Is Donald Trump Tweeting the U.S. Into a War on North Korea?

On this week’s Intercepted podcast, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, takes a deep dive into how the U.S. got to a point of constant tension with North Korea.

Photos: Getty Images (3) Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept

The political burlesque show running at the White House seems to consume the overwhelming majority of attention among cable news pundits and personalities. Such attention is not entirely unfounded given the potential for criminal indictments to hit members of Donald Trump’s family and inner circle. Any issue or scandal with potential to challenge the viability or very existence of the current presidency deserves intense scrutiny. But the rest of the world still exists and U.S. military involvement in an array of wars and conflicts also demands far more coverage than it receives. This has always been true, including under President Barack Obama, but under Trump, the stakes have been raised dramatically.

Trump has exhibited a disturbing pattern of reckless spontaneity, usually expressed publicly through his Twitter feed, when announcing what could rightly be construed as new U.S. policies. Indeed, when Trump’s senior adviser Sebastian Gorka was asked on Fox News what leverage Trump has left to pressure China to do more to contain potential threats from North Korea, Gorka shot back: “We have, you know, the president’s Twitter feed.”

Perhaps more disturbing than what Trump tweets publicly is what he is telling influential U.S. senators privately. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said recently that Trump told him he is willing to militarily obliterate the nation of North Korea if necessary. “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Graham told NBC. Trump, he said, “told me that to my face.”

Trump is doing his best to inflame tensions with North Korea and China. Last weekend, the U.S. flew two B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula. It also conducted a ballistic missile test in the region. That followed a July 28 intercontinental ballistic missile test by North Korea. That missile reportedly has a longer range than any previously tested by Pyongyang and in theory, according to experts, could reach the United States. South Korea is now asking the Trump administration for its own new missiles with a capacity to strike deeper into the North. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to impose new sanctions on North Korea over its missile tests and nuclear program.

Trump punctuated the U.S. military posturing against North Korea with a public Twitter attack on China and his American predecessors. “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”

For its part, China appeared to laugh off Trump as a naïf. “Such a statement could only be made by a greenhorn U.S. president who knows little about the North Korean nuclear issue,” declared an editorial in one Chinese state-controlled newspaper. “Pyongyang is determined to develop its nuclear and missile program and does not care about military threats from the U.S. and South Korea. How could Chinese sanctions change the situation?”

Tensions on the Korean peninsula are not new. And every U.S. administration seems to find itself in a similar conundrum with the regime. But Trump is erratic and tends to just spit out whatever he is thinking. And that could prove very dangerous with nuclear weapons and nuclear powers.

When North Korea is discussed in the U.S. media, coverage largely centers around how unstable and crazy Kim Jung-un is and the utterly repressive nature of his regime. How we got to a point of constant tension is largely ignored.

On this week’s Intercepted podcast, we took a deep dive into the history of North Korea and its leaders with John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Feffer is the author of several books, including “North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy and the Korean Peninsula” and “Power Trip,” which examined U.S. unilateralism during the George W. Bush administration. The following is an expanded transcript of that interview.

Listen to the interview here:

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Jeremy Scahill: John Feffer. Welcome to Intercepted.

John Feffer: Thanks for having me on your show.

JS: Part of the reason I want to talk to you is that I want to step back from the current situation with North Korea and Mike Pence’s visit [to the demilitarized zone in April] and just start with a very basic historical outline, if you could give us that. How did we get to this situation — not just with Kim Jong-un in power — how is it that the Korean Peninsula is divided and what happened in what’s called the Korean War?

JF: Well, even prior to the Korean War, it’s important for folks to understand that the Korean Peninsula has long been subject to outside control, first by the Chinese, and then most notoriously by the Japanese under occupational authority — basically the first half of the 20th century. So WWII and the defeat of Japan meant, for the first time, independence for Korea.

Of course, it also meant division for Korea as the United States and the Soviet Union basically drew a line across the map without regard to anything except the convenience of where they were drawing the line, and divided the peninsula between a zone of influence for the Soviets to the north and a zone of influence for the United States in the south. And both sides, I think, even from the very beginning — both North Korea and South Korea kind of aspired to unify the peninsula under their own control.

And there were also, of course, people who had hoped to unify the peninsula independent of any kind of ideology, a kind of nationalist movement that emerged on the peninsula immediately World War II.

But thereupon began a series of skirmishes, long before even the Korean War broke out in 1950 — jostling for power, essentially — for territory and for authority between a Soviet-aligned north and the U.S.-aligned South. And that brings us up to the Korean War, a kind of miscalculation by North Korea thinking that once they invaded the South, they would not only get the complete backing of the populace in the South, but they would have kind of undiminished support from the Soviet Union and perhaps as well from China.

And the war didn’t necessarily go their way, nor did it go the U.S. and its allies’ way either. It led to a stalemate and the same division, at pretty much the same line in the Korean peninsula, as it was drawn immediately after World War II. That was the stalemate of 1953 and the armistice.

