kenny
    September 6, 2017 at 10:41

    There’s no doubt that Trump will ultimately have to capitulate to North Korea and Kim knows that. That’s why he is now goading the US to attack him and sees no reason whatsoever to negotiate anything. Thus, Kim is just going to sit tight and await developments. A further fly in Mr Polk’s ointment is that he has the classic cold war fixation on the bombing of cities. Why would anyone drop a nuclear bomb on a city? Cities have no military importance in themselves. In addition, it seems that NK is a “fake” nuclear power inasmuch as it does not itself produce all that it needs to make and deliver nuclear bombs. The recent ISS report, drawn attention to by Robert Parry, argues that NK has to import, at very least, rocket motors from one of two factories. Regardless of which factory it is, the only logical route to NK is via Russia. And, of course, we have no idea what other “bits and bobs” NK has to import, from Russia or elsewhere. I wonder if that’s why Mr Polk thinks Russia should “guarantee” any agreement. There’s no obvious reason why Russia should be involved other than to give an undertaking not to supply any bomb-related materials to NK, or allow such materials to be transported across its territory. Thus, Trump is not going to attack NK and Kim isn’t going to drop a nuclear bomb on LA (even if he could).

    • Zachary Smith
      September 6, 2017 at 15:33

      Why would anyone drop a nuclear bomb on a city? Cities have no military importance in themselves.

      I hate it when the drive-through one-shot troll makes sense.

      But he quickly reverts to is inner voices.

      Regardless of which factory it is, the only logical route to NK is via Russia.

      There’s no obvious reason why Russia should be involved other than to give an undertaking not to supply any bomb-related materials to NK, or allow such materials to be transported across its territory.

      In troll-world the 11 mile border with Russia is the only logical route for the transport of rocket motors to North Korea. The 880 mile border with China is ruled out on the basis of “logic”. Ditto for shipment by boat. Double Ditto for shipment by the big airplane transporter.

      Logic. Very useful stuff to smite the evil Putin right between the eyes.

  13. Joe Tedesky
    September 6, 2017 at 08:46

    Eric Zuesse reported this….

    “It has been widely reported that President Tump requested Tillerson to resign but that Tillerson told him the only way he’ll leave is if Trump fires him. Other reports allege that U.N. Ambassador Haley would be his replacement, and that Dina Powell, another hard-line neoconservative, would replace her at the U.N.”

    I thought you all might find this interesting. Imagine warmongering Nikki as Secretary of State, and what could go wrong with that appointment?

    • mike k
      September 6, 2017 at 09:54

      Nasty Nikki is the mean attack dog for her really scary evil masters. She is barking insanely for Armageddon.

    • mike k
      September 6, 2017 at 10:01

      There seems to be a plentiful cauldron of evil scum for Trump to draw on for his cabinet replacements, and he has shown a nose for the vilest among them. Why don’t Trump lovers have to hold their noses to deal with the Stench there from? I guess they find it to be perfume to their addled senses.

  14. Herman
    September 6, 2017 at 08:38

    At the time of the Cuban crisis, my reaction was this is unreal, and regarding Kennedy, I thought he was nuts. The missile exchange with Turkey and Cuba was kept from us, the public. Still, the creation of the nuclear deterrence strategy meant someone could have pushed the wrong button. But it passed and Kennedy was a hero.

    Polk prescription makes sense, of course, and will be rejected by our generals, statesman and politicians for reasons anybody who thinks knows. The United States is full of hawks, and the doves dare not show themselves lest they are reduced to a pile of feathers.

    Still, Polk makes great reading and his voice is out there to be heard, if anybody wants to take the time to listen.

    • mike k
      September 6, 2017 at 09:49

      We will all be reduced to a pile of terminated indifference, by a big bang followed by a lot of whimpers.

  15. mike k
    September 6, 2017 at 08:15

    As the crushing reality of lethal climate change bears down on all of us, the nuclear weapons possessing states will clutch their bombs and rockets ever more tightly, like terrorists hugging their suicide vests for a feeling of power over a world perceived to be full of enemies. The irony is that diverting our attention and energies to military goals is one of the causes of the climate crisis unfolding. The modern military is among the greatest consumer of fossil fuels, and hence atmospheric pollution and global heating. The supposed safety delivered by increasing our weapons (eg. A trillion dollar upgrade of our nuclear arsenal) turns out to be a death trap.

    “Good creatures, do you love your lives
    And have you ears for sense?
    Here is a knife like other knives,
    That cost me eighteen pence.

    I need but stick it in my heart
    And down will come the sky,
    And earth’s foundations will depart
    And all you folk will die.”
    A.E. Houseman


  16. Michael McNulty
    September 6, 2017 at 07:03

    US agreements are worthless and have to be discounted from the start.

    • SteveK9
      September 6, 2017 at 20:37

      Which is why Polk is suggesting a strong role for Russia/China. We are in an upside-down World, where those countries are considered to be more trustworthy than the US.

  17. onno
    September 6, 2017 at 06:02

    Mr. Polk an excellent analysis of the delima’s Washington is facing. In the past USA bombed N. Korea almost to total destruction while killing 20% of its population. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Kim Jong Un is building up it’s nuclear arsenal to protect his nation. On top of that Kim Jong Un has learned that Washington cannot be trusted. President Putin & President Xi Jinping both have appealed to Washington to stop their AGGRESSION against N. Korea and instead should NEGOTIATE with N. Korea to prevent a Nuclear war & possible WW III, the destruction of which cannot be estimated besides the enormous loss of lives in this territory like Japan & S. Korea cannot be estimated. I am only worried that the US powerful military industrial complex will be able to force a war just to increase it’s profitability!

  18. Lee Francis
    September 6, 2017 at 04:28

    A very interesting and thoughtful piece. I would take issue, however, with the implied notion that Trump is actually making policy. All the indications are that the deep state including the media and various Washington think-tanks are pushing for war and confrontation; this being palpably evident in the inane and frightening utterances of lunatics like Nikki Haley; and a fortiori applies also to the neo-conservatives who have long been in favour and argued for a uni-polar world with the US in charge. No, Trump is just a cipher doing what he is told, a sort of Potemkin President.

    This whole crazy foreign policy circus probably started with Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary for Defence at the Pentagon and a case-hardened neo-con, who outlined the doctrine in 1992, it read as follows.

    ”Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat to the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defence strategy and requires that we endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.”

    Not intended for public release, the document was leaked to the New York Times on March 7, 1992, and sparked a public controversy about U.S. foreign and defence policy. The document was widely criticized as imperialist as it documents outlined a policy of unilateralism and pre-emptive military action to suppress potential threats from other nations and prevent any other nation from rising to superpower status.

    This was the first draft but it created a furore among its opponents. Senator Edward Kennedy for one described it as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.”

    The document was revised but too late since the neo-cons had shown their hand. The policy itself, was a policy of containment, presumably of Russia and China, and the assertion of American global hegemony; the implications of such a policy put the United States on a collision course with rising powers which would eventuate in war. End of story.

    The neo-conservative doctrine has been the leitmotif in American foreign policy since the enunciation of the Wolfowitz. Same people, same outlook, same delusions, continuity rules. Who was the US President during this whole period, hardly matters.

  19. TC Burnett
    September 5, 2017 at 22:10

    Well and good, even if I cannot agree with all of your points. Let me suggest that the DPRK will, within a week, launch another ICBM and will announce that it was the final demonstration of a nuclear weapon and it’s attendant delivery system – and contained a mock-up of their current nuclear device.

    They will further announce that, as of the demonstration, their nuclear weapons system has been tested and has been deployed and that any further ‘provocation’ from the US (they will use a more explicit narrative) will result in the total destruction of both the US and of South Korea.

    Within hours, the Chinese will either have to occupy North Korea to ‘maintain order’, or accept a US military action – which will occur regardless of the obvious risk to South Korea.

    • Anon
      September 5, 2017 at 22:59

      None of that is likely:
      1. NK will not announce a final test because they have much more work to do.
      2. They will not announce a retaliation policy for “provocations” as it would achieve nothing and invite a provocation.
      3. They do not have capability to do much damage in the US yet, nor anything beyond limited first strike ability.
      4. China clearly would not attack NK or accept a US attack on NK based upon a test; they have said that.
      Why say such things without considering all that has been said here?

  20. September 5, 2017 at 21:50

    Don’t worry “our leaders” are in “charge.”
    February 25, 2012
    An Imaginary Message from the Bunker

    “It would be our policy to use nuclear weapons wherever we felt it necessary to protect our forces and achieve our objectives.”
    Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Testimony to House Appropriations Committee, 1961

    Hello out there. How are you all doing after the Big Blast? Well I hope! This message is from your Leader and other world leaders protecting your freedom. The latest news from our satellites and the space platform is not good. It appears there are huge fires all over the earth. Numerous cities have been destroyed and the oceans are boiling hot. Nuclear war has its consequences. Anyway not to worry, as far as we can gather from our intelligence info the enemy has been destroyed and freedom still reigns supreme.

