John Oliver made an interesting point in the opening segment of his show on Sunday: The problem with President Trump is that he crowds out all news, even the stuff that would normally be super-interesting. Like the bizarre death of Kim Jong Un’s half brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport:
Now at the risk of infuriating those readers who are curious whether North Korea managed to one-up the Hyman Roth airport scene in “The Godfather, Part II,” perhaps Oliver was exaggerating in this case. I kinda feel like we’re in season eight of the North Korean version of “Scandal,” and the plot has gotten very rote. Let’s see if I can list the basics of this plot structure:
- North Korea takes provocative action against the United States and violent action against a possible domestic threat? Check and check.
- Statements and news conferences in which the U.S. and its regional allies pledge to coordinate against North Korea? Check and check. This might be the most normal thing Trump has done as president, actually.
- The U.N. Security Council clears its throat in disapproval.
- China announces that it’s going to impose new economic sanctions on North Korea, leading to stories suggesting that it might actually be serious this time.
- Follow-up analyses of the Chinese announcement suggest that maybe the sanctions aren’t as potent as first thought.
- A recognition dawns on analysts that as problematic and exasperating as North Korea is to China, an intact DPRK is still better than all the other possible alternatives from Beijing’s point of view.
- Even conservative analyses of the situation on the Korean Peninsula conclude that the United States does not have a lot of great policy alternatives except to tighten sanctions a wee bit more, accelerate the deployment of missile defenses on the peninsula, and pledge support to regional allies.
- Wait a few months, then North Korea triggers Step 1 and the whole cycle repeats.
This is a pretty good plot, but you can go to this well only so many times before it becomes repetitive.
To be fair, the situation does not remain entirely static. As Lawfare’s Rick Houghton notes, what is changing is that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities continue to expand, though not so much as for Americans to panic:
North Korea has made dramatic strides toward reaching the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. In March 2016, Admiral William Gortney of U.S. Northern Command stated: “It’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that [the DPRK] has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.” Significantly, in September, Reuters reported that Pyongyang would amass sufficient uranium by year’s end to generate 20 nuclear weapons. Reuters further reported that North Korea had increased its capacity to enrich weapons-grade uranium; Pyongyang now produces enough fuel for six weapons per year.
And recently, on January 1, 2017, Kim Jong Un claimed, “We have reached the final stage in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket.” Even so, according to North Korean expert Siegfried Hecker, the DPRK’s “ability to field an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the United States is still a long way off — perhaps 5 to 10 years, but likely doable if the program is unconstrained.”
So, basically, the status quo plot will continue to be repeated until one of the following happens:
- Someone in the North Korean hierarchy finally gets to Kim Jong Un before Kim gets to them.
- China decides it prefers the messiness of a collapsed North Korean state to the status quo.
- Someone in the West gets frustrated and makes a bad situation worse.
Only North Korea can manage to convert the terrifying into something mundane.