JS: And what was the motivating factor for the United States to get involved in Korea?

JF: Well, that’s a good question, because initially the United States did not see Korea as a national priority. It didn’t fall within its ambit of interests. But they suddenly became very interested in Korea after Mao Tse Tong took over China and installed communist rule there. And a perception emerged that Asia was falling — a falling set of dominoes, that the first domino, of course, was China, following the pattern of the Soviet Union, and then the communist model would continue to propagate, if you will, throughout the region, with Korea being next. Certainly, the North had already fallen under communist influence, but the fear was that that would spread throughout the entire peninsula and then perhaps move farther.

There was concern, for instance, that even Japan — because of radical trade unionists in the country immediately after World War II — Japan, too, could easily go communist. And then, suddenly, the United States would be facing not only the Soviet Union and the emerging Eastern Bloc, but it would be facing a very strong communist bloc in Asia as well, anchored by communist China.

JS: And what happened during the Korean War? I think this is a part of history that a lot of people are not aware of. The United States gets involved and how was that war staged — on a military level and strategic level by the United States? Who was on the side of the U.S.; who were they fighting against; who was backing the North Koreans?

JF: Well, first of all, it technically wasn’t the United States — of course it was the United States — but technically it was a U.N. operation, so it was under the banner of the United Nations. And the United States fought alongside South Korea, as well as some key European allies.

The other factor in there was Japan, which was a very impoverished country after the devastation of World War II. But the Korean War served as a kind of springboard for Japan to jump into the modern industrialized age, if you will. And because Japan served as a staging area for much of the Korean War for the United States, Japan profited enormously, economically, from the war.

On the other side, of course, North Korea had the Soviet Union as its putative ally, although the Soviet Union didn’t really provide all that much support. Much more critical, certainly to North Korea’s survival, was China. But that was only after the United States pushed North Korea all the way up into the northern corner. This was after MacArthur’s landing in Incheon — famous push back up the peninsula by U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea was hanging on by a thread. It was, you know, a very small island, all the way up in the northern part of the country — until a million Chinese volunteers entered on the side of North Korea and pushed U.S. forces all the way back down the peninsula, thus leading to the stalemate at roughly what we have as the DMZ today. In terms of military strategy, you saw kind of the first threats to use nuclear weapons by the United States, and of course, the United States was the only country at that time and continues to be the only country to have used nuclear weapons, but you have the first threats to use nuclear weapons against another country.

You also have the use of napalm for the first time. You have wide-scale bombing campaigns in North Korea — very similar, in some sense, to the bombings that took place in Tokyo, in Dresden, during World War II, saturation bombings that led to enormous civilian casualties — so you had some innovations in the Korean War, and you had some continuity as well with World War II.

JS: Now, when you say a million Chinese volunteers — outside of the obvious geostrategic battle that was going on between the United States, China, as you say to an extent, the Soviet Union — what would have been the motivation of a million Chinese to volunteer to go and fight on behalf of or in defense of North Korea?

JF: Well, officially, it was a kind of solidarity action in response to Korean communists’ assistance during the Chinese Communist Revolution. And so there were people like Kim Il-sung — at that time, the first North Korean leader who had operated as a guerrilla in China, but also in support of Chinese communists. So this was, at an explicit level, it was just a kind of repayment. But I think the Chinese government was quite concerned about the possibility that the United States would suddenly have forces stationed along the Chinese border if North Korea were to disappear and South Korea pushed its border all the way up to the border with China. So that, I think, was perhaps the greater motivating factor for China to become involved in the war.

JS: Now you know, of course, Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, is generally derided in the U.S. press and made fun of and treated as though he is, you know, a fat little lunatic, and of course, particularly with this current administration in the United States, he’s described as kind of a mixture between a porky little brat and a dangerous dictator.

But I want to peel back the layers on the kind of dynasty of the Kim family, starting with Kim Il-sung. How is it that the Kims, particularly Kim Il-sung, achieve this deity-like status within North Korea? Maybe unpack some of the historical context of who Kim Il-sung was and how he came to consolidate the level of power in North Korea that he ultimately did very quickly.

JF: Yeah, that’s an important question, because much of what we understand about North Korea today should be based on our understanding of Kim Il-sung and how he came to power. Because at the end of World War II, when Korea was divided and North Korea was effectively created, Kim Il-sung was not in Korea, he was actually in Russia. He had spent much of the war in the Soviet Union after having effectively lost in his guerrilla struggles in China and in North Korea.

So he spent much of that time in the Soviet Union. He comes back to Korea, basically on Soviet ships, and is effectively installed as the leader of North Korea by the Russians who see him as a pliant client.

