Predictions (Nicholas Kristof)

None of us know what will happen, and it would be wise to be ready for anything.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    As if We Didn’t Have Enough to Frighten Us …

    by Nicholas Kristof

    The globe is already pockmarked with crises, and here may be another: North Korea is acting in highly unusual ways, leading some veteran analysts to fear it is preparing a surprise attack on South Korea and perhaps on Japan and Guam as well.

    I’ve seen many false alarms since I began covering and visiting North Korea in the 1980s. I wouldn’t write about this latest warning except that it comes from two particularly credible experts who bluntly conclude that “Kim Jong-un has made a strategic decision to go to war.”

    That’s speculation without hard evidence to back it up, and they acknowledge that this kind of prediction is fraught. But one of those experts is Robert Carlin, who has been analyzing North Korea for 50 years for the C.I.A., State Department and other organizations. The other is Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear expert at Stanford who has visited North Korea seven times and was given extensive access to that country’s nuclear programs; he’s apparently the only American to have held North Korean plutonium (in a jar) in his hands.

    Carlin and Hecker published their warning in an essay on the 38 North website, which focuses on North Korea. They raised the possibility that North Korea might use its nuclear warheads to strike the region (it’s not clear if its warheads could reach the United States and survive re-entry into the atmosphere).

    Carlin and Hecker both told me that they don’t know when an attack by Kim, the country’s leader, would happen or what form it might take.

    “Is it going to be an all-out attack?” Carlin asked. “I have no idea what the thinking of his army is right now. I suspect it is making plans and they’re arguing about it. And some of them are saying, ‘This is nuts. We can’t do it.’ Others are saying: ‘This is what the leader wants, and we’re going to do it. And actually, we have enough missiles and nuclear warheads that we can.’ ”

    North Korea excels in bluster and insults (remember “dotard”?), and my general view is that Kim is a pragmatist who uses bombast for bargaining leverage. That may be the case this time: We’ve never much understood what’s going on with North Koreans, and perhaps they’re just seeking attention. My inclination would be to dismiss these warnings — if they were coming from anyone else. But Carlin and Hecker are pros who deserve to have their alarm taken very seriously.

    It has been evident for some time that something is afoot in North Korea. Kim invested his hopes in a 2019 summit with President Donald Trump in Hanoi — and that fell apart, leaving Kim humiliated. For decades under three leaders, North Korea sought a deal with the United States involving trade, prestige and economic benefits, but now it seems to have given up on that. Instead, it has bolstered ties with Russia, improved its nuclear weapon capabilities and escalated its rhetoric.

    This week North Korea announced that it would take a much harsher approach to South Korea, changing its constitution and its longstanding policy on reunification, and would not respect traditional boundary lines. Kim said his army was making preparations for “a great revolutionary event,” which Carlin said is a phrasing that previously has been used to describe war with South Korea.

    Kim said North Korea did not want war but suggested it may be coming: “The war will terribly destroy the entity called the Republic of Korea” — the official name for South Korea — “and put an end to its existence. And it will inflict an unimaginably crushing defeat upon the U.S.”

    I reached out to other experts to gauge their views. Joel Wit, a longtime North Korea expert at the State Department, now at the Stimson Center, said he takes Carlin and Hecker “extremely seriously.” Wit said that a recent incident in which North Korea fired artillery shells near waters disputed with South Korea “sent chills down my spine” because it seemed a possible rehearsal for a major provocation.

    The Biden administration has not focused on North Korea for understandable reasons: It is wrestling with many other urgent crises. It may be too late to engage the North diplomatically if it has decisively given up on the United States, Wit said, but he added that China is now so deeply alarmed about North Korea that Beijing might be of help.

    Deborah Fikes, a member of the National Committee on North Korea, a coalition of people with deep experience with the country, said that many nonprofits that normally have working relations with North Korea have been unable even to get responses to their inquiries. She, too, is worried about the risk of conflict.

    On the other hand, one reason for skepticism is that it’s hard to see how North Korea benefits by attacking its neighbors. Carlin and Hecker don’t have a solid answer for that, but they note that there is a long history of surprise attacks around the world that were surprising precisely because they didn’t make sense to those attacked.

    Hecker observed that North Korea is one of only three countries that constitute potential nuclear threats to the United States — the others are Russia and China — yet North Korea lately hasn’t gotten much high-level attention. It should.

    What I’ve mostly learned from covering North Korea is not to make predictions about it. But it seems prudent to me for the Biden administration to step up diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang, to try to engage China at senior levels on this issue, to allocate intelligence assets to better understand North Korean risks and to ensure that our military forces are prepared. None of us know what will happen, and it would be wise to be ready for anything.


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