Brilliant: Get Medieval on Them


It seems like everyone’s got a solution for North Korea. Naturally, I like my own the best: diplomacy. But that doesn’t work for authoritarians.

Authoritarians have to see you bow when they say “bow.” They aren’t interested in diplomacy, or peace – they want compliance. That’s why North Korea is a problem; down in the back of the authoritarian’s mind they are thinking “hey, if someone publicly disobeys me, then everyone may publicly disobey me, and then where would I be!?” Authoritarians cast this as “credibility” but that’s just shorthand for obedience.

In all the yelling about North Korea (and Iran, Pakistan, and Israel) and their nuclear programs, nobody bothers to consider that national sovereignty – that all-important concept for authoritarians – is what they are attacking. North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel all either never signed or withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They’re “Countries Going Their Own Way” and the UN and the NPT really have nothing legal to say about it, except: we will threaten you with anything we can think of. Meanwhile, rational people have pointed out again, and again, and again, that North Korea isn’t going to just suicidally attack the US with one or two nuclear weapons, when the US has several thousand set up as a multi-legged deterrent force for “mutual assured destruction.” Except if North Korea attacked the US, the US wouldn’t be destroyed; far from it. Usually when this discussion would come up regarding Iran someone had to play the “mad mullah” card, it goes like this:

  • They can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons because they are { nihilist, religious, dictatorship } fanatics
  • They aren’t afraid to die if they can only destroy { LA, Israel, Washington }
  • Therefore they can’t be deterred
  • Therefore they must be stopped

Here’s the problem with that reasoning: if they are suicidally aggressive and can’t be stopped, they’d already be engaged in suicidal aggressive attacks using their substantial conventional forces. In the case of North Korea, if they wanted to go out with a bang, they’d simply fire everything they have at Seoul and go out with a bang. The casualty-count would be about the same.

Instead, North Korea engages in rational rhetoric – pointedly threatening to attack Guam, which is a major military base. If they were mad nihilists trying to scare people, they’d threaten Tokyo and Seoul and Beijing simultaneously. You’ll notice they’re not doing exactly that – could it be they’re neither crazy nor stupid? By the same token, Iran chose to negotiate with the US, which was neither crazy nor stupid. (If there’s anyone crazy and stupid in that situation, it’s the US).

The Wall St Journal has the answer: starve them. [wsj]

The North is especially vulnerable to pressure this year because a severe drought from April to June reduced the early grain harvest by 30%. If the main harvest is also affected, Pyongyang may need to import more food while sanctions restrict its ability to earn foreign currency. Even in a normal year, the North needs to import about 500,000 tons of grain.

While the regime survived a severe famine in the 1990s, today the political consequences of a failed harvest would be severe. More North Korean awareness of the outside world has fostered cynicism about the government, and about half the population is engaged in some form of private enterprise. Traders openly flout the laws because they bribe corrupt officials. The army was once the most desirable career path; now soldiers are underpaid and underfed. North Koreans will not simply accept starvation as they did two decades ago.

Withholding food aid to bring down a government would normally be unethical, but North Korea is an exceptional case. Past aid proved to be a mistake as it perpetuated one of the most evil regimes in history. The U.N. says some 40% of the population is undernourished, even as the Kims continue to spend huge sums on weapons. Ending the North Korean state as quickly as possible is the most humane course.

See what they did, there? We want to cause a humanitarian disaster for their own good.

I’m trying to come up with some invective that would illustrate my deep contempt for such privileged, racist, authoritarian assholes, but I’m simply not creative enough. Perhaps someone should round the WSJ editorial board’s wives and children up and starve them a little to help encourage the WSJ to hire better people. It’d be for their own good, after all. I suspect that the majority of the surviving staff would welcome a WSJ regime change with open arms.

There are other bizzare things in the WSJ‘s “analysis” – such as that the Kims (there is only one Kim) continue to spend huge sums on weapons. Actually, North Korea spends less on its military than the US military spends on air conditioning. One would expect the editorial staff of capitalism’s analinguists to understand proportional versus absolute expenditures, though – North Korea spends 22% of its GDP on its military, while the US spends 56%; Both countries are bankrupting themselves with military expenditures. To be fair, the US uses its military a lot more than North Korea, so additional costs are to be expected. The WSJ editorial board needs to be more careful fact-checking the talking points memos they get from The Pentagon’s public relations firm.