But it’s important to realize that at that time, he was quite young. He was, you know, 32, 33, when he comes back to North Korea — quite young by leadership standards in Korea. Korea is a Confucian society; great deference paid to the older members of society. The notion of someone at the age of 33 taking over was kind of a challenge to traditional notions of leadership. Compound that with the fact that when Kim Il-sung came back to Korea, he was facing some significant opposition from indigenous communists, from communists that had spent the time in South Korea during the war, and as well from communists who had spent time in China. So, three different factions.

And he came back with approximately 200 guerrilla fighters. Between 1945 and 1950, the outbreak of the Korean War, Kim Il-sung consolidates his position rather ruthlessly by eliminating all three of these factions and establishing his own guerrilla cohort as the leading faction of society.

That continues during the Korean War. Purges take place as well during the war, and even after the war, and Kim Il-sung emerges from the Korean War having effectively consolidated his political position — gotten rid of his political rivals. And he also learns from the Soviet model the importance of a strong leader — a leader who commands not only the respect of the population but is, in effect, worshiped by the population.

So he merges the idea of a government and personal authority and establishes a personality cult — which becomes extraordinarily important in the development of North Korea because he leads from 1945, 1946, all the way to his death in 1994.

So it’s an extraordinary period of time that he controls the country. And he controls the country in a way that, from an outside perspective, seems quite successful. In other words, if you look at North Korea and South Korea as they emerge from the Korean War, North Korea develops economically much faster than South Korea, seems to develop a much more prosperous country in a shorter period of time using the Soviet-style command-economy strategies.

South Korea, not as successful. This is the case up until approximately the 1970s. So this model that Kim Il-sung develops attains a credibility, a legitimacy, within North Korea, not only on the basis of manufactured reality, if you will, the personality cult, but even by some objective standards, economic standards and social standards.

JS: This cult of personality that you’re talking about — and it’s akin, I think, in some ways to a religion — how did that become commonplace in North Korea? Because typically when that happens — you have a society that is cut off from the outside world and you start to tap into the new generations and ensure that they’re kind of brainwashed into believing that this is the truth and this is the way the world is. When did that start in North Korea around Kim Il-sung’s identity?

JF: Well, Kim Il-sung came from a very Christian family and North Korea was — or the northern part of Korea was — very strongly Christian during the late 19th and early 20th century.

In fact, Pyongyang was really the center of Christian theology. Many people came to Pyongyang to study, including Billy Graham’s wife studied in Pyongyang at the theology center there, which was why Billy Graham was so interested in North Korea. So, Kim Il-sung bases his cult of personality on Christian roots. It’s kind of like what Christianity did in strengthening itself by building itself on an earlier pre-Christian Roman or other kind of pagan rituals. So you have, for instance, the father and the mother and the son. Kim Il-sung, his first wife, and their first son, Kim Jong-il, formed this kind of Trinity in the North Korean ideology, very similar to a Christian Trinity.

And you find that Kim Il-sung, through this period, is able to add on to this cult of personality with some indigenous aspects. I mean, of course, it was identified as a Communist country, but gradually over the decades, those communist elements become superseded by more nationalist elements. And of course, the ideology that many people are familiar with is the Juche, an ideology that Kim Il-sung developed, which is effectively a self-reliant ideology — says that North Korea really can’t depend on other countries. And that’s why at the top of the show, I mentioned that it’s important to know that Korea was subjugated by outside forces for hundreds of years: China, Japan, etc.

So, the notion of self-reliance of nationalist sovereignty — extremely important to the North Korean ideology. And Kim Il-sung graphs this onto the personality cult, so that you have a rich kind of nationalist underpinning.

So it’s not just Kim Il-sung. It’s Kim Il-sung’s kind of merging with the nation as a whole to create a kind of organic, one-mind-one-body ideology, if you will.

JS: And, and from that period that you’re describing where North Korea was, let’s just say, it was more advanced than — advancing quicker than — South Korea. Take us from that period through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and then the ultimate ascent to power of Kim Jong-il following the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. What happened from the ’70s up to the fall of the Soviet Union?

JF: Well, North Korea with its kind of Juche ideology decides not to integrate into the Soviet Comecon, or the economic cooperation sphere of the Soviet Union. It also doesn’t tie itself inextricably to the Chinese economy; the Chinese economy actually wasn’t doing very well in the 1960s and 1970s.

It establishes itself as a kind of indigenous autonomous economy and it also does not take much in the way of foreign loans. It does take some, but it doesn’t integrate itself into the global capitalistic economy either.

So it is isolated from both the East and the West. South Korea, of course, makes its decision to become a very globalized economy. It will base its economy on trade, on exports, on its integration into the world economy. So that decision that was made both in the North and the South in the 1970s leads to a pretty extreme divergence in economic performance in North Korea. Because it’s not connected really to any other economic bloc, cannot compete really, it cannot generate enough, you know, autonomous, indigenous capacity to meet the needs of its population.