    Unfortunately millions upon millions are dead others who survived are contaminated and will die eventually. Here in the bunker we are in constant contact with the space platform who tells us what they see. Meantime, say a prayer for those on the space platform they are totally prisoners up there in the sky, because there is no way we can bring them back at this time. Our infrastructure for doing that has been destroyed. They are now heroes in space destined to be up there forever, a monument to man’s insanity, oops I mean bravery. Talking about bravery, any of you still alive out there in the contaminated earth, pat yourselves on the back for standing tall for freedom and democracy. You are the salt of the earth amongst its ashes.

    Some of you still alive are perhaps wondering how we pass our time in the bunker. We have it fitted out just like home. We have a huge selection of movies, plenty of food and our chefs to cook it. It’s not exactly a blast down here, but we survive. But hey, that nuclear blast was bright and immensely powerful and set off a huge chain reaction around the planet. Thank goodness we were in the bunker. The really important people are here in the bunker. These are ones whose expertise will be needed to put it all back together when we can safely venture outside into the world once more. We also have a psychiatrist with us down here in case any mental disorders occur. We try to think of everything in this little world of ours.

    Did I tell you we have been in contact with other leaders in other bunkers,’ some have reported in, but from others sadly nothing. Perhaps, they never survived. Oh well, there had to be some collateral damage. We will have a minutes silence for those leaders who never made it. But hey, that’s what leaders are for. Captains go down with their ships and some leaders go down in their bunkers. Does that make sense? Anyway, I’m sure you know what I mean.

    Meantime, I ask all you people still alive and terribly burned and contaminated not to lose hope. Everything happens for a reason, and there is no greater reason in this world than saving democracy. Without democracy there is nothing worth living for and that is why I hit the send button. Watching it all here in the bunker on our closed circuit TV was missile heaven. I have never seen so many missiles flying across the sky. It was a heart warming display of man’s ingenuity. I have to admit watching all those missiles of freedom blast off was a proud moment. The bunker was a madhouse for a moment. Everybody cheered, and applauded some gave high fives, punched the air and shouted “yes.” Though one lone voice was heard to say, “What have we done?” There is always a doubter amongst the enthusiastic! Still, we know the system worked well. And we gave the enemy hell. We won the battle for freedom and that is surely what counts. I’ll close for now, have a nice day, if you can, keep the faith, don’t worry and remember your leader is here in the bunker and in control.

    Stephen J. Gray
    February 25, 2012.

    • mike k
      September 5, 2017 at 22:57

      Good story Stephen. Should make people think – if they are not completely brain dead.

  21. Richard Steven Hack
    September 5, 2017 at 21:14

    “I’ve never been in the military, but I’ll still opine that these numbers are mostly irrelevant. Look how well Saddam’s massive army worked out for him.”

    Arabs run (or at least they used to – nowadays even Arabs don’t run from US troops.) Asians don’t run. Also Saddam’s army was not buried under mountains linked by railroad tunnels and hadn’t been preparing for another war with the US for the last sixty-four years. Apples and oranges.

    From the Council on Foreign Relations Web site:


    Western military experts generally estimated that in early 2003, Iraq’s armed forces were down to about 40% of their 1991 Gulf War levels, when they fielded some 1 million troops. International sanctions had kept Iraq from maintaining or modernizing outdated weapons and equipment, and Iraqi soldiers lacked training in modern techniques of war.

    The regular army was thought to have between 300,000 and 350,000 men organized into five corps and 16 divisions. Two-thirds of the soldiers were conscripts, and the majority of the weapons were outdated, experts said. U.S. war planners had predicted that many of these troops would surrender quickly.

    The Republican Guard was believed to have between 60,000 and 70,000 men, organized into six divisions. Compared with the regular troops, it was considered an elite force of mostly career soldiers with better equipment, training and pay, and was expected to put up more of a fight.

    The elite Special Republican Guard was thought to number some 15,000 men drawn from the most loyal of the regime’s supporters.

    What happened when combat began?

    U.S. planners’ predictions about the regular Iraqi Army proved largely correct. One difference: far fewer soldiers surrendered than predicted (only about 7,000 gave themselves up to U.S. forces, compared with 80,000 in the first Gulf War). Many more soldiers appeared to have taken off their uniforms and melted back into the population.

    End Quote

    Clearly there is no comparison with the million-man NK military.

    “I don’t know about the rockets, but there I see no possible way the North Koreans have that many long range artillery pieces.”

    The annual report of North Korea’s military capabilities by the U.S. Department of Defense, released in early 2014, identified the North Korean Army’s strength at 950,000 personnel, 4,200 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 8,600 artillery guns, and over 4,800 multiple rocket launchers

    Look it up. Your dismissal is irrelevant absent any logistical reasoning to support it. The only caveat is that NK’s ability to “level Seoul” is probably not as certain as has been predicted, based on various articles I’ve seen. But even a more limited artillery attack on Seoul is likely to cause huge numbers of casualties – including to thousands of Americans living in and around the area.

    “Surely Mr. Polk is aware that traveling 2,100 miles to Guam is one thing, but hitting any target there would be pure chance. That’s the result of having missiles with a CEP measured in kilometers.”

    Recent estimates suggest NK has a CEP of two or three miles. Which is why Kim threatened to bracket Guam with “enveloping fire” from FOUR missiles. While there is zero proof that NK can hit Guam with an actual nuclear warhead, it would be insane to dismiss the possibility. Guam’s area is only 210 square miles – Rhode Island is five times bigger – it’s not a big target, which means hitting once or twice pretty much anywhere with a 10-30 kiloton nuke will do damage.

  22. Evangelista
    September 5, 2017 at 20:51

    A couple of notes after a quick skim of Mr. Polk’s article:

    First, he writes a good deal about Kim noting it to be ‘reported’, ‘alleged’ ‘said’, ‘believed’, giving in most cases general references to western sources. Western sources are opponent, not favorable, to Kim.

    It is always a bad idea to write biography from opposition accounts and report opposition accounts for information. The biases of such reports’ contents and the gossip and slander, where those are bases for such accounts become the repeater’s as well as the dubious sources’, and, being dubious, they add only more mire to be waded through and provide nothing useful to history or historical record.

    Second, I did not notice any reference to the United States’ recently deployed “THAD” (Terminal High Altitude “Defence”) missile system in the sections “Trying To Talk” and “How To Do It”.

    In any attempt to defuse the Korean Peninsula situation removing THAD, if it is defensive, moving it back to the United States’ own legitimate borders, where it might defend those, and so be legitimately named “Defense”, is should be, would be, the first thing. If the U.S. was serious about wanting to appear mature and to seek a peaceful conclusion to the escalating confrontation, volunteering to remove that recently imposed non-retaliatory aggression would be the first thing to do. Remove that recently instaalled threatening pseudo-“defensive” offensive weapon system and talks would go forward. China a would become more useful, North Korea would become more inclined to cooperate and talks would very likely go forward with all parties in a better space.

    Why is it that the United States seems unable to recognize the correlation between its recent installation of that redundant and unnecessary system and the escalation of North Korean defensiveness, nervousness and ‘paranoia’ (if that is what you want to call N.K. ‘s perception of a real danger)? Everyone in the region has expressed opposition to the U.S. ‘s THAD installation. China has been very straightforward in stating opposition, which the U.S. has ignored, while turning around and demanding China rein in North Korea, who is positioned to play China’s buffer against the offensive war-system.

    Does nobody in the United States have an even halfway working brain? North Korea is not going to back off an inch as long as the U.S. s new aggressive weapon remains in place. The U.S. s THAD-demonstrated aggression is, after all, what North Korea is responding to.

  23. Skeptic
    September 5, 2017 at 20:14

    There is perhaps, another element at play in Trump’s responses to North Korea; the classic ploy, create diversion from domestic issues. Now I do not believe that Trump would initiate such a strategy, but I suspect that some advisers may be encouraging him for that purpose.

  24. Danny Weil
    September 5, 2017 at 20:12

    Conclusion: the likelihood of this line of action accomplishing the stated objective of American policy is near zero, but the costs are twofold: first, the threat of intervention forces the North Korean government to accelerate its acquisition of the very weapons America wishes it to relinquish and serves to keep its armed forces on alert lest the Americans convert threat to attack or stumble into war; the second cost is that such a policy undercuts the image Americans wish to project as the upholders of peace and stability even if not always of democracy and independence.”

    One must understand that at this late stage of failing financial capitalism, the culture shapes and manipulates minds and in very different ways. People become their own oppressors.

