North Korean Missiles Heading to Russia, Part Two

We’re back with part two of Russia’s missile-sourcing escapade. Today we’re looking at the specifics of these North Korean missiles and their significance.

The North Korean’s are sending the Russians some of their KN-23 and 25 missiles, which are limited range (max. 400 miles) and low accuracy models. This means that each of these missiles is a war crime waiting to happen, but what’s another drop in that bucket? Unfortunately, this has just dumped a new load of gasoline onto the fire that is the Ukraine War.

The Russians will be able to use these missiles in conjunction with satellite guidance to close in that accuracy ring a bit. In the meantime, they’ll be gathering insights on the technological capabilities of the North Korean and Iranian missile systems.

Once the Russians mesh the missile and satellite tech together, the Ukrainians will be facing a much more intimidating Russia than before.

Here at Zeihan On Geopolitics we select a single charity to sponsor. We have two criteria:

First, we look across the world and use our skill sets to identify where the needs are most acute. Second, we look for an institution with preexisting networks for both materials gathering and aid distribution. That way we know every cent of our donation is not simply going directly to where help is needed most, but our donations serve as a force multiplier for a system already in existence. Then we give what we can.

Today, our chosen charity is a group called Medshare, which provides emergency medical services to communities in need, with a very heavy emphasis on locations facing acute crises. Medshare operates right in the thick of it. Until future notice, every cent we earn from every book we sell in every format through every retailer is going to Medshare’s Ukraine fund.

And then there’s you.

Our newsletters and videologues are not only free, they will always be free. We also will never share your contact information with anyone. All we ask is that if you find one of our releases in any way useful, that you make a donation to Medshare. Over one third of Ukraine’s pre-war population has either been forced from their homes, kidnapped and shipped to Russia, or is trying to survive in occupied lands. This is our way to help who we can. Please, join us.


Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from? Well, there’s no other word for it. It’s a frigid Colorado this morning. We’re right at two degrees Fahrenheit. Anyway, I want to do a follow on to a little bit. We we talked yesterday on the transfer of North Korean missiles to Russia. The models in question are called KN-23 and 25.

They have a very limited range and they’re not particularly accurate when the North Koreans use them. The accuracy range is typically 100 to 200 meters. So they’re not much. Well, they’re just not smart. There are most artillery actually hits more reliably than they do with the add on of satellite guidance. And a little bit of extra hardware. You could probably get them into the 50 to 100 meter range.

Now, this is important for two reasons. Number one, it means that every missile that the Russians fire in the general direction of a population center, which is where most of these things are being used in Ukraine, is almost by definition a war crime. So, you know, we’re we’re now getting half of we’re past 150,000 documented incidents. So if the war crimes tribunals ever do happen to happen at the end of this war, who is to be a lot to do?

But the second and slightly more important in the long range point of view is the assistance, the military assistance, the supply assistance that the North Koreans and to a lesser degree the Iranians are providing the Russians. Is it just important for the war or to get an intelligence look at what the North Korean and the Iranian systems can do technologically?

And from a production point of view, the Russians are also promising that both countries are satellite tech, or at least the ability of the Russians to launch a satellite for them. And so if you marry Russian satellite tech, which doesn’t have to be top notch to provide guidance to C weapon systems, and you apply it to these two laggard countries, you can actually make a fairly significant improvement in their capacity to target going from a 200 meter range to a 100 meter range, obviously is a significant step up.

So I don’t mean to belittle any part of this transfer system that is going on. It’s just a question of time. Okay. That’s all I got for now.

North Korea to Provide Russia with Military Aid

Putin and Kim Jong-un finally had their little tea party at the Cosmodrome out in the far east of Russia. Besides boosting each other’s egos and gossiping a bit, it looks like the main discussions revolved around North Korea providing military assistance to Russia in the form of artillery shells.

Since Russia’s war on Ukraine won’t be letting up anytime soon, they need to replenish their dwindling supply of artillery shells. With limited options, Russia will have to settle for outdated North Korean supplies – not quite the pick of the litter here.

What does North Korea get out of this deal? Russia doesn’t have much to offer, but they could transfer some long-range missile tech to the North Koreans…and that’s cause for concern.

Given this deal’s regional and global security implications, countries like South Korea, Japan, China and the US should be worried. Sure, there are sanctions in place, but in all reality, those minor deterrents won’t stop North Korea.

Here at Zeihan On Geopolitics we select a single charity to sponsor. We have two criteria:

First, we look across the world and use our skill sets to identify where the needs are most acute. Second, we look for an institution with preexisting networks for both materials gathering and aid distribution. That way we know every cent of our donation is not simply going directly to where help is needed most, but our donations serve as a force multiplier for a system already in existence. Then we give what we can.

Today, our chosen charity is a group called Medshare, which provides emergency medical services to communities in need, with a very heavy emphasis on locations facing acute crises. Medshare operates right in the thick of it. Until future notice, every cent we earn from every book we sell in every format through every retailer is going to Medshare’s Ukraine fund.

And then there’s you.

Our newsletters and videologues are not only free, they will always be free. We also will never share your contact information with anyone. All we ask is that if you find one of our releases in any way useful, that you make a donation to Medshare. Over one third of Ukraine’s pre-war population has either been forced from their homes, kidnapped and shipped to Russia, or is trying to survive in occupied lands. This is our way to help who we can. Please, join us.


Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Phoenix, Arizona. Today, we have to talk about the summit between the strongmen of Russia in Korea, of Vladimir Putin on the Russian side and Kim Jong un on the Korean side. They met in one of the Russian Cosmodrome in the Far East and the primary topic was whether or not the North Koreans can provide the Russians with military assistance, which for anyone who has a sense of history.

The irony here is practically believing out of the sky anyway. The issue, of course, is that the Russian war in Ukraine is not going to spark. And when you have a conscript heavy force like the Russians do, you try to use standoff weapons that aren’t really smart in large volume, specifically artillery. If you exclude either China or the United States from the math, Russia has more artillery than the rest of the planet combined.

And best guess is, by the end of this year, they’ll have gone through over 20 million artillery shells, artillery shells don’t age particularly well. And after they’re more than like ten, especially after 20 years old, the explosive start to crystallize a little bit and that can make things decidedly lively when you try to, I don’t know, move them, especially when you try to launch them.

So the Russians have had a lot of accidents with the transport system, their logistical system. And then, of course, they’ve had a lot of barrels and the artillery to blow up from the inside. All of these are bad things if you try to launch a lot of artillery. So they need more shells and they’re turning to North Korea, which I believe has the world’s fourth largest stock of artillery.

