Belmont Club

Low Observable Threat

Everything's not OK

North Korea tested yet another ballistic missile to spite the Trump administration but it failed. “Commander Dave Benham, a spokesman for US Pacific Command, said the missile launch took place at 10.33am Friday, Hawaii time (6.33am AEST on Saturday), from near the Pukchang airfield.”

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missile was probably a medium-range missile known as a KN-17 and appears to have broken up within minutes of taking off. The test came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the United Nations that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could lead to “catastrophic consequences”.

It follows the spectacular failure of an earlier missile demonstration after a big parade on North Korea’s national day on April 16. The “ballistic missile exploded within seconds of launch. Hours earlier, North Korea paraded what appeared to be long-range ballistic missiles at a major military display.”

The cause of this second high profile failure is presently unknown. The North Koreans have got to be counting the screws that came with the ballistic missile box to see if there is one left over to determine what happened.  Although Pyongyang will not be deterred by a setback it will be baffled.  For once Kim Jong Un, used to taking the initiative, will feel doubt about what he actually faces. The Trump administration has shown itself to unpredictable — at least by the pundits — and is probably confusing officials in the Hermit Kingdom as well.  They were long used to blocking blows by the Telegraph Kid but the Trump administration has been sending all kinds of ambiguous signals.  After all, Secretary Tillerson recently signaled the administration’s willingness to negotiate with North Korea.

“We much prefer a negotiated solution to this problem,” he added. “But we are committed to defending ourselves and our allies against North Korean aggression.”

The effect of both Trump’s and Tillerson’s remarks is to present a willingness to negotiate with North Korea that surprised and pleased diplomats the United States needs for any new joint effort at the United Nations or elsewhere. At the same time, the administration reiterated that it would act alone if necessary.

Now maybe this.  Could the US be alternating punches between the head after the body and back? There’s a new unpredictability in Washington. The former DC standard was consistency with past positions. The former policy invariance has been replaced by a posture parts of which have deliberately been left ambiguous. But doubt can be a powerful instrument when correctly used, as Tirpitz’s Risk Theory proposed.  The unseen can be more paralyzing than known danger, because you don’t know what you are up against. It’s a mood captured in a snatch of dialog from the 1987 movie Predator.

Dutch: What’s got Billy so spooked?

Mac: Can’t say, Major. Been actin’ squirrelly all morning. That damned nose of his… it’s weird.

Dutch: What is it? Billy? What the hell is wrong with you?

Billy: There’s something in those trees.

There’s something in those trees. Mebbee yes, mebbee not. But doubt is something Pyongyang is ill-equipped to withstand. North Korea’s isolation is aimed at hiding from its population just how shoddy and shabby the gimcrack Kim dynasty really is. Western publics are used to epic fails.  The problem with dictatorial legitimacy built on a cult of personality and “super mighty” weapons is epic fails must on no account ever publicly happen.

Kim’s first problem will be finding someone to BLAME because first rule of personality cults is that the godhood never errs. Therefore some dog must be found to kick for reasons of state. The North Korean communist dynasty is trapped by the rules of the extortion business. When you take out a pistola and threaten people with it — and out pops the bang sign — you have to do something or break out in a showstopping song and dance number.

Therein lies the danger of the administration’s new ambiguity, if Pyongyang’s humiliation is in fact policy, which nobody can say it is, assuming that it would be to begin with, it requires fine judgment to go so far and no further. The stakes on the Korean peninsula are extraordinarily high. The strategy of the last 8 years was to hope things would never come to a head; that “something would turn up”. Perhaps a Deus Ex Machina will still turn up but since it is more prudent to assume the worst the challenge is making that a low order blast by drawing most of the charge and changing the frame of conflict from hot war to Cold War.

One can argue the safest policy now is to exert every pressure short of actual war on Pyongyang so it fails directionally — to shape the snap. To have any chance of success the pressure must be applied faster than Kim can adapt. The slow motion policies of yesterday will fail, but the new policy of ambiguity may fail also. In Korea all courses may run ill, but you still have to try one of them.

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Books:

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Author Robert D. Kaplan builds on the insights, discoveries, and theories of great geographers and geopolitical thinkers to look back at critical pivots in history and then to look forward at the evolving global scene. The result is an interpretation of the next cycle of conflict throughout Eurasia and a future that can be understood in the context of temperature, land allotment, and other physical certainties. To those who suggest that globalism will trump geography, this book shows how timeless truths and natural facts can help prevent this century’s looming cataclysms.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan. The book tells the story of the dust storms that terrorized America’s High Plains in the darkest years of the Great Depression and the people that held on: their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black blizzards, crop failure, and the deaths of loved ones.

The No-Fuss Bread Machine Cookbook: Hands-Off Recipes for Perfect Homemade Bread, by Michelle Anderson. Finally, a bread machine cookbook that shows you how to use your bread machine for its intended purpose ― convenience! This is the first and only collection of truly easy, hassle-free recipes that give you delicious homemade loaves of bread every time, with more than 150 recipes using easy-to-find ingredients and minimal work.

Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9, by Jim Kozubek. Would you change your genes if you could? As we confront the ‘industrial revolution of the genome’, the recent discoveries of Crispr-Cas9 technologies are offering, for the first time, cheap and effective methods for editing the human genome. Tracing events across a fifty-year period, from the first gene splicing techniques to the present day, Kozubek weaves together the fascinating stories of many of the scientists involved in the development of gene editing technology, demystifies how the technology really works and provides thought-provoking reflections on the ‘commodification’ of life.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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