    Psycopathy, which is what is prevalent in America today and which the author alludes to in sizing up Trump, which he did nicely, is part and parcel of the failure of Empires. The 50 million apprentices or voters that Bannon was able to get him will follow him no matter what. In the Age of Irrationality, reason is the loser.

    So we have a failing global capitalist system and with it a population in America, and also in N. Korea, of people who fail to think critically and whose leaders will risk the reality of nuclear war due to citizens inability to think. One can only conclude, at least as generalization that many Americans minds have been eroded by technological manipulation and the consequence is that they lie in their own bedpan while hailing their leader.

    Operation Pluto, or the Bay of Pigs, showed the world how irrationality can lead to possible human extinction. But the culture that accompanies failed capitalism is a violent culture of films, music and celebrity culture. Little wonder why we see so many unconscious, somnambulists who vote against their own interests and allow a psychopath and actual criminal (See http://www.madcownews) to lead them into oblivion.

    America is hated all over the world and it used to be only the government. Now, Americans themselves are disliked (the ugly American) for the American culture is now the violent, tortured and epitome of a dictatorial regime.

    We must remember, not just Rome but also 23 other civilizations that have collapsed as their Empires begin to falter, they to tend to overreach, to extend their militarism. This is the grave danger: that the moral underbelly of American culture and identity coupled with failed state capitalism, leads us to nuclear devastation, called war.

    We humans may not survive as a species. Many educated people are wondering the same thing: can the species survive its own immolation? Can nationalism, industrialism, militarism and capitalism be eradicated before it is too late? Or is America’s and N. Korea’s dictatorial models what we must be content with?

    What we are witnessing is the New Digital Dark Ages and the Caligulaization of America.

    • Sam F
      September 5, 2017 at 22:49

      There is much truth there, although the disaster may be a necessary stage in the restoration of democracy here. If it does not result in nuclear war, we may hope that the collapse leads to a better future. Democracy is a forest of states, some like ours diseased and about to fall, only to fertilize the soil for others of better structure.

  25. Typingperson
    September 5, 2017 at 20:01

    Thanks for publishing this thoughtful and illuminating piece, CN / Mr. Parry. And thank you for writing it, Mr. Polk.

    My back-of-the-envelope calculus while carefully reading was: The USA needs to accept that N. Korea has nukes / hydrogen bombs and drop the sanctions. Deal with it. Stop provoking N. Korea. Be practical. Work from there.

    Mr. Polk comes to a far more nuanced version of this conclusion. He suggests a carrot and stick approach–dropping sanctions, dispensing with threats and belligerence, and building trust plus deterrence with help of China and Russia.

    I agree–but given the state of ignorance / fear / paranoia / credulous nuttiness of our media and populace re N. Korea’s legitimate interests and fears–and the leadership vacuum at the top, I dont see it happening.

    Two big problems:

    1) USA media reports everything like Opposite Day. In all the mainstream media I’ve read, NK is portrayed as the agressor for testing long-range missile and H-bomb. These are provactive acts we must respond to!!! Crisis!!! Existential threat!!! Kim Jong Un is an evil madman!!!!!!!

    Nevermind, as more complete context (including previous article here on CN) makes clear, these “provocations” by NK are in fact reactions to USA provocation–namely the massive USA war games on its border.

    2) As Mr. Polk and others have pointed out–sadly, no one I’ve come across in the MSN–NK has every rational reason to develop nukes as its only protection v. the aggressive, lawless and untrustworthy USA regime.

    Libya and Iraq gave up their nukes programs to appease USA–and USA responded by illegally invading and destroying both countries. Hussein ended up hunted and then lynched by USA-backed minions and Ghaddafi got a bayonet up his rectum for trying to do business in good faith with USA. Hell of a way to die.

    Trying to appease a lawless empire doesn’t work. We saw that with Nazi Germany in the late 30s and early 40s and, since 2001, with USA.

    Kim Jong Un does not appear to be stupid. He has learned his lesson witnessing the fates of Hussein and Ghaddafi, who gave up nukes in hopes of peaceful relations with USA.

    And now–Trump trying to renege on our agreement with Iran when they’ve held up their end of the bargain and given up their nuclear program. Instead of treating Iran as a cooperative, honorable partner, USA is trying to find some excuse to invade them.

    The USA has no credibility in dealing with dictators–or democratically elected leaders–of smaller, weaker countries. So we don’t have a lot of negotiating room with North Korea.

    The big problem here, it seems to me, is that USA has become a lawless, untrustworthy empire.

    What next?

    • Zachary Smith
      September 5, 2017 at 21:35

      2) As Mr. Polk and others have pointed out–sadly, no one I’ve come across in the MSN–NK has every rational reason to develop nukes as its only protection v. the aggressive, lawless and untrustworthy USA regime.

      If North Korea has nerve gas for the long range artillery, Seoul is a hostage. If it has Bio-Weapons, the world is hostage. In my opinion it wants the nukes and missiles for reasons besides “security”.

      The big problem here, it seems to me, is that USA has become a lawless, untrustworthy empire.

      We’re not an empire yet, and that quest seems to be faltering because the resistance is growing by leaps and bounds. The rest of the statement appears to be quite right.

      • Typingperson
        September 5, 2017 at 22:11

        Thanks for your response, Zachary. Respectfully, we are indeed an empire. 800-plus military bases worldwide and 60 percent of our federal discretionary budget (i.e. not SS and Medicare, which are self-funded ) spent on military and war–far more than any other country on the planet.

        A ruinous path.

        As best I can tell, the Resistance is comprised of self-satisfied, financially secure, upper-middle class, predominantly white and college-educated, virtue-signallers.

        My own dear mother is a member of her local resistance group. She is white, old, financially secure, on Medicaid, college-educated, upper-middle class, homeowner. (I am not most of these things, btw. I am white and college-educated. That’s it.)

        I asked her what they do. She told me they have interesting speakers. Thank the Lord she isn’t wearing a pink pussy hat.

        I pushed her on USA foreign policy. Asked her re Ukraine–if she was ok with USA-backed Nazi coup. Or with USA funding and arming ISIS terrorists in Syria. She had no idea what I was talking about.

        Her deal is keeping abortion legal. She’s 75. That’s it.

        She has zero idea or interest re USA foreign policy.

        There’s your Resistance. To my mom’s credit–when I confronted her on being old and financially secure, so she doesn’t give a crap about the stuff I do–too tired to spell it out–she agreed with me.

        My point: If you are holding your breath for the “Resistance” to change things–keep holding your breath.

        • hatedbyu
          September 7, 2017 at 10:31

          i love the abortion thing….they have kicked it around for so long…..it virtually elected regan, bush, clinton, bush and obama. so many people like your mom and so many republicans duped into the argument. i kept trying to point out to republicans that even when bush had the house and the senate, they did nothing…..why? because the politicians could care less. it’s part of the globalist/eugenics agenda and they just use it to get elected.

          foreign policy is just as stupid a subject as the us should really be out of everyones business world wide. but the media keeps pushing all this crap. republicans until recently were all for war and intervention. now they are the anti war crowd in the making, just like they historically were.

          so, aside from the occasional soros or fbi astroturf, there will be no resistance until there is the bob marley moment……

          “a hungry mob is an angry mob”

      • Sam F
        September 5, 2017 at 22:41

        Yet NK cannot conquer SK without superpower retaliation, and has known that since the US carpet bombing in 1953. They would not have any superpower support for aggression, and have not been so foolish as to cause damage in foreign territory. I’m not sure what other reason they would have beyond deterrence.

    • mike k
      September 5, 2017 at 22:48

      Next is collapse. And that is going to be unpredictable in it’s horrors, and will most likely end in human extinction. Sorry, but you asked.

    • SteveK9
      September 6, 2017 at 20:35

      This is the real shame of the Democrats despicable ‘Russia-gate’. I honestly think that if Trump had been permitted to go ahead with his idea of detente with Russia, that it would have been immensely useful. Practically the only sensible thing Trump has done, was the ‘de-escalation’ zone policy with Russia. And, that was after just one hour-long conversation.

  26. Pablo Diablo
    September 5, 2017 at 19:57

    When will someone finally ask “where did North Korea get Nuclear technology? And, where did it get missiles to deliver Nuclear Weapons? Care to guess? Gotta keep the War Machine well fed. Mr. Nobel Peace Prize Obama authorized ONE TRILLION dollars for the development of new Nuclear Weapons. Free College tuition? HAHAHAHA.

    • Danny Weil
      September 5, 2017 at 20:21

      Right on!