The problem here, of course, is that North Korea’s industrial plant isn’t exactly great either. And a lot of the North Korean stuff is actually older than the Russian stuff. Gives you an idea of how desperate the Russians are for ammo. Now, the question, of course, is what are the North Koreans get in return? Because the Russians don’t have anything from a trade point of view that’s of use.

You might be able to send a few tankers of crude oil. But the Russians honestly need that for hard currency earnings. So the questions, if there’s anything else can be transferred in terms of military technology, there really isn’t. One of the things that the Indians have found out recently that they’ve been developing missiles and planes with the Russians, where the Indians provide a lot of the capital, and then the Russians provide the technical know how.

And what they’ve discovered is very few of those contracts are actually being honored by the Russians. So because the Russians have lost the technical capacity to manufacture even moderate numbers of planes. So they’re now starting to back out of all their contracts because they realize that the Russians have been lying to them the whole time. In addition, there’s some talk of like maybe a nuclear powered vessel or submarine, but it’s taken the Russians 15 years to build their last nuclear powered ship, which was an icebreaker.

So argue the argument to be made here is whether or not the Russians even have the capacity to sustain their existing nuclear naval fleet, much less build new ships for themselves, much less have surplus to transfer to North Koreans. And honestly, it’s looking pretty poor for that. That doesn’t mean the Russians have nothing, and it doesn’t mean that there’s not a problem.

This is probably not going to be the things that most people are talking about. Look at where the meeting was, the Cosmodrome. This is a facility out in the Far East that the Russians built when they lost control of the Kazakhstan Cosmodrome at the end of the cold War. And when it comes to launching satellites or intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Russians are still one of the few places in the world where that technology can theoretically be obtained, even if the Russians have lost the capacity to build a lot of new stuff themselves.

So the primary global concern, primary regional concern for North Korea is missiles long range missiles. And that is something the Russians have in spades. So whether it’s officially part of a program to launch a satellite into space, which, you know, whatever, or more likely to deliver a payload to another hemisphere, that is something the Russians can and probably are willing to transfer to the North Koreans because the Russians are no longer party to any meaningful arms control treaties at all, which will generate no end of headache, not just for the South Koreans and the Japanese and Chinese who.

Newsflash, the North Koreans hate the Chinese, but also the United States. There’s not a lot the United States can do about this because the North Koreans are not in a position where sanctions work at all. You can do as punish the Russians indirectly and hope for the best. And that’s not a great security strategy. But that is where we are.

Yeah, that’s all I got bye..

Let’s Talk North Korea and Travis King

Before we dive into today’s video, let me start by saying that if you want to defect somewhere…maybe don’t choose the same place as Travis King. Now let’s look at where things are with North Korea.

The history of North Korea is nothing short of a fever dream, and anyone who tells you they know what’s going on inside the country is most definitely lying.

Fast forward to today, and we still have very little insight into the inner workings of North Korea. Although, it appears that Kim Jung Un is “finding his own way” as the generations before him mysteriously die off or retire.

What does this mean for Travis King? We’ll just have to wait and see what this wildcard of a country decides to do.

Here at Zeihan On Geopolitics we select a single charity to sponsor. We have two criteria:
First, we look across the world and use our skill sets to identify where the needs are most acute. Second, we look for an institution with preexisting networks for both materials gathering and aid distribution. That way we know every cent of our donation is not simply going directly to where help is needed most, but our donations serve as a force multiplier for a system already in existence. Then we give what we can.
Today, our chosen charity is a group called Medshare, which provides emergency medical services to communities in need, with a very heavy emphasis on locations facing acute crises. Medshare operates right in the thick of it. Until future notice, every cent we earn from every book we sell in every format through every retailer is going to Medshare’s Ukraine fund.
And then there’s you.
Our newsletters and videologues are not only free, they will always be free. We also will never share your contact information with anyone. All we ask is that if you find one of our releases in any way useful, that you make a donation to Medshare. Over one third of Ukraine’s pre-war population has either been forced from their homes, kidnapped and shipped to Russia, or is trying to survive in occupied lands. This is our way to help who we can. Please, join us.



Keeping Nukes on the Table

Picture one of those old westerns where the outlaw and sheriff are about to have a standoff outside the saloon. The bad guy (who has never lost a duel) sweeps back his coat and reveals his shiny-six-shooter. The sheriff (who isn’t a great shot) then sweeps back his coat and brandishes a nuke…perhaps not the most realistic scenario, but it helps me get my point across. If your country can’t win a traditional fight, throw a couple nukes into the mix and hopefully no one is dumb enough to poke that bear.

With the South Koreans “keeping nukes on the table,” the conversation has now turned into what other countries should build out nuclear options. There are two boxes a country should be able to check before going nuclear: do they have the technical capacity to do so and is there a strong enough strategic reason to have them?

Just as the sheriff in our scenario knew he couldn’t win in a traditional gunfight, there is a long list of countries that would fall very quickly in a conventional war. Throw nukes into the mix and everything changes. Unfortunately, that list of countries is longer than any of us should be comfortable with.

Prefer to read the transcript of the video? Click here

Here at Zeihan On Geopolitics we select a single charity to sponsor. We have two criteria:
First, we look across the world and use our skill sets to identify where the needs are most acute. Second, we look for an institution with preexisting networks for both materials gathering and aid distribution. That way we know every cent of our donation is not simply going directly to where help is needed most, but our donations serve as a force multiplier for a system already in existence. Then we give what we can.
Today, our chosen charity is a group called Medshare, which provides emergency medical services to communities in need, with a very heavy emphasis on locations facing acute crises. Medshare operates right in the thick of it. Until future notice, every cent we earn from every book we sell in every format through every retailer is going to Medshare’s Ukraine fund.
And then there’s you.
Our newsletters and videologues are not only free, they will always be free. We also will never share your contact information with anyone. All we ask is that if you find one of our releases in any way useful, that you make a donation to Medshare. Over one third of Ukraine’s pre-war population has either been forced from their homes, kidnapped and shipped to Russia, or is trying to survive in occupied lands. This is our way to help who we can. Please, join us.




Hey Everybody. Peter Zeihan coming to you from an exciting hotel room back on January 12th. So Wednesday of the last week might be two weeks. By the time you finally see this, who knows? The *South Korean* president said that they were keeping nuclear weapons as a possibility on the table for future strategic development. Now, this is a big no no in international affairs, just kind of publicly flirting with the idea, like, yeah, we might go nuclear, especially if that word Korea is involved.

But you have to look at it from their point of view. The United States has changed the way its military works. Back during the Cold War, when there really wasn’t any other naval power out there, the United States maintained a relatively large destroyer fleet. And in doing so, we were able to patrol the global oceans for everyone. With the Cold War ending in 89 and the Soviet system collapsing in 1992.