South Korea advances very rapidly from the 1960s — South Korea was basically at the level of a sub-Saharan African country. And within the space of one generation, South Korea becomes one of the top industrial powers in the world. So this divergence is quite dramatic and it’s really exaggerated or aggravated by the collapse of communism because, basically, you know what — where North Korea was successful, it was successful because it was running on cheap oil. North Korea had, for instance, the most mechanized agriculture in the region, which is quite remarkable when you think of it because you know Japan was quite an advanced country and had advanced agricultural techniques. But North Korea was the one that really was using much more oil, fertilizer, in order to boost its food production. But that whole system was based on cheap oil — cheap oil either provided at subsidized rates by the Soviet Union or China.

When [the] Soviet Union collapses in ’91, when China decides to go on, to eliminate the subsidized prices and go to world market rates for energy, suddenly North Korea faces an enormous crisis. Everything that was based on cheap oil suddenly becomes prohibitively expensive. It becomes impossible, in fact, for North Korean agriculture to survive and its industrial capacity also drops, since it too is based largely on cheap energy. And so, you see this hit in the early ’90s. And then by 1993-1994, all it took was a little push. And that little push was floods and droughts — weather conditions, in other words — that tipped North Korea over the edge.

And so by 1995, North Korean agriculture had collapsed — its industry had collapsed, it could no longer feed its population — and it enters into the famine period, and that comes right after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. So, for a lot of people, this was, you know, a sign of the heaven’s displeasure with North Korean leadership.

Kim Il-sung dies, the country’s plunged into crisis, the famine kills a lot of people. We don’t know how many — as much as 10 percent of the population of approximately 25 million people in North Korea — but it’s still difficult to find estimates, a famine that lasts from approximately 1995 to 2000.

And then also in this period, you have Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, take over. Someone who you could say never really wanted to be the leader of a country. I mean, here was a guy who was much more comfortable behind the camera. I think he wanted to be a film director. He loved films. He had this enormous private library of movies. If he could have just sat in a movie theater all day long, he would have been a happy guy. But he’s thrust into this position that I don’t think he ever wanted, and he didn’t have the capacity for. He was not charismatic. He barely uttered any word in public. He didn’t have a notion of where he should take the country economically

He did know that he shouldn’t listen to the Chinese or the Russians because this was, you know, the legacy of his father. It should be indigenous. It should be autonomous. It should be nationalist. But he doesn’t really take the country in an important new direction. He manages by 2000-2001 to stabilize the country, but it’s been knocked backward significantly, and North Korea, you could say it really hasn’t recovered from that period of the 1990s. Even today, I mean, and it has a modest economic growth, but you take a tour of the North Korean countryside and it’s still, because energy is expensive, it looks futile, it looks like people, you know, pushing plows instead of tractors.

It’s an industry, industrial infrastructure, that doesn’t have consistent electricity. And so, the factories aren’t working at peak capacity. So it’s still suffering from the problems it faced in the ’90s.

JS: Well also, John, another key component of this is that in the mid-1990s, or I guess around 1995, the North Koreans begin to invest more heavily in nuclear power in part to try to offset what you’re describing from the evaporation of their cheap fuel supplies from Russia or the Soviet Union, and also then, you know, facing a depletion of their economic prospects or positive economic prospects.

Was it actually the case that the nuclear aspirations of North Korea started from that position? Or was it always dual-hatted with a military aim?

JF: Yeah, I think it was always two-pronged. As you point out, it was necessary for North Korea to find some other fuel source and nuclear power seemed a very attractive alternative. South Korea was investing enormous amounts into nuclear power, it had the example of Japan, which also relied heavily on nuclear. North Korea kind of saw itself as following in those footsteps.

But there was a military component as well. Because at the same time that North Korea and South Korea were roughly equal economically up until the ’70s, you could argue that they were roughly equal militarily as well. But from the 1970s on, in part because of South Korea’s economic success and the fact it could invest more money into the military, and in part because it had the United States as an ally, and the U.S. was providing cutting-edge technology in the military sector, North Korea fell behind rather rapidly. It had a large standing army. It had large artillery positions, facing Seoul. It could do a lot of damage to South Korea, no question about it, but the edge had clearly gone to South Korea and U.S.-South Korea combined, to level the playing field, well, to have a nuclear capability — that was perceived as a cheap way of coming up to speed essentially. Even though we know that nuclear weapons are not cheap when you look at all of the costs combined, but looked at narrowly from the North Korean perspective, they thought that was a kind of quick fix, if you will.

And they were also concerned, of course, that the United States was, you know, invading other countries around the world and it was kind of taking advantage of the unipolar moment that happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so nuclear weapons were not just a way of leveling the playing field with South Korea but they offered a real deterrent against any possible U.S. intervention. Either bombing or actual physical military intervention in the country.

JS: But on some level, you know, just speaking from a strategic perspective, it was smart on the part of the North Koreans to want to pursue nuclear weapons given that they watched what happened in World War II. But also the fact that, in the emerging nuclear world, countries with nuclear weapons seem to have at least some form of an insurance policy from their complete destruction?