    • LJ
      September 7, 2017 at 20:49

      Koreans are not stupid people. They are quite bright. The Vietnamese could have nuclear weapons and rocket delivery systems too from their own reactors like India and Israel if they so desired. . Pakistan’s Khan was advanced enough to develop the first Islamic bomb. , How many unsupervised military reactors does India have now ?( Outside oversight of Nuclear Regulatory Non Proliferation Treaty, like Israel) The Koreans may have had some help, It’s known that Germany bankrolled much of Israel’s nuclear program at it’s inception. And luckily Iran doesn’t want a bomb but they could make one , they have the ability and they have an internally driven rocket program that is quite advanced even though the Israelis assassinated it’s head and main genius several years ago. In short , the cat is out of the bag. Maybe if Qaddafi didn’t voluntarily surrender his nuclear program he might still be alive.

  27. Kim Dixon
    September 5, 2017 at 19:31

    Although this is a well-researched, well-written piece, I think it misses the larger picture.

    War with North Korea would be terrible. Nuclear attacks by either side would be catastrophic. But these would not be world-ending events. Nuclear war with *Russia* is the world-ending event – and the one which has been marginalized for a generation.

    We have lost our fear of nuclear conflict, of nuclear winter, of Armageddon. The Neocon fools which run US foreign policy bring us ever closer to WWIII, and yet their madness stands unopposed – in Congress, in the press, and in the streets. Unopposed? Why, their madness stands *undiscussed*, not only in America, but in Europe as well.

    Where is the debate about expanding NATO to Russia’s borders? Where are the demonstrations against Obama/Trump’s trillion dollar nuclear buildup? Where are the revelations about the Neocons’ overthrow of the Ukrainian government, and US/NATO support for the Nazis (ACTUAL Nazis, not underemployed millennial poseurs) attempting to gin up war against Russia there?

    Nowhere. Indeed, the ignorance of the American public matches the ignorance of the political tools surrounding Trump. And the ignorance is so complete, I suspect that the only time that people will awaken is when the next nuclear device is detonated in anger.

    And then, it will be too late.

    • Adrian Engler
      September 5, 2017 at 20:09

      Yes, I think this is true. In that sense, I saw the conflict in Syria as more dangerous (at a time when it seemed plausible that the US would still try regime change) because that could have escalated into a war between the US and Russia. Now, I hope that the US understands that regime change in Syria (which would bring to power Islamist extremists, certainly not the mystical “moderate rebels” who never played a significant role in the armed conflict) is out of the question.

      After NATO’s betrayal in Libya (first false claims about an impending genocide – afterwards human rights organizations clearly stated that these claims were false, Gaddhafi only intended to quash an uprising by armed Islamist extremist groups, not to massacre the civilian population -, then the announcement of a “no fly zone”, and then, without any basis on a UN resolution, massive bombardments), it is likely that Russia and other important countries (depending on which parts of the world it concerns) will hardly allow the US to go forward and to destroy countries any more. In Syria, the US and their proxies have been stopped. This would probably also happen in other countries where they try. On one hand, this is a good thing, in my view, but as long as neocons who attempt such regime change operations are in power in the US, this also means that every time they are stopped, there is a danger that they will not accept this and that there will be an international war that could escalate to a total nuclear war.

      The potential danger of a war with North Korea is significantly smaller. But on the other hand, these would still be something that is on a completely different scale than the wars of the US against countries with much weaker countries in the past decades.

      – China has clearly stated that it would not support North Korea if it attacks another country first, but that it would “prevent” an attack of the US on North Korea. So, there is certainly a significant likelihood of a war with China if the US attacks North Korea first. China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia and the US, but still a considerable one (and if there is a nuclear war between the US and China, it is certainly not excluded that it could escalate in a way that Russia would also be drawn into the war).

      – Even if no nuclear weapons were used, it certainly could not be avoided that a very large number of people in North and South Korea (possibly Japan) would die right in the beginning. The scale would hardly be comparable with wars like the ones against Libya or Iraq in 2003, and the US military bases in South Korea and Japan would certainly been among the first targets, so that also US military death would almost certainly be much larger than in recent other wars.

      – North Korea has nuclear weapons. It is not clear whether it has missiles than can reach North America (and there might be a chance of intercepting such missiles), but there are a lot of other ways of bringing nuclear weapons from North Korea to North America and letting them detonate there (ships, airplanes, submarines, shipping containers). A country that has successfully developed nuclear weapons can also be expected to have developed such plans. Of course, North Korea would hardly use such methods in a first strike – after all, the US nuclear arsenal is in any case much larger, but if North Korea is attacked, such methods may well be used.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 5, 2017 at 21:28

      Nuclear attacks by either side would be catastrophic. But these would not be world-ending events.

      I don’t know why I keep hearing about the US attacking North Korea with nuclear weapons. I’m pretty darned cynical these days, but I can’t quite imagine we’ve sunk that low.

      “world ending events?” Probably not – if the war didn’t spread. But “civilization-ending?” – quite possibly. If the Germs get loose, then all bets are off.

    • irina
      September 5, 2017 at 21:29

      reply to Kim Dixon — If you’re not familiar with the book “By the Bomb’s Early Light”,
      written / compiled by eminent historian Paul Boyer, you should order a copy from any
      used book service and read it. A very important look at how the nuclear age started
      and evolved, very well researched and reported.

      As you say, “we have lost our fear of nuclear conflict . . . ”

      Boyer makes this exact point, stating clearly that the most dangerous period of the ‘nuclear
      era’ was neither the Cuban Missile Crisis or the ‘Star Wars’ period (the book was published
      in 1985). Rather, he said, the most dangerous period would be when several generations
      had grown up habituated to the nuclear threat and had lost not only their fear but even their
      awareness of it. That period would be NOW.

    • Typingperson
      September 5, 2017 at 21:39

      This is why I have come to have such contempt and anger for liberals, including my own family, after 30 years of voting Democrat.

      • SteveK9
        September 6, 2017 at 20:31

        Same, except 46 years.

    • QS
      September 5, 2017 at 23:02

      Excellent comments, Kim Dixon, I completely agree with what you wrote.

    • SteveK9
      September 6, 2017 at 20:28

      We have to rely on Putin, as insane as that would sound to most Americans.

  28. mike k
    September 5, 2017 at 19:22

    It is obvious that the only real, lasting solution to problems like Korea is to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the Earth. But the obvious is completely ignored and deemed “impossible” by the insane folks in power. “Those who the Gods would destroy, they first make them mad.” It is entirely possible to eliminate these weapons, and much simpler than trying to “control” them.

    • Danny Weil
      September 5, 2017 at 20:21

      Absolutely. The problem is that under the current military Keynesianism that is failing, war is the end result, unless there is an organized resistance.

      • mike k
        September 5, 2017 at 22:42

        Capitalism and war are synonymous.

        • hatedbyu
          September 6, 2017 at 14:06

          sure. i’ll buy that for a dollar.

          ha ha.

  29. September 5, 2017 at 19:12

    interesting article at link below:
    North Korea nuclear crisis: Putin warns of planetary catastrophe
    As Kim Jong-un reportedly prepares further missile launch, Russian president says further sanctions would be ‘useless’
    Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Tom Phillips in Beijing
    Tuesday 5 September 2017 19.46 BST

  30. Adrian Engler
    September 5, 2017 at 18:59

    A very good, interesting, and important article.

    Just a detail. I find it a bit strange that it is written that it is not known whether Khrushchev feared being ousted, and it is even mentioned that Khrushchev was not buried at the Kremlin walls, but – unless I have overlooked something -, it is not mentioned in the text that Khrushchev was, indeed, ousted by Brezhnev in 1964, only two years after the Cuban crisis. Of course, it is not known for sure whether that had something to do with the Cuban crisis. But it is remarkable that in 1962, there was the Cuban crisis and one of the most dangerous moments of history, and in November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated, and only a year later, in autumn 1964, Brezhnev was ousted (at least, he was not killed, he lived until 1971). Only about two years after the Cuban crisis, none of the two world leaders who played the main roles were in power any more.

    • Sam F
      September 5, 2017 at 21:44

      While I do not know USSR politics of the period, it seems likely that the Cuba crisis resolution was to the credit of Khruschev, because the deal was removal of US missiles from Turkey, where they posed a major first-strike risk. Probably this was the purpose of the Cuba missiles, so that the resolution might be seen as a success. But in politics anything improper is possible.

      • hatedbyu
        September 6, 2017 at 14:05

        spot on.

        the fact that you have to keep pointing this out to everyone is very telling in our understanding of history.

        kinda like the historians keep telling us that it was the united states that won ww2.

        ask the russians who really won it.