The world went different ways and we saw a number of secondary powers start to rise, you know, your Chinese, your Brazils, your Indias and so on. And the United States kind of declared that history was over. And it thought that the only strategic policy that we would need is to have a hammer to take out any country that might challenge what the post World War Two post-Cold War order might be.

So, you know, your odd Yugoslavia is or maybe your North Koreas. And in that sort of scenario, we changed the way our military worked. So we started having fewer destroyers and more aircraft carrier battle groups. So it was less about preserving the peace that we now thought had been achieved and instead about making sure we had the military capacity to challenge anyone who would try to stick a knife in the eye of the system.

At the same time, all these secondary powers started to have their own security policies independent of Cold War norms, and a number of countries started to build their navies, with China being at the very top of that list. So even if the United States could stomach the political cost of being involved in the world and being the global policeman, I would argue that the United States is no longer in a position where the balance of forces allow it to create an environment that’s safe for global commerce, U.S. naval power, stronger than it’s ever been, but it’s also more concentrated than it’s ever been. And ultimately, if you want the tens of thousands of tankers and container ships and Bulker ships that ply the oceans every day to be able to pick up and drop off cargo wherever they need to. The 80 destroyers that the United States has now, just don’t cut it. They probably wouldn’t have even cut it during the Cold War.

And so instead, countries are starting to look at their own security environment and making decisions about whether they need to take independent action because they don’t find that the United States security guarantees are worth what they used to be. And that’s before you consider that they probably aren’t worth what they used to be because the United States is moving on.

So South Korea is a country that clearly has a security need. It’s sandwiched between North Korea, Japan and China, all countries that it considers rivals to a certain degree. And it is the weakest military power of the four. Having nukes would be the great equalizer. And the Koreans have had nuclear civilian power for decades. They’re certainly technologically competent. And I have no doubt that it would only take a few days, to weeks for the South Koreans to build a crude nuclear device if they wanted to, and a deliverable weapons system in under a year. Well, within their capacity. And this is hardly a conversation that should be limited to South Korea if you’re going to consider the cost economically, strategically, diplomatically of going nuclear, you have to have two things. Number one, the technical capacity to build it out yourself. And number two, a strong strategic, overriding reason to take the risk in the first place. Korea checks both columns very, very firmly, but so does Japan, and so especially does Taiwan. And there’s no surprise here. This is shaped of strategic realities for the Chinese when it comes to Taiwan.

The unofficial battle plan for the Chinese, if they ever do decide they want to pull the trigger on Taiwan, is not to do a slow build up over weeks like the Russians did when they were getting ready to attack Ukraine last February. No, the Taiwanese would see that and they would use that time to build a few deliverable nuclear systems. And so the only way that Taiwan could theoretically fall is if it came at the loss of several Chinese cities. So the unofficial plan in Beijing is to basically text all their soldiers, tell them to run to the closest port, hijack a fishing vessel and just set sail. You know, you’ll have a million casualties simply crossing the Taiwan Strait. But at least you don’t lose a city that way. 

Outside of East Asia, there’s plenty of other powers who kind of fall into these same two categories. If you’re looking at anyone on the Russian periphery. Obviously, Ukraine wishes they had nukes at the moment. But if the West proves to be insufficiently united in dealing with it, whatever comes next in the Ukraine war, I can absolutely see in an environment where Finland and Sweden and Poland all go nuclear.

They all have the technology. They certainly all have the need. You could even toss Romania into that group. But the big one, the one that will really change everyone’s strategic calculus is Germany, because any post Ukraine world where the Russians look strong is one where the Germans know that in the end they’re going to be fighting the Russians on the plains of Poland.

And since the Germans have spent the last 60 years disarming, they absolutely do not have the military industrial plant in a short period of time in order to face down the Russians in number. The only way that they can buy time is by going nuclear. One final country to kind of toss into this mix, and that’s Saudi Arabia.

It’s not that the Saudis have the technical capacity to go nuclear. I mean, what are they going to do, rub two molecules of oil together to get fission? No, but they do have really deep pockets and I can totally see them walking into Islamabad, Pakistan, and writing a check and walking out with a few nuclear weapons. We are nearing a point again, with the United States no longer being involved in the region, we’ve withdrawn from the Middle East pretty much completely.

We’re nearing a point where the Saudis and the Iranians are going to be having a direct confrontation in the not too distant future. And when that happens, the Saudis can either take their fat, lazy population with absolutely no military skills and line them up in the desert and hope that is enough. Or they can use their Air Force, which is okay, and hope that bombing the advancing Iranian forces is enough or they can brandish a nuke.

So bottom line, the countries that are most likely to go nuclear in the next several years are not the normal candidates. But the rationale stays the same. You go for nukes if you don’t think you can win a conventional conflict. And the list of countries who can’t win a conventional conflict but have the capacity of going nuclear is a lot longer than everyone should honestly be comfortable with.

Alright. That’s it for me. Until next time.

CRF Files, Part I: The Future of Korea

Read the other installments in this series:
The CRF Files, Introduction
The Cutting Room Files, Part 2: The Future of Mexico
The Cutting Room Files, Part 3: The Future of Canada
The Cutting Room Files, Part 4: The Future of Japan
The Cutting Room Files, Part 5: The Future of the United Kingdom
The Cutting Room Files, Part 6: The Future of China
The Cutting Room Files, Part 7: Europe
The Cutting Room Files, Part 8: American Politics

by Peter Zeihan and Melissa Taylor

This piece is part of the Cutting Room Files, portions of the upcoming Disunited Nations text that were cut for length. Disunited Nations is available for pre-Order now on Amazon.comHarper Collins, and IndieBound.

When Donald Trump became president, world leaders fell into two broad buckets. The first thought that if the Americans were going to drop the global mantle of leadership, then perhaps there is some space for us. Russia’s Vladimir Putin became more aggressive throughout the Russian near abroad. France’s Emmanuel Macron tried to become the voice of the West. Canada’s Justin Trudeau became a liberal supermodel.

The second were those leaders who weren’t sure the Americans knew what they were doing in electing an isolationist, and thought the best bet was to not rock the boat. This club included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, and Britain’s Theresa May. All and more bet/hoped that Trump would be little more than a hiccup in normal relations. They kept quiet and aimed to not do anything that might annoy the Americans as a whole, so that when Trump left the stage their relations with America could get back to normal.

There was one exception: South Korean President Moon Jae In. Rather than strike out or hunker down, Moon bluntly asked for the terms of a revised trade deal that Trump would approve of.

Moon’s logic was unassailable. Put simply, Moon recognized that he completely lacked leverage, (correctly) calculating that being an eager first volunteer might allow South Korea to walk away without undue sacrifice as the Trump administration looked for an early win. The revised deal’s technical talks took but a few weeks, and the revised KORUS is already implemented.