Leningrad under siege. People ate people.

Let me walk through a bit of reasoning here: Kim Jong Un is as likely to go personally hungry as Donald Trump is. In the event of a national disaster, there’d still be someone willing to preferentially feed the political elites of any authoritarian country – that’s how the country is structured. So, the assumption must be that using hunger as a weapon is going to disproportionately affect the poor and weak citizens more than it will the regime, police, and military.  Put differently: starvation is a bad weapon because it damages exactly the wrong people. If you want to damage the regime you should be giving Kim and Trump triple helpings of bacon, steak, and eggs for breakfast followed by a giant taco salad with bacon and cheese for lunch (along with a giant milkshake) and a giant baked potato pasta smorgasbord with pie a la mode for dinner. Using hunger is as bad, or worse, than saturation bombing (which we’ve already tried on the North Koreans) for the same reasons: wrong target.

Let me drill down into one particular statement in the WSJ piece:

Withholding food aid to bring down a government would normally be unethical, but North Korea is an exceptional case.

Why yes, yes it would. If it’s a crime against humanity, it’s always a crime against humanity. Next you’re going to be telling me that genocide is normally unethical, but in the case of { whoever } we can make an exception. This is not moral relativism, it’s not even moral flexibility – it’s moral nihilism under the guise of authority-worship.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday called the deadly wave of starvation hitting areas of Syria under siege by government forces and other militant groups a “war crime.”

“Let me be clear: the use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime,” Ban said in a statement.

“All sides – including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians – are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law,” Ban added. [dw]

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I see now on the news that Trump has read a speech at the UN, which was written for him by someone with a command of Thuglish. It’s got some horrifying weapons-grade historical revisionism and ignorance in it, presumably there to make it sound like Trump thought it up.

The Washington Post [wp] has an annotated transcript. Pieces below:

Authority and authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems, and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom since World War II.

Well, stop!

We have it in our power, should we so choose, to lift millions from poverty, to help our citizens realize their dreams, and to ensure that new generations of children are raised free from violence, hatred, and fear.

Instead, we’re going to worry about immigrants and how to get LGBTQ people to suffer as much as possible. We’re also going to try to make sure that everyone is potentially bankrupted by health care costs. Except for the rich.

The Marshall Plan was built on the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent, and free.

As long as they do what we tell them to.

It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion, or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others. Instead, we helped build institutions such as this one to defend the sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.

The UN (in its early form) was started after WWI. After WWII the US shifted its main axis of international cooperation toward maintaining a nuclear monopoly – which, after that effort failed, devolved into establishing a nuclear club and controlling its membership.

No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.

We made them starve themselves, the bastards!

Comments

  1. unperson says

    “North Korea spends 22% of its GDP on its military, while the US spends 56%”

    56%? The US spends an absurd amount of money on its military, but I don’t believe that number. Is it a typo? Do you have a citation?

  2. Siobhan says

    Why yes, yes it would. If it’s a crime against humanity, it’s always a crime against humanity.

    *gasp*

    but Marcus

    wouldn’t that make the US military…

    war criminals?

  3. says

    I am pretty red-faced over the budget-percentage/GDP slipup I made above. I just grabbed the numbers and made a beginner’s mistake in metrics: know your units!

    Interestingly, there are some people who like to compare countries based on GDP spend on military, versus budget percentage or flat expenditure. I suspect it’s to make North Korea look particularly bad, with their whopping $9b annual spend compared to the US’ annual $1+trillion spend. (depending of whether you factor the intelligence apparatus in with the military)

    If you chart it by GDP it makes Saudi Arabia look worst. I guess there are agendas within agendas in how these metrics are presented. But look at North Korea! They’re a big threat!


    [pbs]

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 5: But look at North Korea!

    I tried to, but they don’t show up on that (unsourced!?!) chart…

  5. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#7:
    I tried to, but they don’t show up on that (unsourced!?!) chart…

    Yep, that’s because they’re a rounding error somewhere off the bottom of the second page.
    (Updated the chart with source; thanks!)

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    starvation is a bad weapon because it damages exactly the wrong people

    It’s been one of the sociopath’s weapons of choice “realpolitik” since humans showed up. If you deprive people enough, they might rise up and depose their rulers. Or they die. Win-win.