  31. phelanm
    September 5, 2017 at 18:40

    fictionalized account of korean war from a russian perspective (and a chance to hear kim il-sung criticized for not being aggressive enough?), “..Americans ..occupied South Korea ..disbanding the government created by left-wing nationalists ..General Douglas McArthur proposed US citizen Syngman Rhee ..arrested for actions against the government ..immigrated to the US in 1904 ..The Korean War – Episode 1..”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kth5Dgqx7g

  32. mark
    September 5, 2017 at 18:37

    Kennedy was a deeply flawed individual despite his later canonisation. But he had seen war up close as a torpedo boat commander in the Pacific.

    Khruschev was widely despised by his own colleagues as an ignorant, oafish Ukrainian peasant. But he had an even more bitter experience of war as a junior commander at Stalingrad.

    America currently has what may be the most incompetent leadership in its history, arrogant, venal, corrupt, deluded and irredeemably ignorant. This is not limited to Trump, it applies across the board to all those political factions who are implacably opposed to him, and all other US power centres. It is incapable of formulating a rational and coherent policy, much less of adhering to it.

    The North Korean leader appears to have been sufficiently astute to have established his authority and leadership at a very young age, however ruthlessly he may have gone about it. His cartoonish portrayal in Hollywood and elsewhere is as unhelpful as the racist and clownish portrayal of the Japanese prior to Pearl Harbour.

    War was not avoided in 1962 by wise leadership. The decisive factor was a colossal amount of undeserved good fortune, as US destroyers depth charged Soviet submarines armed with nuclear weapons, and as the Soviet commander on Cuba, the general who defended Stalingrad in 1942, delegated the authority to use nuclear weapons that could reach New York, to his junior officers.

    In the present crisis, the standard of leadership is incomparably worse. Any good fortune is in the lap of the gods.

    It may be worth recalling US plans at the time. The General Attack Plan or Grand Attack Plan envisaged the use of 3,600 large strategic nuclear weapons against 2,100 targets, including 900 cities, with simultaneous strikes against Russia, China, and every allied country such as Poland and Albania. The most common weapons were of 1.5 megatons, with some considerably more powerful. Studies gave an estimated death toll of 285 million in the initial attack. A later study argued that this was a considerable underestimate and suggested a more likely death toll of 1,000 million.

    Of course, this ignored: follow up attacks by the US after the initial strike; retaliation by Russia and China; the smaller strategic nuclear arsenals of Britain and France; the many thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, which were likely to leave Europe completely devastated; the likely widespread use of chemical and biological weapons; and the use of conventional weapons.

    It also ignored the fact that everything required to sustain life would have been destroyed. The electricity grid, clean water, fuel supplies, transport system, industry, agriculture, and medical services. Quite likely most of the survivors would have died within the first two years from starvation, exposure, disease and radiation. A nuclear winter might or might not lead to an extinction event for most forms of life.

    Who is going to save us from this? Trump? Nikki Haley the waffle waitress? Or maybe Maxine Waters?

    • Sam F
      September 5, 2017 at 21:36

      Yes, in the US “the standard of leadership is incomparably worse” because we live under a gang operation of economic oligarchy. It will not improve until we have Constitutional amendments to protect elections and mass media from money. Whatever disasters it causes are likely necessary steps in its removal. We can hope that this is not a nuclear war, but it will certainly be a disaster for the US, and may not be able to restore democracy without several stages of government replacements over a hundred years or more.

      • mike k
        September 5, 2017 at 22:41

        One might question whether the US was ever a democracy. Or if there has ever been a real democracy on this planet. Ancient Greece? A slave society ruled by oligarchs.

    • Typingperson
      September 6, 2017 at 00:18

      As you point out, Trump is terrible–and the so-called opposition is equally stupid and venal.

      I’m still on the bus here. And I’m angry. What to do? Hmmm…

  33. September 5, 2017 at 18:28

    William Polk’s comprehensive analysis of the very real nuclear threat does a fine job of presenting the historical background of the crisis, including his psychoanalysis of the erratic personalities involved. It does, however raise some questions which I will attempt to lay out here:
    1- How many “General Lemnitzers” might there be surrounding Trump? Are there any secure(&sane) enough to countermand a decision toward a preemptive strike(nuclear or otherwise)?
    2-Despite Trump’s blustering he did say once that he would meet with Kim Jong Un. Would the Deep State people around him allow such an approach?
    3- “Sen. John McCain, a man with some experience in combat, commented that President Trump’s recent fiery rhetoric on North Korea would only ratchet up the heat for a possible confrontation but nothing else.” I wouldn’t put too much stock in whatever McCain says on the subject, at least to cool things down. Is there any evidence that he has taken a reasonable position?

    I believe most of us here would agree that the 4th approach outlined by Polk is the only viable and sane alternative. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi “an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”.

  34. Mrs. President
    September 5, 2017 at 18:20

    North Koreans would not be surprised if Kim Jong Un woke up with his lips, anus, eyeballs and hydrogen bombs surgically removed.

  35. Zachary Smith
    September 5, 2017 at 18:08

    It pains me to disagree with Mr. Polk on a number of points.

    I see no evidence that Mr. Trump knows what a nuclear war would actually do. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, “what is the point of having nuclear weapons if you don’t use them?”

    While this is surely something Trump might have said, there is no evidence I’ve seen to indicate he actually did say it.


    The third possible policy would be to encourage North Korea’s neighbors to attempt to coerce it to disarm and/or to scale back its military policy. Such a policy could aim to get China to control the North Koreans and possibly then encourage or allow Japan and/or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons and so, themselves, pose a threat to North Korea and indirectly to Chinese interests.

    I agree that China has no desire to act as an American tool, but argue that the Chinese have their own interests to look out for. A nuclear-armed “loose cannon” right on their border cannot be a pleasant prospect. In my opinion the Chinese are the only ones to rein in North Korea in any way short of a massive disaster for the entire world.

    The North Korean army is said to be the fourth largest in the world, roughly 1 million men, and is backed up by an active reserve about 5-6 times that many from a potential enrollment of about 10 million. This force is equipped with perhaps 10,000 tanks and self-propelled cannon.

    I’ve never been in the military, but I’ll still opine that these numbers are mostly irrelevant. Look how well Saddam’s massive army worked out for him.

    The North is believed to have about 12,000 cannon and roughly 2,300 rockets within range of Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

    I don’t know about the rockets, but there I see no possible way the North Koreans have that many long range artillery pieces.

    Then there are the missiles. Japan generally and U.S. bases in Japan and on the island of Guam are within the range of North Korean mid-range rockets. And Alaska and the U.S. West Coast are either already or soon will be within range.

    Surely Mr. Polk is aware that traveling 2,100 miles to Guam is one thing, but hitting any target there would be pure chance. That’s the result of having missiles with a CEP measured in kilometers.

    If Russian and China decide they want to stop North Korea from polishing its nuclear and missile programs, they can surely do it. Cutting off NK energy is one way. Nuke manufacturing plants don’t work very well without electricity. This might seem far-fetched, but I can imagine them shooting down any missiles they don’t want to fly. The Russian Gazelle ABM is a very capable device, and at 100g+ would overtake a North Korean missile launch as easily as cheetah could catch a lame deer.

    Most of Mr. Polk’s essay is spot-on, but I feel he neglects the prospect of North Korea becoming the Big Box store of weapons of mass destruction. That’s why I propose to dump the problem onto the Russians and Chinese. Especially the Chinese. It’s in nobody’s interest to allow the North Koreans to keep refining their weaponry, and I suspect the Chinese would be hurt more than most others if current trends continue. But if they can live with it, so can we.

    • Adrian Engler
      September 5, 2017 at 19:20

      “That’s why I propose to dump the problem onto the Russians and Chinese. Especially the Chinese.”

      What should that mean? That China and Russia decide how to continue? Well, there is a common Chinese-Russian document. It suggests that North Korea stops nuclear and ballistic tests in return for the US stopping the regular threatening military exercises (they are not so easy to distinguish from attack preparations). North Korea would probably agree to this – the North Korean government itself suggested this not so long ago, the common Chinese-Russian document is only a reiteration of that old North Korean suggestion. Germany also made a positive statement about that plan. This seems to be a plan almost everyone could probably agree to – except one country, the United States. The United States has rejected this plan most of the important other countries would agree to, and Nicky Haley even called this suggestion offensive.

      So, I think it has to be stated clearly that the problem is not that the conflict is somehow particularly difficult to deal with – there is a plan most sides would probably agree to. The problem is that the United States does not agree to that plan. And since the United States is the reason why North Korea feels threatened and therefore sees a need for the nuclear and ballistic weapons programs and the United States conducts these threatening military exercises close to North Korea, an implementation of that plan without the United States agreeing to it is not possible.