Good thing too. “Logic” was about all Moon had going for him. Everything about Korea’s success is exclusively because of the Order.

South Korea imports all its oil and natural gas, and its import/export flows are so large that it is the world’s 5th-largest trading power by value despite having a population of only 51 million. As with many of the world’s developed economies, South Korea cannot look internally for greater economic growth; The country’s population has all but peaked and, again like much the rest of the world, faces a rapidly aging demography supported by an ever-smaller working age population.

South Korea’s largest trading partner today is actually China, but that is the beauty of the Order. South Korea can trade with whomever is willing to buy their goods. For now. It all relies on American guarantees that seem to be crumbling.

That’s the numbers and dollars argument. In strategic terms things are far more complicated.

South Korea sits among Japan, China and North Korea and has adversarial relationships with all of them. The only reason South Korea even exists is because American troops ward off the most salient threat to the north, while preventing Japanese and Chinese imperialism. That security guarantee is not easy to maintain:

North Korea believes the best way to beat a Grand Master at chess is to never let them make a first move. Infamously, North Korea has aimed an untold number of pieces of artillery at Seoul, just across the border and home to nearly half the country’s population. In a real war, by the time the first shell lands in Seoul, tens of thousands of others would already be airborne. But this is only one of its many preparations. Turns out that if you dedicate a country’s entire attention span for 70 years to a seething hatred of what’s on the other side, you can accomplish some pretty impressive things, up to and including an effective nuclear deterrent.

South Korea decided to focus instead on ships and trains and petrochemicals and white goods and electronics and computers and cellular tech. South Korea may be able to prevail against North Korea in a knock-down, drag-out fight, but there is no way the South Koreans can K-Pop themselves out of hideous infrastructure damage and mass civilian casualties. Only American forces – massed in and near Seoul and the DMZ – can provide the hitting power to at least partially preempt and mitigate such carnage.

That’s just North Korea. The South Koreans, accurately reading their history and geography, view China and Japan as even more significant security threats. Japan outpopulates South Korea by well over 2:1, China by over 20:1. The navies of either country could wipe the Korean navy from the seas in days. To the south, east, and west, South Korea is surrounded by waters that either Japan or China could dominate given the right push. South Korea’s second city, Busan, is in a particularly vulnerable spot separated from mainland Japan via the Korea Strait, barely more than 100 miles across. Inchon, the western extremity of the Seoul metro region, isn’t much further away from China. And of course, Korean trade links to the wider world are impossible to maintain without both Japanese and Chinese quiescence.

For decades this has all been moot. South Korea, Japan and China were all members of the U.S.-led global Order. The U.S. Navy has ensured peaceful seas and ample trade. Oil, LNG and raw materials flow in, finished goods flow out, and Korea is one of the world’s largest transshipment and manufacturing nodes. So long as the Americans remain involved, Korea’s economic and security problems remain purely theoretical.

But the Americans – left, right and center – want to slim down America’s global position. The Korean deployment is America’s third-largest (after Japan and Germany), and the one that is by far in the trickiest and riskiest strategic position. And that is what keeps Moon’s administration up at night. The Americans are losing interest, and there is no version of a post-Order world where South Korea continues to survive at all – much less as a wealthy, trading nation – unless Seoul can obtain a powerful, dedicated ally.

So it was all Moon could to do cave in trade talks with the American administration on everything. And not just in trade negotiations. The Trump administration is insisting that South Korea compensate the United States for ongoing troop commitments to the tune of at least $5 billion annually. That’s a lot for a country Korea’s size, but honestly it’s a bargain considering what 26,000 American troops can do when they are suitably motivated.

Is caving to the U.S. on trade and defense reimbursement enough to keep the American troops in-country in this post-Order world? No clue. But Moon, correctly, concluded that without conceding to American terms there was no chance whatsoever. 

That’s hardly the end of the story.

First, in the post-Order world, getting a deal with the Americans on trade or troops or whatever is not the end of the negotiations. It is the beginning. Because the Americans no longer have a global strategy or see a national interest in play aside from getting some better market access, keeping the Americans interested requires giving in not once, but every single time they ask for anything.

If the Yanks are displeased with the Koreans’ response, they will leave and there is no guarantee they can be induced to come back. It’s bad business to allow a homeowner that refused to pay for fire insurance to do so after the house catches fire. The Americans can – and will – watch the neighborhood burn. They won’t feel good about it, but they won’t feel all that bad about it either.

Second, the one item in the neighborhood the Americans really do care about – the North Korean nuclear program – is one that they may have found a way to muddle through. The handshake deal Donald Trump appears to have reached with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un is that the reclusive country can keep their nuclear program so long as they abandon their ICBM program. The Trump administration seems to think it can live with a localized NorK nuclear threat so long as Pyongyang cannot nuke Seattle and beyond. What North Korea “projectiles” that have been launched since the first Trump-Kim summit are of the decidedly short-range sort, and there are at least some indications that North Korea dismantled a significant portion of their long-range missile testing facilities.

In a world where the Americans are blasé about South Korean issues, in a world where Americans no longer consider North Korea a direct threat, the Americans need a lot fewer forces in-theater. That’s great for the Americans…and the ultimate statement of no-interest in South Korea. The Trump administration appears to have handed off the entire North Korean issue to the local powers. And since North Korea already has the capacity to drop a nuke anywhere in South Korea or Japan or in the parts of China that are home to over 80% of the population, the entire region now has to deal with something that has stymied ten American administrations.

Finally, the Koreans have a hideously distasteful choice to make. They must prepare for a world without the Americans and that means they must find a new security guarantor. The menu of options are not encouraging.

While China is currently Korea’s largest trading partner, China is just as dependent upon the Americans as the Koreans for maintaining its economy and security. With the Americans checked out, China’s future will likely mirror its past; that of a broken, impoverished nation completely unable to maintain its own security or even feed its own people. Culturally, China might be Korea’s closest relation, but a long-term partnership will only bring Korea destitution.

In comparison, the future of Japan is bright. It already maintains the world’s second-most-powerful expeditionary navy and is one of the very few countries that has a chance to maintain its supply lines without active American assistance. The “smart” play for the Koreans would be to find a means of inserting themselves into the Japanese sphere of influence. Unfortunately, the politics of such insertion are wretched. The Koreans charge the Japanese with carrying out a cultural genocide during Japan’s 1905-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula and, so far, have been unwilling to let the past go. Even then, letting that past go would only be the first step to entering Tokyo’s world. Much kowtowing by the proud Koreans would be required.