  7. DonDueed says

    I haven’t looked this up, but I believe the 54% number isn’t correct either, as stated. It’s not 54% of the total budget, it’s 54% of the discretionary part. The total budget is dominated by the non-discretionary stuff, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

  8. blf says

    I believe the 54% number isn’t correct either, as stated. It’s not 54% of the total budget, it’s 54% of the discretionary part.

    Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge confirms this distinction:

    The US Department of Defense budget accounted in fiscal year 2010 for about 19% of the United States federal budgeted expenditures and 28% of estimated tax revenues. Including non-DOD expenditures, military spending was approximately 28–38% of budgeted expenditures and 42–57% of estimated tax revenues. […]

    Because of constitutional limitations, military funding is appropriated in a discretionary spending account. […] Department of Defense spending’s share of discretionary spending was 50.5% in 2003, and has risen to between 53% and 54% in recent years.

    It continues:

    In 2015, Pentagon and related spending totaled $598 billion. Military expenditures exceed the total amount of funds allocated to support social security, transportation, unemployment, labor, science, energy and the environment, international affairs, housing, veteran’s benefits, medicare, education.

    In addition, the United States will spend at least $179 billion over the fiscal years of 2010–2018 on its nuclear arsenal, averaging $20 billion per year. […]

    In comparision, for N.Korea (KPA = Korean People’s Army, the N.Korean military):

    The KPA’s annual budget is approximately US$6 billion. […]

    According to North Korea’s state news agency, military expenditures for 2010 made up 15.8 percent of the state budget. Most analyses of North Korea’s defense sector, however, estimate that defense spending constitutes between one-quarter and one-third of all government spending. As of 2003, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, North Korea’s defense budget consumed some 25 percent of central government spending.

    It’s difficult to compare the numbers, or perhaps even produce comparable numbers, albeit it’s clear N.Korean military expenditure is essentially about a rounding error in the USAnnihilate!Annihilate! Annihilate!’s military budget. Indeed, the above quotes indicate the KPA’s entire annual budget is less than half what the States annually spends on nuclear arms alone.

  9. says

    Somehow politicians all over the world tend to think that you only have to starve people and they will do whatever the hell you want them to do. For example, Ukrainian Holodomor (1932–33). Stalin came up with the brilliant idea that in order to suppress dissent and revolutionary tendencies all you need to do is to manufacture a famine. As a matter of fact, it actually worked. And now we get politicians coming up with the brilliant idea that starving people will cause a revolution. Well, yes, there have been historical cases of monarchs getting executed after their citizens went low on food, but such cases weren’t that common. Most of the famines in human history simply ended with lots of people dead and no significant political changes.

    Regarding cannibalism in Leningrad. Yes, there were some documented incidents of cannibalism, so technically it is correct to say that “people ate people”. But, considering the scope of famine, surprisingly few people resorted to cannibalism. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Leningrad#Cannibalism

  10. johnson catman says

    We have it in our power, should we so choose, . . .

    We just choose not to do so because reasons.

    It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion, or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others.

    Glad I didn’t have a mouthful of tea when I read that.

    No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea the United States. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans many of its citizens due to regressive policies, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.

    Fixed it for you, 45.

  11. komarov says

    Withholding food aid to bring down a government would normally be unethical, but North Korea is an exceptional case. Past aid proved to be a mistake as it perpetuated one of the most evil regimes in history. The U.N. says some 40% of the population is undernourished, even as the Kims continue to spend huge sums on weapons. Ending the North Korean state as quickly as possible is the most humane course.

    I am in awe! No, wait, that’s horror.

    Is there an established metric for evil on which the WSJ is relying here? Conceptually I’d say it would have to be one of output per unit time to be realistic. That way, a persistent, low-level evil regime, could eventually (and correctly) outperfom those that are exceptionally evil but only short-lived.
    With that in mind I’d like to see the ranking chart before being served this crap. Where, on that chart, would we find Kim’s North Korea (est. 1948) in relation to, say, Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR and, naturally, the US (est. 1776), with all it has been inflincting ever since? Someone would have a lot of catching up to do and I’m not too sure it would be the US.

    Change the names and numbers and that paragraph could easily be applied to the US. I have no idea how many people in the US might be undernourished, but maybe we could also take under consideration just how many people live on or below the poverty line. Holding the bestest, greatest developed nation in the world, an ‘exceptional’ country, to a higher standard would only be fair, no?