JF: Absolutely. I mean, the North Korean decision, from the perspective of North Korea, was absolutely the right one. If they had not developed nuclear weapons, North Korea probably would not exist today, and that’s an important consideration when we think about what kind of negotiations can solve the current conflict between the United States and North Korea as well as between North Korea and South Korea.

If nuclear weapons serve this critical deterrent function, why on earth would North Korea give them up? Would they give them up simply in exchange for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War? Well, I mean, North Korea has asked for a peace treaty, and certainly there are a lot of folks here in the United States and in South Korea that support a peace treaty, but honestly, a piece of paper is probably not going to substitute for a nuclear deterrent.

So we have to come up with different kinds of security guarantees in the process of negotiating with North Korea, as well as acknowledging that North Korea’s not going to give up its nuclear capability as a precondition for negotiations, which was of course the Obama administration’s articulated position, and they’re not going to give away that nuclear capability after, say, only a week of negotiations and they say, “Hey, you know, you guys convinced us. We really believe in your sincerity. Thank you for your offers of removing sanctions. We’ll get rid of our nuclear weapons.” No! I mean they’re not going to trust us after a week of negotiations. It’s going to take a while for this trust-building exercise to have any kind of impact on the size and the technical qualifications of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

JS: Now I want to ask you two questions that I think are really vital, and I don’t think that they’re all that often asked, and in part the answers are probably very complicated or incomplete, but I’m going to ask them anyway given your experience both in Korea and studying Korea for as long as you have. The first is: Who really is in control of North Korea, because it’s hard to believe, particularly now, that Kim Jong-un is actually the one in charge in North Korea?

And then the other part of it is to what extent are the horror stories that we hear about the regime’s treatment of its own people within the country true? We had this case where there were these reports that Kim Jong-un had, you know, his uncle, who was a military figure, eaten alive by dogs, and now it seems like that’s completely untrue, but it still sticks, so the first part of it is, who really is in control in North Korea?

JF: Well, the easy answer is: I don’t know. And the second answer is nobody really knows outside of North Korea. The regime has always been opaque in terms of its decision making. We know that there are two power centers: military and the party. They overlap and a successful leader is going to have a foot in both camps, but there’s also going to be some disagreement over policy.

I’ll give you an example. The case of an industrial complex, it was an economic complex located just north of the DMZ, it was run by South Korean managers with South Korean companies, but the workforce was North Korean. And this was a kind of innovative economic project that was established during the sunshine period of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korean leaders. And it ran up and about a year or two ago was closed down by Park Geun-hye.

But in North Korea, in order to get that project green-lighted, well there were basically two different approaches. I mean one faction, the military faction, said, “Hey, that’s an important military route, we’re not going to establish an industrial center in this important route that allows us to potentially invade North Korea, South Korea or defend against a South Korean assault. And you’re just going to put this economic complex there? That doesn’t make any military sense.” And another faction that said, “Hey, you know, this is really great economic advantage to us and potentially, you know, it builds some kind of relationship with the South that also could down the line prove advantageous to us.”

Economic reformers effectively won the day, and the industrial complex was built, so you have that kind of factionalism inside North Korea even though there are no official factions. I mean, there are no political parties, we haven’t really identified any kind of political, ideological blocs within the party or within the military. All of that’s quite opaque. I mean, we only find out about it after the fact, for instance, when, you know, Kim Il-sung put down a rebellion by military officers or executed a group of people that then later became associated with a political faction.

Kim Jong-un, as you said, got rid of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, didn’t have him eaten by dogs, but you know, still, kind of brutal the way he killed him. Jang Song-thaek, well, it’s possible he represented a different faction, a faction more aligned with China, aligned with economic reform inside North Korea, but also aligned with Jang Song-thaek lining his own pockets as a result of his relationship with China. But however you want to interpret it, it was definitely a center of power that Kim Jong-un felt uncomfortable with, and we’ve seen over the last five, six years, as his grandfather did, his elimination of all potential rivals.

Does that mean that Kim Jong-un is the No. 1 decision maker in North Korea today? Well, according to official ideology and according to, you know, a lot of experts looking at North Korea, he does seem like he’s No. 1, but we can’t say that with any 100 percent degree of certainty.

JS: But you know, John, I have to say, when I watch the propaganda footage out of North Korea and you see Kim Jong-un walking around and he’s got all of these generals and other military figures with their chests filled with all of their medals, I can’t help but wonder when I look at that stuff, like, what the hell do these guys think having to walk around with this kid and act like he’s just this uber-genius? Why wouldn’t the gang of them get together and just sort of say, “We all think this is crazy, right?”

I mean, yes, you point out that they could be killed in a horrifying way, but I just have to think that there must be some basic consensus where they all kind of look at each other and they’re like, “Yeah this is really effed up that we have to be around this kid and act like he’s God incarnate.”