The third option is for South Korea to become its own defender. That is impossible with conventional weapons, but it just might work if the Koreans build a few dozen nukes to hold everyone at bay. Technically, the obstacles to South Korea becoming a nuclear power are minimal; it could be done in a few months at most. Operationally, however, it would turn South Korea into a regional pariah of the North Korean type and cut the country off from not just global trade, but regional trade (although post-Order that is unlikely to cause the same problems, as much as it is frowned upon today).

Partnership with China might be somewhat comfortable, but it would end with a starvation diet. Partnership with Japan might preserve the Koreans’ standard of living, but it would be politically toxic. Going nuclear might preserve independence, but it would force mass deindustrialization.

For the South Koreans, the future is a land of fear and want.

But that’s not the case for everyone…

America Sells Its Seoul

The United States and South Korea have agreed on an overhaul of their bilateral trade agreement this past week. In it, the Koreans caved on pretty much every issue of contention, most notably agreeing to improve American firms’ access to Korea’s automotive and pharmaceutical markets while restricting their own exports of steel to the United States by nearly one-third. In exchange, the Koreans received the first permanent waiver to the Trump administration’s until-now unrelated issue of steel and aluminum tariffs.

In addition, Trump has personally made it clear he has little intention of formally signing off on the deal until after the North Korean situation is resolved, insuring South Korea must follow the American preferences on any subsequent arrangements with Kim Jung Un, rather than the other way around.

It’s the first formalized, publicly-declared instance of American foreign policy coming full circle. During the Soviet standoff the Americans made the global oceans safe for all and kept the American market open to the alliance, in essence trading some of its economic power in order to purchase a security alliance. But the Cold War is nearly three decades gone now, and until recently the Americans had yet to update their strategic policy. As such, the post-Cold War global economic boom was largely a result of the Americans continuing to pay for a global system without getting anything in return. That disconnect was in part responsible for America’s recoiling from the world and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

We now have the beginning of a formal re-engineering of the old Cold War system. Linkage between economic and security issues is back – but without the Cold War rubric to shape it, American policy is taking on a somewhat à la carte characteristic.

South Korea was a great spot for the first of a new series of arrangements. Next to the three tiny Baltic states that have no hope of defending themselves against their monster neighbor Russia, there is no country in the world that has a greater defense dependency upon the United States. And since South Korea has a smallish, rapidly aging population (aka low local consumption and so export-dependent) and few domestic resources (aka import-dependent), trade is its lifeblood. No country in the world would be forced to come to terms with the Americans more, and Korea’s position as the world’s fifth-largest exporter means everyone must take notice.

Whether starting with the Koreans was the goal all along, or the well-worn contours of geography and economics guided the administration a bit like a luge course to this destination is really not relevant. (Donald Trump’s general lack of discipline and revulsion in the face of context suggests the latter. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s laser attention to detail and dogged persistence suggests the former. National Security Advisor John Bolton hasn’t been on Team Trump long enough to participate in the Korea trade talks, but this sort of thing certainly fits with his style, too).

The biggest question in my mind is, who’s next?

China seems like an interesting bet, but I’m guessing the Trump administration wants to get far more out of the Chinese than merely new understandings on steel, aluminum, intellectual property rights, and North Korea. The White House appears set to link a host of until-now unlinked issues. Issues like agriculture and freedom of navigation, manufacturing and the South China Sea, finance and hacking, market access and policies on Iran, reciprocity and Russian sanctions. It is a heavy list and even if the Chinese were to simply roll over on it all (which is not very likely) it would take quite a bit of time to work out the details.

In my opinion, folks convinced of the Chinese rise aren’t very good at math or reading maps. The Chinese financial system is the most overextended in history and every country that has followed its investment-led model has eventually crashed hard. The one-child policy has destroyed China’s future – it is now the world’s third-fastest aging demography. China’s strategic position is horrid – a line of islands parallels its coast, preventing it from projecting power into the sea lanes upon which its economy depends. It is utterly reliant on global energy imports and global merchandise exports – imports and exports which are under the thumb of the U.S. Navy.

The linkage the Americans are about to impose is the opposite of what the Chinese have become used to the Americans doing. It is precisely what the Chinese do to everyone else whenever the issue of Hong Kong or Taiwan or Tibet comes up. The Chinese are going to hate/fear this sort of strategic thinking in the United States because it cuts to the heart of the Chinese political system and strategic policy. And there’s far more to this than Beijing knowing they lack the leverage on the Americans to win. The Americans are in effect putting a dollar amount on their Korean alliance, and the same thing can now be done to any other aspect of American policy – including the China relationship.

The same general issue holds true for the European Union. Most of the European states are in terminal demographic decline, meaning that not only are they deeply dependent upon exports for their economic well-being, there is absolutely no hope their economic situation can be sustained, much less improved, without either the kindness of outsiders or a fundamental reshaping of how Europe defines the terms “economy” and “government.” Considering the European experimentation with those two terms in generations past, that last sentence should make everyone a bit twitchy.

And of course those are just some of Europe’s problems. There are also ongoing and deepening debt, banking, refugee, and political legitimacy crises. With neighboring powers – primarily Turkey and Russia – becoming more aggressive, the European choice is between once-again submitting themselves to American strategic goals, aggressively rearming in an era of terminal economic decline, or going through a regional…re-invention.

It’s an ugly choice, and one made far worse by a host of until-now unrelated issues.

  • Brexit not only reduces the EU’s overall heft and thus its stature in the world and at the negotiating table, but the UK acting as a free agent can and will provide the Americans with a host of wedge issues to hurt the Europeans where they are most vulnerable.
  • Of the EU’s 28 current members, five – Ireland, Cyprus, Austria, Finland and Sweden – are not in NATO, and so have little history in making formal economics-for-security swaps with the Americans.
  • Full competence for negotiating trade deals is held collectively with the European Commission, the EU’s executive/administrative/bureaucratic authority. But full competence for negotiating defense deals is held individually with the member states.
  • On major issues – for example, economics-for-security swap deals – every EU member has full veto rights. Even a deal that makes sense for France and Germany and Italy and Poland and Spain and the Netherlands and Sweden could be undone by a local election in Belgium (nearly derailed a free trade deal with the Canadians), or a spiteful politician in Greece (did derail Europe’s Russia policy).

That means that either a) the major EU powers find ways outside of EU norms to crush the dissenters, b) the EU gets cut out of American and global markets which throws Europe into a long-lasting depression, or c) the Trump administration breaks the entire EU in order to get its deal with the members that matter. No matter the path, the strategic alignments that have made the EU the vehicle that have made Europe united, at peace, wealthy and free are over.

Zocalo, Mexico City, Mexico

If anything, the NAFTA renegotiation will be even tougher, but here the issues are different. Canada and Mexico are not dependent upon the Americans for strategic overwatch (or, more accurately, the United States has no option but to protect its continental neighbors from extra-continental threats if it is to protect itself). Neither of them trade very much with the rest of the world, with both in essence functioning as de facto extensions of the American economic space.

