During most of my 40 years as a Pyongyang watcher I’ve avoided watching television.
That simple expedient helped save me from getting caught up in an annual, totally predictable panic that erupts when joint US-South Korean military exercises prompt North Korea to issue dire threats.
The panic this year is the worst it’s ever been.
I’m in Japan at the moment, and I hear from my wife in Hawaii that our gardener fears North Korea is about to bomb both places. The gardener no doubt watches television — a pastime that I’m told is similar, at this time of the year, to viewing a horror movie each day.
The problem is that it’s 2017 and the panic felt by ordinary Americans is suddenly more dangerous than the underlying geopolitical forces.
That’s because there’s an impetuous president in the White House who lives for audience ratings. Put enough pressure on him to “do something about North Korea” and he might succumb to that pressure, with disastrous results.
Let’s go through the arguments one at a time.
First, North Korea doesn’t yet have the wherewithal to attack the United States.
Yes, North Korean dictators have pushed nuclear weapons development for 65 years, since the Korean War. But as the continuing tests show, they don’t have long-range nuclear-tipped missiles ready for prime time.
Second, the primary mission for which they’re building those weapons is not an attack on the United States.
Nor is it an attack on Japan, which hosts first-responder US forces and where Tokyo subway authorities last week began taking the precaution of stopping the trains during a North Korean missile test.
North Koreans are building the weapons largely as a deterrent to keep the Kim dynasty from being forcibly removed before it can achieve its ultimate goal: Vanquishing its main rival, South Korea, and ruling over the entire Korean peninsula.
They believe they can beat the South Koreans — perhaps even without using their nuclear weapons — if only they can maneuver the US to stay out of that fight. Thus, the North’s consistent demand for decades: A peace treaty and withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.
Are there circumstances in which the North might attack the US and Japan as well as South Korea? Yes. In case the Kim regime is cornered, about to be removed, North Korean leadership doctrine calls for “destroying the world.”
Triggering a desperate, all-out nuclear-chemical-biological response by ordering a preventive US attack on Pyongyang is one way President Trump could overreact if pressed hard by popular opinion to “do something.”
Another way he might overreact would be by following his “America First” instincts.
This would feed his suspicion that South Korea is not pulling its weight in the alliance and then deciding that the U.S. should wash its hands of the Korean problem, sign a treaty with the North and remove its troops from the South.
In other words he might move to give the North what it has sought all along, at great peril to the South and to American alliances worldwide.
And so, my fellow Americans, please try to avoid panic during the rest of this year’s annual display of Korean peninsula brinkmanship and for the three such seasons to come before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
As another president, whose first hundred days were far more successful than Trump’s, put it: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”