JF: Yeah, and that, in fact, could be a scenario we see in the future. I mean I don’t see for instance democracy taking over in North Korea, but there is a good possibility that we would see a military coup and the generals ultimately deciding that Kim Jong-un doesn’t know what he’s talking —

JS: But then aren’t there people that think, that truly are kind of brainwashed, they were born into this, it’s all they know, what they’ve been told about the outside world is completely nuts. I mean, is part of it that, “Yeah, this is like a really nutty little kid that we have to be bowing down to here, but if we were to whack him there’d be an insurrection because everyone somehow thinks he’s god?”

JF: No, I don’t think at this point that’s the case. I mean, we don’t have obviously access to North Koreans to do public polling or anything like that, but we do know from defectors — and there are about 30,000 defectors in South Korea — as well as occasional polls done of North Koreans in China to find out what they’re thinking, and their allegiance to the regime is nowhere near as strong as it was under Kim Il-sung, or even Kim Jong-il.

In other words, the charismatic authority that established the North Korean regime has effectively evaporated. The reason why people obey is not so much that they’re brainwashed, but really out of fear. The North Korean regime has an extraordinarily extensive surveillance system that requires, for instance, that three people report on any one person in the neighborhood and that those three reports are then triangulated to make sure that not only did the person who’s being surveilled not say anything inappropriate, but even that the three people who are doing the surveillance, to make sure that all of their observations conform to one another, to make sure that they are on track as well.

So you have this incredibly intricate, interlocking surveillance system that makes it extremely difficult for any dissent to take root. I mean everybody is afraid that, you know, even their family members might give them away, or their friends might give them away, because, you know, it’s survival.

But your second question was, you know, to what extent are these stories of human rights abuses true. And I would say that, yes, there are some that are not true, that have been fabricated, but for the most part, we have enough evidence to suggest that the regime has maintained pretty horrific labor camp conditions. It has engaged in summary executions on a regular basis.

But we have to remember that this applies to only a small percentage of the population. I mean, it’s as if you would ask your average American about solitary confinement in prisons. They might know of it but they wouldn’t necessarily know anybody who had been in solitary confinement and they would say, “Well, it really doesn’t affect me personally, or my pocketbook, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the United States is a human rights-abusing country.”

There are lots of people in North Korea who have very little connection to what’s going on in the labor camps. They are worried about it. They’re worried they might end up there, but they go about their life in a pretty normal way. They go to work, they do their job, they keep their head low, and they hope things will change. And so there’s a big discrepancy between the horrifying conditions that take place in the prison camps, and your everyday existence, especially in Pyongyang, which is kind of a city of the elite anyway.

JS: Right, and that’s part of the nuance that I think is often lost when you listen to, well, now there’s instant-ready experts on Korea that are on TV because of the Trump administration’s posturing, but it is described as basically every single person in the country is in prison and on a daily basis having their rights heinously violated. And I think that the impression given is not simply that they live in a military dictatorship that is akin to being in prison, but that the prison labor camps is how the entire country is functioning. I think you could get that impression from watching particularly corporate cable news coverage.

But I wanted to ask you, how do the North Korean leaders get their money? Like what is fueling the largesse among the elites, where does the money come from that the North Korean elite government, the military has?

JF: Well, of course, the North Korean economy does exist and so you know the North Korean government can extract a certain amount of money from the industrial and agricultural production that goes on. But I would say the most money would come from other sources. So, for instance, the Chinese government is pretty heavily invested in North Korea, especially the northern part of North Korea. North Korea has a lot of mineral wealth, it has coal, it has gold, it has rare earth materials, and China is invested in extracting those materials, and of course, the money is produced by that and that money flows upward as well.

Beyond China, North Korea is notorious for engaging in the international economy in the only way that it can — in other words, because of sanctions, because of other restrictions placed on the North Korean economy, North Korea cannot participate in capitalism as it would like to, and instead, it kind of does so in gray market or black market ways. In the past, it has certainly engaged in drug production and drug sales. Its embassy officials throughout the world have been arrested, kicked out of countries, for engaging in all sorts of contraband activities, from selling alcohol and cigarettes to actually trafficking in, like, rhino horns.

So there is money from that. And then I would say finally that there are newer ways of making money in the cybersphere. So, for instance, there’s some evidence that North Korea has been hacking into banks to just withdraw money that way. And again, you could say, well, this is the way any country would react if it was denied entry in a legitimate way from the global economy, it would have to find a back door. Perhaps if it is given an opportunity to operate legitimately in the global economy, it will behave legitimately. But that, of course, is something to be tested.

JS: Now I want to go to the present and talk about the position that the Trump administration there, the emerging position, of course we had Vice President Mike Pence [visit] the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, and he reiterated what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on his recent visit to South Korea, which is that the era of strategic patience is over. And Pence actually said that we’re putting the North Koreans on notice regarding their nuclear weapons. What’s your read on how the Trump administration’s public posture is being received in Pyongyang, and what this could lead to?