The Americans can, will and are playing hardball in the talks, but the Canadians and Mexicans are doing the same. They know the tactics the Trump administration is employing to bring the rest of the world to heel just don’t apply in North America. Both Canada and Mexico have been (repeatedly) successful in courting American corporate giants and American state governors to make their cases in Washington for them. Remember that NAFTA is the only trade deal the Americans have signed in the post-WWII era that was not about security. That gives both Canada and Mexico something that neither the Chinese nor Europeans have: leverage.

It also means that the Canadians are playing very dirty, following what has more-or-less become a scorched earth policy. As part of Canada’s NAFTA strategy the Canadians have launched a case at the WTO that would actually hurt them if they won, because if they did win, the case would impose such pain on the Americans it would likely induce the Trump administration to abandon the WTO completely. Additionally, Canada’s hardball tactics might be aiming to wreck NAFTA. If that were to happen, Canada has a separate bilateral trade deal with the United States…but Mexico does not. In a world without the WTO and NAFTA, Canada would become the only country to maintain preferential access to the American economy. Harsh. Brilliant, but harsh.

But all these talks will take time. For the Chinese and Europeans, these are all very messy, complex, interwoven issues that cut to the core of issues of national identity and even national existence. For the Canadians and Mexicans the negotiations will continue to be difficult because with those countries the Americans are actually dealing with a more-or-less level field. The Americans with their stereotypical boorish, freight-train style will plow through it all as quickly as they can – and Lighthizer and Bolton will revel in every minute of it – but unweaving and reweaving the strands of China and Europe will take time, as will hammering out a more sustainable understanding within North America.

Trump isn’t that patient.

My bet is the next two deals will be bilateral and done more or less simultaneously.

Japan will be far easier than most of the other negotiations in front of the Americans because it will be a one-on-one talk as compared the multilateral complications of NAFTA and the EU. Japan – like South Korea – is deeply enmeshed into American defense networks and fully admits and realizes just how important U.S. strategic policy is to its own strategic needs (while most of the Chinese and Europeans remain in deep denial). Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Japan is no longer a massive trading nation. Rather than engage in broad-based economic and financial reform in the 1990s and 2000s to fix their broken economic model, they instead walled themselves off from the world. Consequently, Japan’s share of the international export market has shrunk by four-fifths since the 1980s.

Most importantly, the horror show that is Japan’s aging demography long ago induced the Japanese to forward-position much of their manufacturing capacity in their end-markets both to minimize currency risk and curry political and strategic favors. In essence, Japan has already swallowed some of this economics-for-security medicine in the post-Cold War era. It won’t crush their sense of national identity or their national economy to do it again, so long as the Americans continue to hem in places like North Korea and China.

The other big about-to-be deal is the United Kingdom, and this deal will practically fall into the Trump administration’s lap. Because of Brexit, the Brits are already casting out for alternative systems. The search has not been going particularly well. Political bungling at home, unrealistic expectations from the Leavers, a united EU front, and a resurgent and increasingly economically suicidal Labor opposition have tangled up the UK’s negotiating positions on pretty much everything.

The government of Prime Minister Theresa May now fully realizes that there is going to be no Brexit deal. It took considerable concessions to the EU simply to extend the negotiation period for another year. The new arrangement is that the UK will remain subject to all relevant EU laws and regulations, but will gain no input or votes on them during the “transition.” The one concession London teased out is the one most relevant to this discussion: the EU will allow the UK to negotiate trade deals outside of the EU’s authority. So the Brits now need to and are free to fully recalibrate their national, regional and global security and economic norms just as the Americans are reforging national, regional and global security and economic norms.

If the Trump-Lighthizer-Bolton team can induce (browbeat?) the world’s third- and fifth-largest economies which control the world’s second- and third-largest navies into joining the United States in a refashioned economics-for-security arrangement, then not only will the Trump administration have gotten a couple “big wins,” but the global stage will be set for whatever strategic alignments come next.

This is the bit that worries me, but it is also the bit that I ultimately expected.

The established American foreign policy community, both in the government bureaucracy and distributed throughout Washington, is still living in the past and seems out of ideas. For its part, the Trump administration has no strategic vision; MAGA is a slogan, not a policy. The normal means of debating a new national grand strategy – discussion and debate between the major parties – is not possible because both parties are currently broken.

Trump may be stumbling/groping/learning his way into a common approach, but he is doing so without any guiding principles or goals. The Cold War structure was stable because the Americans paid everyone the same (by creating a global structure) and expected the same behavior in return (membership in the anti-Soviet alliance).

This time around the Americans are customizing the membership fee to match the need. For South Korea the cost is deference on North Korea. For China it will likely be deference on global policy. For Europe it will likely include a demand to follow American regulatory norms. And as the Americans are strategically unmoored, I see no reason why the goal posts won’t move as America’s perceived self-needs evolve. It is less the stuff of a global leader and more the behavior of a mafioso.

There’s a reason I call the next couple of decades the “Coming Disorder.”

Read more about it in my book, The Accidental Superpower.

North Korea: Part III—Why I Already Worry About South Korea

In the aftermath of North Korea’s Sept 3 nuclear test, a Donald Trump Twitterstorm delivered its greatest disdain not to North Korea, but instead South Korea. Trump accused Seoul of being overly pacifist in the face of the North’s belligerence, as well as using a wide variety of measures to steal jobs from American workers. Later, piling on his own comments, Trump indicated that he was highly likely to soon withdraw completely from the United States’ free trade pact with South Korea.

Many found themselves head-scratching. The United States seems to be sliding towards a military confrontation with North Korea, and in any war scenario, coordination between the United States and South Korea would be key. As the New York Times editorial board summed it up,

“For Mr. Trump, the crisis lays bare how his trade agenda – the bedrock of his economic populist campaign in 2016 – is increasingly at odds with the security agenda he has pursued as president. It is largely a problem of Mr. Trump’s own making. Unlike several of his predecessors, who were able to press countries on trade issues while cooperating with them on security, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two…”

Unpacking all this – North Korea, South Korea, Trump and the relationship between trade and security – requires a few steps back.

American foreign policy since World War II has been based on a simple premise: the United States will create a global security structure for its allies, enabling them to access resources and markets the world over without the need to protect themselves, those resources or those markets. In exchange, those allies would allow the Americans to fight the Cold War their way. In essence the Americans bribed up an alliance via the Bretton Woods system to fight the Soviets, and in doing so not only attracted the allegiance of traditional cultural allies, but also countries with which the Americans had fought long, bitter wars – up to and including the former Axis and the U.S. own former colonial master. The end result was the strongest military alliance in human history, and also history’s longest and greatest period of peace and prosperity because nearly every imperial power of the past was on the same side (with the notable and obvious exception of the Soviet Union).