      In principle, the solution does not seem to be so difficult. The threatening military exercises by the US and South Korea would be stopped in return for North Korea agreeing not to conduct any more nuclear and ballistic tests. That would be the main step for de-escalation. Then, there could be more further steps. North Korea would probably be interested in an official end of the Korean war with a peace treaty (so far, there is only a ceasefire), and both sides could promise not to attack each other. In return for a reduction of the US military presence in South Korea, North Korea might be ready to reduce their nuclear arsenal (but certainly not to give it up completely, they have seen what happened to countries like Libya that had given up their non-conventional weapons).

      Of course, the details might be somewhat complicated. But in principle, it is hardly very difficult. The main problem is not that it is difficult to find sensible solutions, but that the United States rejects everything that could be a sensible solution. What is the US strategy? Using threatening language towards North Korea without offering anything? That is obviously a stupid strategy, it just demonstrates that the United States is a threat to North Korea and that it is rational for North Korea to improve their deterrence capabilities further.

      It is certainly not in the interest of China to attempt to use crippling sanctions against North Korea. Why should China do so? To the leaders of the most countries in the world, it is clear that sensible suggestions for de-escalation have already been made – by North Korea some time ago, and they were repeated recently by China and Russia. The problem is the United States.

      • Zachary Smith
        September 5, 2017 at 21:05

        Halting those “threatening” military exercises is a good idea, but I’d be quite surprised if the US would do it.

        This seems to be a plan almost everyone could probably agree to – except one country, the United States.

        There is a second nation which I doubt would agree in the unlikely event the US halted the annual military drills – North Korea. In my opinion the “threatening” exercises are an excuse. Much like the bottle rockets fired at Israel are an excuse to starve Gaza.

        North Korea has a very large investment in the bombs and missiles, and if I were leader of the joint I’d figure out a way to reject such a proposal. I’d expect the current hereditary ruler to do the same.

        Remember how Obama turned on a dime with the proposed Turkey-Brazil deal to remove enriched uranium from Iran? Great idea, until somebody informed him that it wasn’t.


        • September 6, 2017 at 06:55


          After the introduction to his article above by William R. Polk, I confess that
          I did not continue .

          “…As nuclear war looms in Korea, the life-or-death question is whether President Trump and his team can somehow marshal the skill and strength of President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, writes historian William R. Polk…..”

          It seems to be that the primary threat is not from North Korea but from the US
          and its western allies. An “expert” pointed out on NPR that the tests are

          Furthermore, analysts fail to take into account that the inventor of the
          hydrogen bomb—and weapons that can make it work—was none other
          than the US. In accordance with our usual arrogance and sense superiority,
          the US did not reckon with the inevitable distribution of these
          fatal weapons.

          The so-called “negotiations” with Iran recently present no bases for
          hope in any negotiations whatsoever with the US or any others in
          the international community. It is not only the current President
          of the US but nearly all politicians and people with opinions
          in both parties who concurr in the “threat” that foreign countries
          are to us and “our way of life”.

          This writer is in no position to know whether North Korea would ever
          use hydrogen weapons. In our war against the Japanese at the
          end of WW Two, U carpet bombings of Japanese cities murdered
          more civilians than the atomic bombs did. They certainly appear
          to be scary but hardly necessary. Not when a missile (who invented
          missiles?) can fly over Japan.

          A re-reading of Nicolas S.B. Davies article in consortium
          on the hundreds of thousands of civilian murders by US
          (“heroic”) flights is recommended.

          Compliments to the many commenters who did manage
          to wade through this ariticle.They made interesting
          points, as usual.

          —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

      • Typingperson
        September 5, 2017 at 21:29

        This is an eminently sensible, reasonable and practical response to this so-called (non)-crisis.

        And not something I’ve seen anywhere in mainstream media. Or in USA govt.

        Who the hell is driving the bus?

      • mike k
        September 5, 2017 at 22:37

        This is certainly the most reasonable plan. But hegemons don’t go by reason – they are into threats and brute force. Until we drop the conquer and rule the world meme, it’s no use trying to reason with us – we are totally unreasonable.

      • Typingperson
        September 6, 2017 at 00:01

        Agreed. Everything you say, Adrian, is eminently sensible, practical, and perfectly reasonable.

        And meanwhile, we have the American people freaking out–believing that Kim Jong-un is a batshit insane evil comic-book dictator bent on their destruction. Why? Because the USA media tells us so.

        What do to about that?

        • Typingperson
          September 6, 2017 at 00:07

          And why is it that the USA–with the most powerful military in the world–is home to the most ignorant, paranoid, fearful, easily terrified people?

          We should feel the most secure and safe of any people, with our geographical remoteness and super-powerful military. !!!

          Instead, we are the most fearful, frightened, ignorant, paranoid people.

          What’s that about??

          • Joe Tedesky
            September 6, 2017 at 00:48

            With our massive military might, America could leverage every nation on this planet to the peace table…what a loss going the PNAC method.

      • SteveK9
        September 6, 2017 at 20:19

        You wrote my response for me. I’m sure it would be very complicated, but the Russia/China proposal is a place to begin (hopefully). The US is so used to being the bully it can’t even think about giving up something.

    • Adrian Engler
      September 5, 2017 at 19:35

      “I’ve never been in the military, but I’ll still opine that these numbers are mostly irrelevant. Look how well Saddam’s massive army worked out for him.”

      I think the opinions of people who think they can be taken seriously when they pretend Iraq’s army in 2003 is in any way comparable to today’s North Korean army can safely be ignored.
      Just according to the simple numbers the North Korean army is much stronger. Then, it had not been weakened in a way like Iraq after the Kuwait war. And the situation is completely different – important targets (Seoul, US bases, …) are very close to North Korea. Iraq had no such targets nearby.

      The main reason why there are so many chicken hawks in the US seems to be that most Americans are completely clueless, but think they can judge the situation on the basis of wars in past decades when the US repeatedly started military aggression against countries with much weaker militaries. Of course, it is absurd, to generalize from attacks on much weaker countries to a war with a country with a strong military, but US culture seems to promote having “opinions” about things people are completely clueless about (I think Putin’s remark about confusing Austria and Australia is quite apt, confusing the military aggressions of the US in the past decades with a war against North Korea is just as absurd).

      Then, of course, there is a further difference that sets apart the US from a large part of the rest of the world: For a very long time, there has not been any war on US soil, and there has been no war in which a significant percentage of the US population died. Therefore, wars are much more popular in the United States than in most of the rest of the world, and this is also the reason why there are so many jingoistic, militaristic statements from Americans most people in the rest of the world find disgusting and frightening.

      For a few decades, the US got used to starting wars of aggression against weak countries. When people died, this was elsewhere, and lives of people who are not US citizens have never counted much in the United States. But in the case of a potential war in North Korea, not only would a very large number of North and South Koreans (and probably Japanese) people die, but also a lot of Americans in South Korea and Japan (soldiers – the US military bases would certainly be among the main targets – and business people), and even if the missile technology still has problems, in the case of an attack by the US, North Korea could use other means of bringing nuclear weapons to North America (submarines, ships, passenger airplanes, shipping containers) and having them detonate there.

      “A nuclear-armed “loose cannon” right on their border cannot be a pleasant prospect.”

      Probably, China has some reservations about the North Korean government, but China regards it as a “loose canon”. China and North Korea have not threatened each other and it seems unlikely that they would. The US is seen as a threat by North Korea, and taking into account the many military aggressions by the US in the past decades, that perspective seems to be justified.

      • Zachary Smith
        September 5, 2017 at 21:22

        I think the opinions of people who think they can be taken seriously when they pretend Iraq’s army in 2003 is in any way comparable to today’s North Korean army can safely be ignored.




        Kindly tell me which of their weapons aren’t antique junk. Some – but not much – of the artillery has enough range to do harm to Seoul. I doubt if their submarines are worth a damn against an alerted enemy. That huge army? Human wave attacks don’t work very well anymore. The Chinese learned that in the Korean War, and the Iranians re-learned it in the war with Iraq. It would be a darned shame for US and South Korean forces to have to execute tens of thousands of North Korean peasants in uniform.

        If violence comes, the dying in the South will be caused mostly by WMDs, IMO.

  36. mike k
    September 5, 2017 at 17:27

    A good article, as far as it goes. But he does not discuss the neocon’s agenda or the deep state’s drive for world domination. As long as these powerful motivations are determining the behavior of those who hold power, negotiations will be used only to set others up for treachery and betrayal. The author’s portrayal of Donald Trump is frighteningly accurate, and it is also a good read on the American national character. Contrary to our self praising image, we are a scurvy lot of back stabbing pirates. Until that changes, we are in for the karma this behavior creates. Our unwillingness to do the type of inner work necessary to change our tragically flawed manifestations of the ancient curse of hubris, condemn us to a very horrible end indeed.