JF: Well, the Trump administration comes in like pretty much every previous administration in its policy toward North Korea, saying that what his predecessors did failed, and he’s going to do a better job. So, of course, Obama said that. George W. Bush said that, even Clinton said that. So that’s nothing new. Obama positioned for eight years with strategic patience. It failed, I mean, failed obviously, there were no successful negotiations with the exception of the Leap Day agreement that lasted for about a day and a half.

And North Korea continued to build up its nuclear capabilities, so it’s quite obvious that it failed. And then the Trump administration has discovered as all other administrations did previously that, yes, it’s easy to say that the previous government’s position was a failure, but it’s really difficult to come up with a more successful alternative.

Trump initially said that he would, as previous administrations said, outsource the problem to the Chinese, get China to solve this problem for the United States. And that of course fails on any number of counts. No. 1, China does not do the bidding of the United States on foreign policy issues, and No. 2, China doesn’t have that kind of influence in Pyongyang. Pyongyang assiduously avoids any kind of dependency relationship with China and spurns all of China’s advice, for the most part.

So failing that, of course Trump realized that he couldn’t rely on the Chinese, he tried something else, we’ll do it ourselves. But what does that mean? Well, it could mean tighter economic sanctions, it could mean a pre-emptive military strike, it could mean negotiations.

The Trump administration conducted its own strategic review of North Korea policy. The conclusion was that a pre-emptive military strike was wrong on probably every conceivable count, that it would be catastrophic for the United States and even more so for South Korea and Japan, and of course North Korea and China. And so that leaves tighter economic sanctions and negotiations. And I think we got both of those coming out of the administration right now, with Pence dangling the possibility of negotiations in his recent visit.

How it’s received? Well, South Korea’s tremendously anxious about any possible attack on North Korea because, of course, the South Koreans would suffer the consequences. North Korean missiles can’t reach the United States, could barely reach Japan — China, South Korea would bear virtually the entire brunt of North Korea’s attack. So they don’t want that, obviously.

Pyongyang — well, Pyongyang’s reaction was to have a missile display on the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. And so they trotted out as many missiles as they could find, even if they are not operational, to send a signal that they are ready for any kind of attack. And if the United States were foolish enough to try to take out North Korea’s nuclear testing site, they would respond in kind.

And so that, I think, is where we’re heading. We have, you know, kind of the usual steps toward escalation that every initial government, new administration the United States, faces with North Korea. My hope is that the Trump administration recognizes that, OK, tighter economic sanctions is one possibility, but frankly, we’ve tried that, and it hasn’t really worked.

But negotiations, well, they have worked, and it worked in 1994, even worked during the George W. Bush administration with the six-party talks. Both of those agreements led to effective freezes and even some dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear capability. So that’s the no-brainer as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a question of whether the Trump administration comes to that realization as well.

JS: Or, if there’s actually like sane people, you know, running the show. I do think that when we talk about Bush and Cheney, you know, there’s a particular form of heinousness that came with the neoconservatives, but on some levels, they were kind of competent and within the accepted discourse in Washington, D.C. I have my own critical analysis of that, and both parties play into it, but with Trump, we really are, I think, in a bit of a different universe.

As we see through his Twitter feed, and my concern is not that someone like Mattis who’s the defense secretary would say, “Oh yeah, let’s do a pre-emptive first strike against North Korea.” But that some of the kind of shadow nuts that are around this administration, including some very decorated retired U.S. military figures, we’ve been hearing that they’re pushing for that, and hopefully that’s just a minority voice, but I do think there is a unique kind of cause for concern with this administration vs. even the Bush-Cheney crowd, and I’m curious if you want to push back on that, if you agree, or some different version?

JF: Well, I would agree to a certain extent, but I would say that the Bush administration, for basically six years, took a pretty hostile attitude toward North Korea, and we came pretty close to escalation as a result of, frankly, the ideologues within the Bush administration. Cheney, the inclusion of North Korea in the Axis of Evil, Cheney’s statement that “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat evil.” The refusal to deal with North Korea at —

JS: Well, and John Bolton.

JF: And John Bolton. Absolutely. So, you know, we did have a kind of ascendancy of the ideologues for the first term and then even the first couple years of the second term before some career diplomats took over. In this case, Chris Hill, who had been posted in a variety of places, later in Iraq but in Poland and Macedonia, people like Victor Cha, who I disagreed with on Korea policy before he entered the Bush administration, but I think he went through a kind of sea change in his understanding of North Korea as a result of seeing what the ideological position coming from the neocons was.

And so he’s like, “Ah, well, I do think we can we can negotiate with North Korea after all.” And then persuading Condoleezza Rice to take that position at the highest level.