To put this in the Times‘ lexicon, trade and security were linked – with the Americans sacrificing their position on the former in order to gain deference on the latter.

The Cold War ended in 1989. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1992. And at the moment of truth when then-President George HW Bush stood poised to update America’s strategic policy, he was booted out of office in a federal election. His successor – Bill Clinton – had no time for foreign policy and so let the old system ride without a foe. The next U.S. President – George W Bush – pursued a monochromatic foreign policy completely focused on the Islamic world, and he too let the Cold War trade-for-security rubric continue, just without the trade-off. Then came Barack Obama who, in essence, didn’t have a foreign policy at all. Obama would on occasion go through the motions and say the right things about trade and allies, but actions were but rarely matched with words and the whole system atrophied. After 24 years of autopilot, the world barely resembles the bipolar alignment of 1945-1989. New power centers – think China – have emerged into what feels like a more multi-polar system.

Seoul, South Korea

This is the world the Times sees: trade and security are no longer linked. The United States negotiates on trade as an independent topic, while providing security for the global commons free-of-charge.

Everyone would do well to remember three facts:

First, throughout human history, there has never been a multipolar period in which widespread wars among constantly-shifting alliances were not the norm. If a post-American, multi-polar system really is where the world is headed, the future will be a dark, poor and war-torn place as various regional powers struggling for regional supremacy utterly overturn the global trade system that makes the world’s current safety, wealth and prosperity possible. For example, if the U.S. releases the security reins, Japan and China quickly fall into cutthroat competition over Middle Eastern oil. (Fun fact: there’s a full chapter on this “Tanker War” in The Absent Superpower.)

Second, all the powers that have arisen since 1989 are utterly dependent upon the security and trade systems the Americans created to fight the Cold War, and none of them are capable of taking up that burden from the United States. The U.S. Navy is more powerful than the combined navies of the rest of the world by a factor of ten (and that without nuclear weapons), and even if multiple powers could agree to pool their forces…whose interests would they look out for? It is hard to imagine the Chinese contributing to a force that facilitates French commercial penetration into Southeast Asia or the French navy providing the security environment required for Chinese commercial penetration into Belgium. If there is no American commitment to global order, there is no global order. That pushes every trans-national organization designed around a benevolent global security environment – that’s everything from the European Union to the Chinese Communist Party – over the brink.

Third, for the Americans, trade hasn’t been about economics – it’s been about security. Trade was the bribe to get all the world’s once-imperial powers to cooperate. Not only does an American withdrawal unleash heretofore quiescent powers as varied as Japan, the United Kingdom, and Iran to attempt to reshape their neighborhoods more to their liking, it further means that the Americans never really integrated their economy into the global whole like nearly everyone else did. And since the United States is by far the leastintegrated of the significant countries into the global trade system, it would be the one to suffer the least should that system collapse.

You might not care for Donald Trump very much, but if the United States is getting out of the global management business, you’ve got to admit that a rejiggering of the relationship between trade and security makes a lot of sense. (Whether the specifics of Trump’s preferred rejiggering make sense is, of course, an entirely different topic.)

And what about the raft of countries that did not even exist before 1945 because the various regional powers could easily subjugate them? What about places that in the intervening decades used this historic opportunity to transform themselves from backwaters to advanced economies? What happens to them when the global environment changes?

What happens to South Korea?

South Korea is a country roughly the size of Indiana with a mid-sized population and a gigantic role in global trade, currently ranking in the top ten in terms of total value of trade. Its markets span the world, with the majority not within a thousand miles. It sucks down vast volumes of raw materials – again, almost none of which are from East Asia – including over 2 million barrels of crude a day, almost all of which is sourced from the Persian Gulf. American economic sponsorship has transformed South Korea from being the world’s fifth-poorest country in 1953 to one of the richest. Remove the Americans from the world writ large, and South Korea would experience an economic crash at least twice as bad as the Great Depression.

Then there is South Korea’s military problem. The United States is South Korea’s security policy. U.S. troops not only face off against North Koreans opposite the demilitarized zone, American rapid reaction forces are stationed in Seoul, elsewhere in South Korea, Japan and throughout the Pacific to respond to any military situation the North might trigger. Remove the Americans, and the South Koreans lose air superiority, naval strike capability, ballistic missile reach, cruise missiles, missile defense and all those tough, zippy tanks. In a North-South war I firmly believe the South would emerge victorious – invasion routes through the DMZ are remarkably constrained and the South’s industrial plant and population are much larger than the North’s – but the damage to the south would be immense: North Korea has dug thousands of artillery emplacements into the hills on their side of the DMZ, most of which could target Seoul with withering fire. It isn’t something that anyone is looking forward to.

Finally, there is the overall American strategic angle:

Part and parcel of the Americans maintaining the Bretton Woods system is making the world safe and keeping the American market open for everyone. In the case of South Korea, that has come at immense cost.

As a mid-sized economy, South Korea could only develop with the direct physical and economic sponsorship of the United States. Resource-poor South Korea could have never obtained the raw materials and energy it needs without Bretton Woods. It would have never been independent without the U.S. military’s involvement in the Korean War and the decades since. It could have never grown without the American position in the Persian Gulf to ensure energy flows. It could have never built its infrastructure and industrial plant without American capital. It could have never exported its way to affluence without the American market. And there is meat to Trump’s trade accusations against South Korea: South Korea regularly uses everything from corporate welfare to state-sponsored intellectual property theft to advance corporate Korea’s interests.

The mismatch in the American mind between South Korea’s (lack of) commitment to American actions against North Korea, and the ongoing outlay of American blood and treasure for South Korea’s benefit has been an irritant in relations between Washington and Seoul since the Carter administration. The only thing that’s new about the recent criticism from the White House is that it is public. If the Americans really do back away from maintaining the global system, South Korea – as a country that cannot possibly field a navy capable of securing the markets and resources it needs – faces cataclysmic decline.

Yet while the South Koreans cannot do much about their economic exposure, they can do quite a bit about their military position. The land of Samsung, LG and Hyundai is one of the world’s most technologically advanced economies. Remove the Americans from the equation and the South will arm itself very rapidly. But tanks and planes and missiles all take time.

For a first-world country like South Korea with a lively civilian atomic power program, nukes are much easier. Delivering a ruggedized, miniaturized, thermonuclear weapon halfway around the world is hard stuff. But that’s not what South Korea would need to do. They’d just need a basic device they can lob a couple hundred kilometers. The South Koreans could probably build an explosive nuclear device in a matter of days, and mate it to a bare-bones delivery system shortly thereafter. The North Korean leadership – used to needling a Washington who views Pyongyang as a mere irritant rather than a terrified, angry sibling who knows just where to kick for the biggest effect – probably doesn’t not yet realize just how complicated their lives are about to become.

