Friday, March 23, 2018

The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret

The New Yorker, September 18, 2017
In light of the sobering news that John Bolton will become National Security Advisor to Donald Trump, I'm continuing with my analysis of an article about North Korea by zeroing in on some points that I hope people take away from that article.

Now more than ever we need lots and lots of people to participate in the process of reading, thinking, and speaking critically.

As in previous posts, I'll continue to use the up/down/level scoring approach as I discuss how this information was presented in "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017 (online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea").

Suspense: Will the US go to war?

I'm particularly interested in war powers, and whether "we, the People," have the ability to constrain the president. I mentioned in my post two days ago that I sat up and took notice when I read the part of "Letter from Pyongyang" about the North Korean official asking "who decides?" (article paragraph 25). I was also struck by the following paragraph, which appeared a few pages later:

Occasionally Pak misread something that was hard to discern from far away. He told me, "The United States is a divided country. It has no appetite for war." On some level, that was true -- the United States is a divided country, and it is tired of fighting wars in the Middle East, in South Asia -- but he would be wrong to assume that these facts would, with absolute assurance, prevent the Trump Administration from launching a strike on North Korea. (article paragraph 64)

That, my friends, is called "burying the lede." In my opinion, it is the most important paragraph in the entire article, and trumps (no pun intended) anything else written there, even (or especially) the most lurid anecdotes or rumors about North Korea.

Evan Osnos is confronting us with the fact that the US has lost control of war-making authority.

Not coincidentally, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on this very subject in November.

Nonetheless, I rated this paragraph "level," i.e. because it was focused on the US, I couldn't feel it impacting the notion that North Korea is "bad" one way or the other.

By the way, paragraph 5 of the article describes Osnos' plan for his reporting trip: "Before my arrival in North Korea, I spent time in Washington, Seoul, and Beijing; many people in those places, it turned out, are asking the same things about the United States." In this paragraph, "the same things" means "the kind of violence that their country so often threatens" and "[w]ere the threats serious, or mere posturing?" . . . and would those threats result in war. Unfortunately, the structure of the paragraph is so front-loaded with focus on North Korea doing "those things" that the reader is unlikely to give equal weight to the role of the US in all this, much less the heavy weight it (in my opinion) deserves. As a result, I rated that paragraph a "down," i.e. it tended to reinforce the impression that North Korea is "bad."

In paragraph 48, a school child asks Osnos, "Why is America trying to provoke a war with us? And what right do they have to block us from building our own nuclear weapon?" Osnos writes that "[t]his did not seem the occasion for rigorous analysis or debate. I mumbled some bromides about hoping that things would get better. The boy seemed unimpressed." I rated this paragraph a "down," because I think the main impression that the average reader gets is, "What is a ten-year-old doing thinking about this? They've been brainwashed! War-crazed North Koreans . . . . " (Personally, I think the paragraph is brilliantly . . . really "meta." To those who have ears to hear, Osnos is asking, "Well, what is the time and place to start analyzing this whole thing rigorously? Hello? Readers? Anyone awake out there?")

Discomfort: when war and weaponry are visible

One reason I rated many elements of the Osnos article a "down" is because they involved described talk of war and weaponry in North Korea. The irony, of course, is that this is liable to strike the average US reader as "war-obsessed." US people are in the curious situation of living in a state that is has the world's highest level of military spending, and is the world's largest weapons export, and is involved in armed conflicts all over the world . . .  and/but does a phenomenal job of keeping all of that out of sight, and out of the minds of the populace.

Paragraphs 65-78 of the article (down, down, down, down, level, level, level, down, down, down, down, down, down) describe frequent mentions of war and weaponry, and the apparent belief on the part of the North Koreans that they can endure the suffering of war. On this last point, Osnos challenges his host:

     But, to state the obvious, I said, risking a premature end to a friendly meal, a nuclear exchange would not be comparable.
    "A few thousand would survive," Pak said. "And the military would say, 'Who cares? As long as the United States is destroyed, then we are all starting from the same line again.'" He added, "A lot of people would die. But not everyone would die."
(article paragraphs 77-78)

"A lot of people would die. But not everyone would die." I think that sounds to the average reader like, "The North Koreans are crazy. They've been brainwashed into thinking they can survive a nuclear war."

This might be an opportune moment to pause and look at a graphic of global nuclear weapons holdings:

So many exist, ready to be used . . . .
The world's nuclear weapon count (August, 2014):

So: who's crazy? The people thinking about how many people will survive nuclear war? Or the people living in the country with 7,000+ nuclear warheads (2014 total) who never even think about it?

Regret: things could've been different

Osnos does a good job of providing the recent diplomatic history. I just wish it weren't buried so deep in the article.

Paragraph 82 gives an account of Kim Jong Un's Father, Kim Jong Il, as someone who came close to "forging peace with the United States" c. 2000. (Four "ups" in a single paragraph.)

Paragraph 83 describes how the US dropped the ball as the Clinton Administration ended and the Bush Administration began. (I bet US readers gloss over the significance of this: level.)

Paragraph 84 reminds us of Bush's inclusion of North Korea in an "axis of evil." (Level, at best. The word "evil" tends to poison the well of this particular paragraph.)

Which brings us back to John Bolton. (See the "Beyond the Axis of Evil" speech. Given the sudden turn Bolton's appointment represents, it is now more than ever incumbent on every US citizen to take personal responsibility for a truth-based approach to understanding the US, understanding North Korea, and understanding the US-North Korea situation.

Your own close reading of the Osnos article is a good place to start.

(To be continued.)

Additional posts in this series:

A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

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