    Kim Jong Un is as likely to go personally hungry as Donald Trump is. In the event of a national disaster, there’d still be someone willing to preferentially feed the political elites of any authoritarian country – that’s how the country is structured.

    You make it sound a bit like this was unusual. Was there ever a case where the ruler / ruling class actually ran the risk of starving alongside the serfs?

  12. says

    We have it in our power, should we so choose, to lift millions from poverty, to help our citizens realize their dreams, and to ensure that new generations of children are raised free from violence, hatred, and fear.

    “But we choose not to, because come on, there’s money to be made. If everyone had opportunity, then opportunity wouldn’t mean anything!”

    There was a right-wing woman on Twitter recently who actually argued that giving everyone healthcare would decrease the value of healthcare, using Ferraris as an example.

    https://twitter.com/tinyrevolution/status/908422458335776769

    (I had to use that one instead of the original as it turns out she has blocked me. :D)

    It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion, or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others. Instead, we helped build institutions such as this one to defend the sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.

    o_O

    O_o

    o_O

    BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA
    AHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAHAHA
    HAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHA!!!

    No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea.

    *looks over the healthcare debate currently going on in the US*

  13. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#9:
    If you deprive people enough, they might rise up and depose their rulers. Or they die. Win-win.

    Yeah, except that somehow it doesn’t really work out that way most of the time. Although, there are reports from Mosul that the US and Iraqi army pretty much used siege warfare/hunger as a weapon there, too. [al jazeera]

    Images of malnourished children and elderly from the Syrian town of Madaya gripped the world last week. A UN aid convoy finally reached the besieged town on Monday with officials describing “horrifying conditions” for the more than 40,000 people trapped there.

    Madaya is one example of the depth of the humanitarian crisis facing the region. According to the UN there are at least 400,000 people living under siege in 15 towns across Syria. Doctors Without Borders say that 35 people have died of starvation in Madaya alone since the beginning of December 2015, with more than 250 people suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

  14. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#12:
    Somehow politicians all over the world tend to think that you only have to starve people and they will do whatever the hell you want them to do. For example, Ukrainian Holodomor (1932–33). Stalin came up with the brilliant idea that in order to suppress dissent and revolutionary tendencies all you need to do is to manufacture a famine. As a matter of fact, it actually worked. And now we get politicians coming up with the brilliant idea that starving people will cause a revolution.

    I’m sure that they’re looking at how well it worked against North Korea in the 90s, and how well it worked to get Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein – clearly, it’s an option!

  15. says

    Tabby Lavalamp@#16:
    There was a right-wing woman on Twitter recently who actually argued that giving everyone healthcare would decrease the value of healthcare, using Ferraris as an example.

    That’s … utterly bizzare. That’s basically weaponizing Thorsten Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption and liesure: it’s not worth anything unless only you have it.
    Offhand, that would imply that a Ferrari has no inherent utility on which to base its value. I.e.: you can’t drive it anywhere unless you’re one of the few who are able to drive such cars. (unrelated: I used to think it would be fun to find a wrecked Ferrari and strip it out and turn it into a chicken coop..)

    BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA

    I was so surprised that nobody laughed out loud when he said some of that stuff. I mean, really, it was a ridiculous performance. The media reported on it relatively generously and typically didn’t excoriate him for having an utterly hypocritical speechwriter.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    So the main problem with North Korea is that are isolated and belligerent.

    The way to improve this situation is to cause them to be Isolated, belligerent, and starving.

    Did anyone at all really imagine this could be a good idea, besides Trump?

  17. says

    brucegee1962@#20:
    The way to improve this situation is to cause them to be Isolated, belligerent, and starving.
    Did anyone at all really imagine this could be a good idea, besides Trump?

    Trump and the editorial board of the WSJ. The Chinese almost certainly do not agree.

  18. John Morales says

    chigau, ahem. Perspective. WMDs are not that big a deal if you look at a bigger scale. The USA employs them all the time. Even if NK deployed each and every weapon they have, it would not touch the carnage of (say) WW2.

    But yes, your point is salient; the more one has to lose the more like one is to be circumspect. And NK doesn’t have that much to lose.

    (Nor does Trump, of course. He’ll be right until he dies)

  19. John Morales says

    But yes, your point is salient; the more one has to lose the more like one is to be circumspect.

    To be obvious, Trump himself has little to lose; he’s also near the end of his life.

    The USA, not-so-much.

    A nasty contrast.

    (Empires have an historical arc)

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