Saturday, August 12, 2017

Nork Agonistes

By Jonah Goldberg
Friday, August 11, 2017

Analysts are trying to work out what happens to markets in the event of an all-out nuclear war
— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) August 11, 2017

Well, that’s a great tweet to get the weekend started.

From the article in the Wall Street Journal, not The Onion: “Strategists at Nordea Markets estimate that in the unlikely event of ‘a potentially uncontained military conflict’ in which global superpowers like China and Russia get involved, the European Central Bank would have to implement ‘highly dovish forward guidance’ and the yield curve would likely flatten due to weaker risk appetite.”

Oh, well, as long as the ECB will be issuing “highly dovish forward guidance” as the rest of us drink glowing puddle water and fight over rat meat, what is there to worry about?

Of course, as Bill Clinton explained about his promise to leave his wife for the Spearmint Rhino hostess, I exaggerate. I mean, where is it written that “all-out nuclear war” has to get out of hand or unduly roil financial markets? Most of us know that the best long-term financial strategy is to have a diverse portfolio of stocks and bonds and to not get caught-up in the daily volatility of the market. So, when I’m farming algae in tidal caves — the perfect hideout from the various warring tribes of marauders and eyeball-eating cults — I’ll reassure my wife not to worry: “I’m a buy-and-hold guy. Besides, Apple is poised for a huge comeback, once the Claremont McKenna militia clears the SEIU Reavers out of Palo Alto. There’s a huge pent-up demand out there.”

Nork Agonistes

On a more serious note, I don’t really think nuclear war is likely, but can you really say it’s not in the cards at all? That kinda sucks.

While I don’t agree with everything President Trump has done with regard to North Korea, this is one of those areas where he actually has solid grounds to blame his predecessors. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all deserve their share of the blame, though I put most of it on Clinton because the best opportunity for thwarting North Korea’s nuclear program was on his watch. Our relative power and status in the world was higher in 1994 — and North Korea’s vulnerability was greater — than at any time since.

Still, while presidents have an obligation to make the hard calls as commander in chief, it’d be wrong to put all of the blame on any of them. There was little-to-no will in Congress nor was there the appetite among the American people — never mind the media — to make the hard decisions when they should have been made. So, we just kicked the can and called it “strategic patience” or some other euphemism for “let the next guy handle this flaming turd of a problem.”

I want to write a column on all this next week, so I’ll save my “solution” to this whole mess for later. But I do want to discuss this idea that North Korea can be contained. Some very smart people make this case, arguing that if we could contain and deter the Soviets, we can certainly do likewise with this crappy Hellhole of a country, run by a sybaritic and sadistic dork.

The heart of the argument is that Kim Jong Un doesn’t want to die.

“In reality, while the North Korean president is a brutal dictator who does not hesitate to murder his own family members to strengthen his grip on power, there is nothing to indicate that he is irrational, much less suicidal,” writes Max Boot. “He is developing nuclear weapons for defensive, not offensive, reasons. He saw what happened to Moammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein — both overthrown by the U.S. — and he does not want the same thing to happen to him.”

It’s true that North Korea is very different from the Soviet Union or even China. The Soviets were a true expansionist empire. The Chinese are less imperial but they do have a very expansive view of “Greater China” and a palpable hunger for hegemony. Meanwhile, North Korea’s ideology is hyper-isolationist based on the mystical-nationalist hogwash of Juche. The aptly named Hermit kingdom subscribes to eugenic notions of racial purity and doesn’t want to expand its borders.

The Norks, say the advocates of more strategic patience, want to use nukes to get the world to recognize their legitimacy and normalize relations.

But it’s the prospect of normalized relations that makes me a skeptic. Even the most stable totalitarian regimes have trouble maintaining their stability in a global market order. The Soviet Union learned this with perestroika in the ’80s. The more you let your people understand that they don’t need to live in a squalid sewer system, the more dangerous the people become to the regime. China is not strictly a totalitarian regime for precisely this reason. The Communist Party recognized that if it didn’t give the people economic growth, the Communist Party would be overthrown. As it is, the Communist Party is as afraid of the people as the people are of the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, North Korea cannot afford anything like perestroika or Chinese-style markets because it would threaten the regime. The Kims ruled by closing the whole country off from the world. This political strategy yielded a very specific economic strategy. North Korea is not a kleptocracy nor is it strictly a Mafia state; it’s a de facto monarchy that operates as a criminal organization. It manufactures illegal drugs, counterfeits currency and cigarettes, and is a major human trafficker. On a broader scale, the North Korean regime is extortionist, threatening war to exact bribes from its neighbors and the West. But, unlike with the Mafia or Yakuza, it’s not “just business.” These activities are bound up with its larger ideology. And unlike in normal countries, even authoritarian ones, or even in the mafia, there are few, if any, factions that can marshal forces to counsel restraint. When you truly have one-man rule, the psychology of that one man is more important than conventional notions of national interest and “realism.”

If we normalize relations with North Korea, it will not suddenly embrace normal rules of trade and the free flow of capital and information for precisely the reasons I laid out above: Doing so would undermine the power of the regime as literally personified by Kim Jong-un. The more likely scenario is that Kim would simply double and triple down on the strategy that has kept his family in power for generations. When crazy has worked for you all your life, you don’t abandon it. The Norks have been brazen outlaws for decades without a credible nuclear deterrent. Why do we assume they’ll become Swiss once they have one?

This scenario is untenable and unreliable for a lot of reasons. But the biggest of them is that if North Korea is rewarded for its nuclear ambition, nuclear proliferation will go into overdrive. Already, very smart people, such as Charles Krauthammer, argue that the answer to this problem is for more countries to have nuclear weapons. And, while I think Charles is probably right that Japan and maybe South Korea will have to nuclearize, that’s not my main concern (the problem has never been nuclear weapons, but who has them).

First: A lot of unstable, crappy regimes will recognize that nukes are the only viable insurance policy.

Second: Does anyone think that Kim Jong-un would have serious qualms about selling nukes to anyone with enough cash? Heck, I’m sure he’d be happy to barter. If you were to unload a cargo ship with a crap-ton of Toblerone chocolate, Courvoisier, fidget spinners, Canadian porn, daily use Viagra, and maybe a box set of the director’s cuts of all Dennis Rodman’s movies on Blu-Ray, he’d shrug and say, “Go pick out any nuke you want off the shelf. Except for that green one. I’m saving that for a radical faction of ‘Up with People!’”

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