And keep in mind that North Korea is only South Korea’s danger-of-the-month. Before World War II, what is today’s South Korea tended to alternate between being an unwilling colony of Japan or China. Under most scenarios South Korea may be the runt of the neighborhood, but it will be a runt with a desperate population, a functional nuclear program and a couple million engineering doctorates used to making the impossible a functional reality. Poor, friendless, nuclear-armed, devilishly creative and testy – that is South Korea’s future.

The South Koreans won’t be alone.

Every country that was once either an imperial power or an imperial province is going to have to beef up its military simply to look after its own interests, and South Korea is hardly the only smallish country that lives in a dangerous neighborhood. A partial list of countries about to face drastically different security environments and starkly poorer economic futures while also boasting sufficient technical (and/or financial) skills to acquire a nuke include Sweden, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All of which have pressing security concerns now, much less after the global security architecture collapses. For those of you into international relations, you may recall that some of the personalities that have topped some of those countries make Donald Trump seem calm, prudent and patient in comparison.

Each of these countries – indeed, nearly every country likely to go nuclear in the next couple of decades – sees a very specific security threat very close to home, and in no case is that threat the United States. One of the few topics on which I agree with today’s Twitterati is that a nuclear exchange is very likely a part of the not-so-distant future. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be part of America’s.

North Korea: Part II—Why I Might Start Worrying About North Korea

The technical aspects of a fully-functioning nuclear weapons program are daunting. A warhead is useless unless it can reach your target. Intercontinental ballistic missiles must be accurate, durable enough to withstand the considerable pressures of the launch, transit (including a sub-orbital spaceflight), and re-entry. Since the distance between North Korea and its primary targets in the US are so considerable, fueling is key (solid fuels are trickier but offer more distance for a smaller volume), and you need a warhead that is small enough to fit at the tip of an ICBM without weighing it down too much but also powerful enough to pack a wallop (the so-called miniaturization stage, perhaps the trickiest of the lot).

It took the Soviet Union and United States the better part of two decades to master the complex process of physics, chemistry, metallurgy and engineering to construct reliable, intercontinental nuclear weapons arsenal. To think that North Korea can do the same with less than one percent the resources in a shorter timeframe is, to put it bluntly, paranoia. And even that assumes that the politics of North Korea are pushing the country in the direction of a hot war with the United States. In Part I of this series, I laid out just how unlikely that all is and why I’m not all that concerned about North Korea.

But things may be changing.

Recent changes to such outside assessments are why I’ve broken with my normal policy of ignoring North Korea to give my view on where North Korea is today, and what could well be about to happen.

Throughout August there have been rafts of leaks out of U.S. intelligence institutions and a great deal of propaganda out of North Korea on the status of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. All point to a sharp increase in the speed of technical achievement of said programs: longer range missiles, different materials that enable for stable missile reentry, progress in miniaturizing nuclear devices to make them missile-mountable, indications of changes to the device geometry that would increase both yield and stability, and so on.

Seoul, South Korea

On September 3, North Korea tested what Pyongyang claims to have been a “thermonuclear” device rather than simply a mere “nuclear” device, which serves as a case in point. A run-of-the-mill nuclear device uses conventional explosives to split unstable uranium atoms in a process called fission: as the atoms split they unleash additional energy, magnifying the destructive potential of the initial blast. A more advanced thermonuclear device instead uses a smaller atomic device to combine light elements (typically hydrogen) to make heavier elements in a process called fusion: hydrogen atoms are smooshed together (scientific term), knocking off protons and again unleashing a devastating amount of energy. Both generate a massive amount of energy and will generally ruin your day even if you are blissfully ignorant to the difference between the two, but a fusion device requires less fuel and a smaller assembly and so is easier to mount on a missile making it the more problematic weapons system from the American point of view.

Considering how tightly-closed the North Korean system is – particularly when it comes to weapon specs – I find the near-simultaneous release of all this information a bit… convenient. On the American side, leaks about advances in miniaturization have the feel of a bureau’s carefully-crafted effort to attain more funding. On the NorK side of things, some of the propaganda is just stupid – for example the claim that Pyongyang’s new device is yield-adjustable (that it can be preprogrammed to detonate at variable explosive power levels). Such a technological advance would make North Korean nuke tech equal to current Russian and American nuke tech.

Yet too much has changed too fast for me to simply dismiss the lot. If several of the items leaked and proclaimed the past five weeks are true, then the entire balance of the region and American policy towards it change dramatically. It is one thing to toy around with nukes in your basement, quite another to mount them onto missiles, put them on your lawn and point them at people.

A meaningful, deployed North Korean nuclear weapon would leave the Americans with only two options.

Option one would be a pre-emptive strike – and not the sort of pinpoint conventional strike that gets bandied about on Fox and CNN. Since anyone who can build one nuclear weapon can build more than one, all a conventional strike would do is piss Pyongyang off and force them into a use-it-or-lose-it position. No, any preemptive strike designed to eliminate the North Korea nuclear program would need to be nuclear itself, and would need to hit at least a dozen different targets.

Option two is containment. The Americans would make sure that no weapon launched from North Korea could ever hit any American landmass. That means radically expanded missile-interception assets, on land, in the air and on the water. Putting American hardware at multiple points on every flight path for any conceivable delivery system to any possible American landmass. And backing those assets up with strike capability so that any North Korean asset even tangentially related to any missile launch facility could be eliminated within an hour of any North Korean launch.

The big loser from either option (aside from North Korea) is China. It’s hard to imagine anything that would focus minds in Beijing more on whatever Washington wants to talk about than the American carpet-nuking of China’s only real ally.

Yet if anything, containment is worse for Beijing than even North Korea’s vaporization. Any American missile defense system that can intercept missiles from North Korea to the United States could also intercept missiles from China to the United States. One way or another, North Korea’s recent evolutions make China look weak and hugely shrink China’s strategic room to maneuver.

This all, of course, assumes the Americans continue with their weird obsession with North Korea. The real hilarity of all this is that North Korea is a strategic relic of a time three decades in the past. A much more relevant discussion is about what’s about to happen in South Korea and beyond.

In the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s Sept 1 (thermo)nuclear test, U.S. President Donald Trump reserved his harshest criticism not for Pyongyang or Beijing, but instead Seoul.

From a traditional national security point of view such vitriol seems…unwise. North Korea is a foe. South Korea is an ally. Lambasting an ally you would need to combat a foe is idiotic. Right?

Well, the problem here isn’t with the Trump White House, the Kim family, or either of the Koreas – but instead with the word “traditional”…

Continued in Part III