    • Sam F
      September 5, 2017 at 21:23

      Yes, too often I find myself reflecting that government in the US is “a scurvy lot of back stabbing pirates.” But I know that humanity is no better than its culture and institutions, and that ours have been destroyed under the control of our economic oligarchy. The national character would match its image if we could amend the Constitution to keep money out of mass media and elections. But without those tools of democracy we and our children are forever enslaved by the rich, and condemned to “a very horrible end” whether or not it restores democracy. Let us hope that the cataclysm at least restores democracy.

      • Hotzenplotz
        September 8, 2017 at 13:38

        Pessimism about the national charachter of America:

        “We are of the Anglo-Saxon race. At the banquet, last winter, of that organization [page 226] which calls itself the Ends of the Earth Club, the chairman, a retired regular army officer of high grade, proclaimed in a loud voice, and with fervency,

        “We are of the Anglo-Saxon race, and when the Anglo-Saxon wants a thing he just takes it.”

        That utterance was applauded to the echo. There were perhaps seventy-five civilians present and twenty-five military and naval men. It took those people nearly two minutes to work off their stormy admiration of that great sentiment; and meanwhile the inspired prophet who had discharged it–from his liver, or his intestines, or his esophagus, or wherever he had bred it–stood there glowing and beaming and smiling, and issuing rays of happiness from every pore–rays that were so intense that they were visible, and made him look like the old-time picture in the almanac of the man who stands discharging signs of the zodiac in every direction, and so absorbed in happiness, so steeped in happiness, that he smiles and smiles, and has plainly forgotten that he is painfully and dangerously ruptured and exposed amidships, and needs sewing up right away.

        The soldier man’s great utterance, interpreted by the expression which he put into it, meant, in plain English–

        “The English and the Americans are thieves, highwaymen, pirates, and we are proud to be of the combination.”

        Out of all the English and Americans present, there was not one with the grace to get up and say he was ashamed of being an Anglo-Saxon, and also ashamed of being a member of the human race, since the race must abide under the presence upon it of the Anglo-Saxon taint. I could not perform this office. I could not afford to lose my temper and make a self-righteous exhibition of myself and my superior morals that I might teach this infant class in decency the rudiments of that cult, for they would not be able to grasp it; they would not be able to understand it.

        It was an amazing thing to see–that boyishly frank and honest and delighted outburst of enthusiasm over the soldier prophet’s mephitic remark. It looked suspiciously like a revelation–a secret feeling of the national heart surprised into expression and exposure by untoward accident; for it was a representative assemblage. All the chief mechanisms that constitute the machine which drives and vitalizes the national civilization were present–lawyers, bankers, merchants, manufacturers, journalists, politicians, soldiers, sailors–they were all there. Apparently it was the United States in banquet assembled, and qualified to speak with authority for the nation and reveal its private morals to the public view.

        The initial welcome of that strange sentiment was not an unwary betrayal, to be repented of upon reflection; and this was shown by the fact that whenever, during the rest of the evening, a speaker found that he was becoming uninteresting and wearisome, he only needed to inject that great Anglo-Saxon moral into the midst of his platitudes to start up that glad storm again. After all, it was only the human race on exhibition. It has always been a peculiarity of the human race that it keeps two sets of morals in stock–the private and real, and the public and artificial.

        Our public motto is “In God We Trust,” and when we see those gracious words on [page 227] the trade-dollar (worth sixty cents) they always seem to tremble and whimper with pious emotion. That is our public motto. It transpires that our private one is “When the Anglo-Saxon wants a thing he just takes it.” Our public morals are touchingly set forth in that stately and yet gentle and kindly motto which indicates that we are a nation of gracious and affectionate multitudinous brothers compacted into one–“e pluribus unum.” Our private morals find the light in the sacred phrase “Come, step lively!””

        Mark Twain, Autobiography, Chapter 72

    • September 5, 2017 at 21:41

      What’s that out there…an iceberg!…Don’t worry this ship is unsinkable!…Why is the captain getting into a lifeboat?…Why is the band playing Auld Lang Syne?…Don’t worry…we’re EXCEPTIONAL!

  37. Bob Van Noy
    September 5, 2017 at 17:21

    It is so refreshing to read William R. Polk because his obvious, careful intellect reminds me of a past generation of scholars who were bright, thoughtful and worldly in that they were often multilingual and well traveled. Thank you Mr. Polk…

    However, by reading Mr. Polk and comparing his analysis to current leadership plus the Neocons in general, one is saddened by the amount of intellectual decline of contemporary established leadership.

    I will link Mr. Polk’s Wikipedia page for those interested: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_R._Polk

    And, thank you Robert Parry

    • Typingperson
      September 5, 2017 at 20:28

      Much agreed. What is so disturbing and frightening to me now, as a USA citizen–is the lack of any competent people driving the bus. And I’m on the bus!

      Sure, Trump is a scary clown. No argument here. And he’s running the country. Yikes!

      Alas, Hillary was equally scary. More so, to me, because she’s more “professional “-seeming and has Deep State support / buy-in. I believe she would have declared Syria a no-fly zone and gone up against Russia in a hot war. Instead, thankfully, cooler Russian heads have prevailed, Syria is slowly returning to peace, and ISIS–funded and armed by USA–is being expelled from Syria.

      I want peace. I want USA to spend tax dollars paid by me and my fellow Americans on helping us–universal healthcare, infrastructure, education, $15 an hour minimum wage–NOT lawlessly invading and policing the planet for the benefit of US multinationals and Wall Street banksters / hedge funders / private equity vultures.

      Who, btw, pay only 12 percent income tax, thanks to carried interest loophole. Google it. While you still can, that is….

    • Sam F
      September 5, 2017 at 21:03

      Yes, Mr. Polk has written very well of Korea, although I would diverge on a few points.

      Resolution of the Cuba-Turkey missile crisis was very simple: we removed missiles from Turkey in exchange for USSR removing missiles from Cuba. There would have been no missiles in Cuba had there been no US missiles in Turkey. The only process that brought us there was US bullying led by warmongers, the tyrants over democracy against whom Plato and Aristotle warned, who must create foreign monsters to demand power as false protectors and accuse their opponents of disloyalty. Dump the warmongers and there is no such problem between great powers.

      Nothing can be gained in Korea until the US stops its pointless threats. China defended NK in the Korean War to keep the war out of China, but never supported NK aggression, so thereafter they knew they could not invade again. The US committed genocide thereafter, not peacemaking. Since 1953 an invasion by NK was precluded by military deterrents: the US has been the aggressor there, its exercises have been nothing but the bully threats of fake patriots seeking power in the US, who have ensured that NK must maintain a nuclear deterrent.

      The US cannot use threats, sanctions, or negotiation to eliminate the NK nuclear deterrent. Regardless of leaders, NK has learned the lessons of US betrayal and bombing, of Hussein and Khadafi, and cannot negotiate away that deterrent. No pressure on NK via its allies can change this essential defense position.

      No “limited” US attack on NK can have any intent or effect other than escalation to full-scale invasion. To “allow Japan and/or South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons” would needlessly create an unstable standoff where only the one who attacks first can win.

      The effectiveness of any deterrent depends upon the absence of a mad aggressor. Deterrence would otherwise work after an aggressor’s first strike on a city followed by a reciprocal strike: the public within the aggressor state would demand removal of the government unless wholly deceived, in which case they are one with the mad aggressor.

      Incidentally, some editing would help the article: remove “US can” before the first words, and most of the introductory paragraphs. State rather than imply that Mr. Polk was on the Red team.

      • Typingperson
        September 5, 2017 at 21:20

        Fair and valid points. The big problem is USA is the agressor and instigator of all these “world-threatening” crises.

        To your point, USA installation of missiles in Turkey were the aggressive threat that precipitated scary Cuban missile crisis.

        And indirectly caused assasination of JFK for opposing CIA..

        So how do we USA citizens stop USA from being a lawless, threatening, destabilizing aggressor?

        • Brad Owen
          September 6, 2017 at 05:59

          A dues-paying Citizens Union sponsoring candidates vowing to run only on Citizens Union monies, with CU watchdogging each sponsored candidate making sure they vote according to the constituents views. 50 million citizens times 10$ a month would make an annual Campaign/Watchdog “war chest” of 6 billion $… That should be sufficient. Anybody else have more ideas? Sorry nobody seems to answer your most pertinent question : “what is to be done?”.

          • hatedbyu
            September 6, 2017 at 13:54

            i am a proponent of volunteerism…..as in all other utopian ideas, it’s a long shot. but here i go.

            the government could have a dept of war(orwellian translation….dept. of defense….), as it does now.

            difference is, it would only be funded by individuals. not taxes. if you don’t believe in wars of aggression, you don’t fund it.

            when it acts incorrectly, it gets unfunded.

            not perfect. but nothing is.