With the Trump administration, yes, absolutely, you know there are people like Steve Bannon who have very fixed nationalist perspectives and the real question is, for the Bush administration, it took six years before a different policy bubbled up from below. We don’t have that kind of time and I trust we don’t have two terms for the Trump administration, for such a policy [to] come up six years from now and we’re seeing some indications of the sidelining of the worst types of ideologues. Of course, kicking Bannon off the principal’s committee and the National Security Council, sending K.T. McFarland off to Singapore.

You know, maybe we’re seeing some accelerated version of what happened during the Bush years in which the ideologues are pushed to the sidelines a little bit more quickly and maybe we will see, you know, a pragmatic approach to North Korea emerge much more quickly than it did during those years.

JS: And, as we wrap up here, I’m curious your take on what happened, we don’t know exactly what Barack Obama said to Donald Trump, but it was reported that he basically scared the shit out of Trump when he brought up North Korea, as they had their meeting. Do we have reason to be afraid of North Korea right now and what would you imagine was the content of what Barack Obama actually said to Donald Trump?

JF: Well, I suspect that Obama said to Trump something similar to what Bush said to him during the transition. And Bush, we know, said two things. He asked Obama please to keep two programs in place, and that was the drone program and the Stuxnet program, the kind of hacking of Iran’s centrifuges that set back their nuclear program.

And Obama said, “OK, I mean there are other things [that are] going to change.” But Obama held to those two positions. In this go-round I suspect that Obama said, “Please stick to the drone program.” Because Obama was very much in favor of that and I suspect he said something similar about a comparable program with North Korea’s nuclear program. In other words, a kind of hacking of the code there that has, from all reports, impeded North Korea’s success rate with its missile launches.

I think he also probably said that North Korea is a significant problem, that Trump cannot avoid it, cannot ignore it. And whether that’s effective — it’s hard to know what gets through to Trump. It’s certainly not policy advice. Certainly special pleading gets through to him from Jared Kushner or his daughter.

JS: Fox and Friends, John. Fox and Friends is the single most important source of information for this White House.

JF: [Laughing.] That’s true. So —

JS: But the point I’m getting at is do we actually have something to fear from North Korea? And when I say “we,” I don’t mean necessarily the United States, but that’s how things get covered here, we always ask how does it affect us personally? But, my sense, and I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on Korea, I’ve never been, I’ve never reported on it. So I’m asking this, I think, with a lot of other people as well — my sense is, you know, if we don’t swat the hornet’s nest, the chances that North Korea is going to just attack the United States or even South Korea is basically nonexistent. Am I wrong in that or is there fearmongering that’s going on?

JF: No, I think you’re basically correct. North Korea, as you said at the start of the show, the representation of Kim Jong-un as a kind of tyrannical brat or an infant who has no rational goals is incorrect. No. 1 rational goal for Kim Jong-un is preservation of his own authority and the preservation of his system of government. He knows that any attack of South Korea or the United States would spell the end of North Korea as a country, and of course, by extension, the end of him and his regime. So pure self-preservation dictates that, no, North Korea is not going to engage in any kind of attack on a sovereign country.

On the other hand, just as we fear that Donald Trump might do something entirely unexpected because he’s listening to Fox and Friends, or he has developed some hobbyhorse notion about a country, that he might indulge in some entirely irrational act that would be shooting the United States in the foot and undercutting his own political authority, but he would do it anyway because he doesn’t think about these things. It is conceivable that Kim Jong-un would do something similar. I would put that in a very remote set of possibilities. But I wouldn’t just exclude it entirely. I would say I’m not worried about North Korea in that way but there is this kind of — if North Korea is pushed against the wall, if it feels like it has absolutely no other choice, that the system — its system — is on the brink of collapse anyway and it’s being threatened by both South Korea and the United States and Japan and the only way out of that seems to be a military approach, well, it is not inconceivable that they would go that route.

JS: OK, John, really quick, a speed round here: Who is more likely to use a nuclear weapon, Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un? Brief answer, please.

JF: Donald Trump.

JS: OK, who is more of a narcissist: Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump?

JF: Donald Trump, absolutely. [Laughing.] I mean, it’s a function of American culture. Korean culture doesn’t foster that kind of narcissism.

JS: Who spends more time on their hair each morning: Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump?

JF: That’s a good question. I mean, probably, you know, Donald Trump because he’s older and his hair requires that kind of care.

JS: Whose suits are more expensive: Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un?

JF: Definitely Donald Trump. Absolutely.

JS: Are both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump’s suits made in China?

JF: [Laughs.] Not the North Korean, I mean Kim Jong-un is either going to get suits from the West or they’re going to be produced by the vinyl lawn factories inside North Korea.

JS: OK, well, we’re going to give you — your prize is on the way, it’s an amazing North Korean car, it runs totally on Juche.

JF: That’s fabulous and is this going to be delivered by Amazon drone?

JS: It is, yes, we’re trying to have our own peace settlement here between Trump and Kim Jong-un, and I think we’ve figured it out, John. John Feffer, thanks for being with us on Intercepted.

JF: Thank you for having me on the show.


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