        • Sam F
          September 6, 2017 at 07:01

          The aggression proceeds from the MIC seeking any war, and the zionists seeking mideast wars, both of whose politicians are installed by money control of elections and mass media.

          Eliminating this requires:
          1. Amendments to the Constitution to restrict funding of mass media and elections to individual contributions, limited and registered;
          2. Renegotiation of the NATO treaty to be purely defensive, or its repudiation;
          3. Undertaking foreign military action solely under UN auspices;
          4. Prosecution of US war criminals and corrupt politicians, and banning of lobbyists;
          5. Monitoring public officials and their families and associates for corruption during their lives;
          6. Repurposing about 80 percent of the military to building infrastructure in developing nations;
          7. Signing the treaty of Rome to submit to ICC jurisdiction in most matters.

          Getting there requires:
          1. Executive overreach to investigate and dismiss corrupt officials, hold new elections, etc.);
          2. Infiltrating military/intel/police/national guard to deny enforcement to oligarchy during revolts;
          3. Starting new parties that truly represent members, and making coalitions to gain majorities;
          4. Boycotting all military companies and Israeli products, denouncing zionists and militarists;
          5. Refusing to take mortgages or keep large sums in banks or investments;
          6. Refusing to watch or pay for mass media;
          7. Campaigning for foreign rejection of US products, currency, and NATO.

          • Roza Shanina
            September 6, 2017 at 13:07

            Brilliant analysis. Couldn’t agree more. I’m copying your post and keeping it my pocket to tell anyone how we fix this mess.
            Thank you!

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 5, 2017 at 23:25

        Sam I know you know this, but if bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula were what it was really all about, why that would be all but too simple. All it would take, would be for the U.S. to strip all of it’s defensive (as in tongue and cheek defensive) missile batteries out of S Korea, and then remove the 30 thousand some American troops, cancel indefinitely all military exercises, etc., etc., but you and I both know how that will never happen. Why, as you well know Sam the Korean Peninsula is only one of many staging platforms designed by the U.S. to surround Russia and China with devastating weapons of mass destruction.

        It’s madness, and expensive madness at that. Here on this peninsula is a fine example of painting yourself into a strategic corner. Keep up the madness, and risk the safety of your allies, and possibly the American homeland, or remove the massive weaponry and still have the same risk. Either way much is at stake. To go through all of this just to keep S Korea and Japan safe just isn’t practical, but to encase Russia and China it is worth it to a Neocon government swirling out of control. At least let’s hope better minds prevail to guide us through this blustering path of saber rattling.

        Good comments Sam. Joe

        • Sam F
          September 6, 2017 at 07:59

          Good points about Korea and its similarity to putting US missiles in Turkey in the 1960s. The THAAD installations in Korea and similar US acts could result in new opposing missile installations in Latin America, ideally Mexico, to show US warmongers that aggression causes risk rather than reducing it.

          But I think that the next stage will be pre-installed nuclear devices, much simpler and more reliable than ICBMs. There is no possibility of intercepting or counting them to determine the power of the state that plants them.

          This causes serious problems:
          1. It is easy for small states to plant a few and claim to have many more installed;
          2. A small state can inflict devastation upon a superpower as a first strike or counterstrike;
          3. They cannot be intercepted or counted for planning purposes;
          4. It is impossible to be sure or the origin: one must guess from the type or situation prior to use;
          5. Uncertain origins of an attack means that retaliation can cause escalation;
          6. A false-flag cannot be debunked, and a denied detonation makes retaliation questionable;
          7. Small militant states can plant them in aggressor states, and perhaps prevent that in their own.

          There is an advantage, in that no one knows who has how many weapons planted or how they are controlled, so superpowers must drop all aggressive activity;

          We will see this when the first threatened states make a demonstration detonation in a remote desert of the US. A single such detonation could be jointly claimed (for example) by Iran, N Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Palestine, and any other state under threat from the US, by prior agreement. The US would likely lose interest in further aggressions against those states. This would likely lead to another detonation by larger contingents seeking to counter US threats, possibly including other superpowers whom the US has surrounded with nuclear weapons.

          • Joe Tedesky
            September 6, 2017 at 16:07

            I hate to say this, and I probably got what I’m about to reference out of context, but Trump’s statement “What good are nukes, if your not going to use them”, may apply to this N Korea stalemate. Seriously, think of all the missiles and military hardware being placed upon the S Korean landscape, and then think of when or what would ever make us fire off those terrible weapons. I mean we can’t, because if we do, then there goes S Korea, maybe even Guam, and probably Japan as well. Taking this all into consideration, as maybe we should learn how to talk to Kim Jung un, and settle this Korean Conflict diplomatically once and for all.

            To further your example Sam of smaller countries obtaining missiles, well take a look at what Russia has developed. It’s the Russian Kalibr Missile system installed into innocent looking shipping containers. This is the Kalibr K-Series. See the You Tube video for more information. Joe


          • mark
            September 6, 2017 at 23:29

            I heard that N. Korea is planning to use large numbers of suitcase sized radiological bombs, dirty bombs, if push comes to shove. That would make sense – they have a lot of special forces and all you need is some radioactive waste.

        • Bernie
          September 8, 2017 at 17:25

          South Korea may demanded that the U.S. leave. I have read that there are some government people pushing for that. SK has everything literally to lose in a nuclear exchange.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 5, 2017 at 23:08

      You got that right Bob. Everytime I read something by William R Polk I only hope, that somewhere hidden inside of our now functioning government there is a William or Wendy Polk giving out some thoughtful advice to a sitting U.S. President.

      I will add that I feel that to straighten out the many bad spots we have in our world, that it will take a more bilateral approach. An approach where the U.S. is united with other nations, such as Russia and China. I can’t see the U.S. going it on it’s own any longer. The U.S. must also reevaluate it’s current commitments, and relationships, with it’s already existing allies as well. Time to regroup, and start anew.

  38. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    September 5, 2017 at 16:50

    Kennedy made the last mistake of his life when he thought he can stand against the Deep State! Even his brother paid the same price………….Allan Dulles maneuvered to be part of the Warren Commission to make sure that the truth never sees the daylight…………..Does anyone still believe the single bullet conspiracy theory?! The people who get into politics now learned that lesson very well………….Don’t stand against Wall Street…………in more blunt words…….Leave the BANKERS to run the show and you stay on leash………….

    • phelanm
      September 5, 2017 at 18:37

      maybe interesting 3.5 hour tour de force about president kennedy’s assassination (and just about everything else), “..rich man’s trick..”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1Qt6a-vaNM

    • hillary
      September 5, 2017 at 19:08

      “Does anyone still believe the single bullet conspiracy theory?!”

      Only the sheeple urged on by supposed experts like Vincent Bugliosi & yes sadly Robert Kennedy paid the same price while waiting to be elected president & do a thorough real investigation..
      Anyone who reads the” Final Judgement”( Michael Collins Piper) & “ The Sampson Option” (Seymour M. Hersh) will see how
      US Policy toward Israel actually did do a 180 degree turn under LBJ, immediately after the JFK assassination.

    • Danny Weil
      September 5, 2017 at 20:18

      Yes, agreed but it is more than bankers. It is arms dealers who will make a killing or are selling weapons to N. Korea. I think it is important to understand that the bankers of whom you speak, cannot control the failure of capitalism, they can only contribute to it. and as the erosion of capitalism takes place, if there is no true socialist movement to counter the failing regime, then yes, it turns into Rome and is dictatorial and fascist.

      Fascism is and was the expression of failed capitalism.

      The issue now is what Hannah Arendt the author saw clearly: either persuasion or power. These are the only paths and Trump is all about power. and with the sheeple supporting him and the corporate press making trillions war is acceptable.

      and you are right: the bankers, part of the capitialist system, win every time.

    • Joe Wallace
      September 5, 2017 at 22:57

      Dr. Ibrahim Soudy:

      Maybe the bankers have always ruled. Here’s a quotation from Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” courtesy of Jeffrey St. Clair in his September 1st article on Counterpunch:

      Where the World is Run
      “Let’s say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.” How can he explain that to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

    • hatedbyu
      September 6, 2017 at 13:49

      article leaves out the back channel communications that kruschev and kennedy had during the “crisis”. you can read about them in the book “jfk and the unspeakable”. probably other places as well. source was kruschevs son, i believe.

      article quotes two phsychiatrists on trumps mental health. who are they? he mentions the cia team that did phsychological assesments of leaders but wonders where they are now…..listen to steve pieczenik. he was one of those guys and actually talks about trumps mental health. and un’s . it’s on youtube.

      last. article fails to address one very important lesson. non of the past “north korean situations” were really about what they were portrayed in the media. why should we believe that there is actually a threat going on from them, or to them.

      i would state that what we are seeing here is posturing diplomacy on the world stage. i don’t buy any of this.

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