It may help to frame the rhetoric against the timeline of event points. The current escalation sequence began on 4/13 with NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test. Put these on your x-axis, to graph against rhetoric on the “y”:
- (5/2) Meeting between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un ? John Ciliza
- (5/28) Reuters: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible
- (6/1) U.S. Strike on North Korea? Prediction Update
- (7/18) North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general; Napkin Calculation
- (8/2) North Korea & Trump’s Mental Rubicon; Smuggling Nukes?
- (8/8) North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuke Part 1
- (8/10) North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuke Part 2
- (8/29) N. Korea Missile over Japan; Kim Jong Un’s Fakeout Move
- (9/3) North Korea tests H-Bomb?
- (9/3) North Korea Test H-Bomb – Andrei Sakharov’s Soviet “Layer Cake”
- (9/14) North Korea; EMP Attack Rehearsal; Nuclear Weapons as a Political Tool
Although the rhetoric of both sides includes threats, the motivations are completely different. The U.S. motivation is to be absolutely certain that Kim cannot be dissuaded by means other than force. The statements by General Mattis are particularly notable, because he is not known for spontaneity. You can’t be spontaneous when you are leading troops in battle. Everything must be calculated:
- (Face The Nation, 5/28) “A conflict in North Korea, John, would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
- (CNN, 8/10) North Korea “should cease any consideration of actions that will lead to the end of the regime and destruction of its people.”
Rex Tillerson is at the opposite pole. (CNN, 8/9):
- Speaking about North Korea, he said, “I think whether we’ve got them backed into a corner or not is difficult to say, but diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”
This clues us to U.S. strategy, the institutional responsibility of the NSC. An urban police department typically has several individuals trained in hostage negotiation. if you have a hostage crisis, you first try to talk the shooter out of his hole. The U.S. approach has been to apply pressure with rhetoric, backing off to check for an evolving response. While U.S. rhetoric, devised by a collegial administration, has varied, the purpose has been constant.
In news, drama, and fiction, Western media provide the public with a comprehensive education about violent offenders, interaction with law enforcement, and the eventual outcomes. Anybody who watches the six o-clock news on TV, day in and day out, has a visceral awareness of of cops, offenders, and how they relate to each other. Omnipresent media links all of us in a social feedback loop.
Kim Jong-un has not had this experience. His response to U.S. rhetoric illuminates this. N. Korea Missile over Japan; Kim Jong Un’s Fakeout Move considers whether Kim has a strategy. I think he does, but it is shaped by partly by his inability to understand us, and strongly by the society that he both defines and experiences.
It is always surprising that an open society could be difficult for others to understand. The classic example comes from the Soviet Union’s central planning agency, Gosplan. Everything driven elsewhere by supply and demand was tortuously mapped out by the economists of Gosplan in five year plans. Their perpetual question to the U.S. was, who does it here? It was beyond comprehension that it happens here by a form of distributed intelligence.
This kind of misapprehension remains common in authoritarian regimes. The U.S. appears an undisciplined society with a loose bucket of bolts for a government. Kim’s strategy is constrained by what he knows about us. N. Korea Missile over Japan; Kim Jong Un’s Fakeout Move, considers how Kim Jong-un may have converted one U.S. posture to another:
- Strike North Korea to disrupt their missile/nuke program.
- Strike North Korea in retaliation to a hostile act.
It is a pretty sophisticated tack, though we will never know if it was intended. It has been superseded by events. But if we allow it was intentional, does he have more tricks in his bag?
North Korea is ruled by a hereditary potentate, an absolute monarch. The history of the West was, until Napoleon, replete with monarchs whose social understanding was limited to “I am the state.” By upbringing and role in his society, Kim Jong-un is completely different from anyone we are likely to have ever met.
Kim’s rhetoric has escalated without a break. This suggests a person to whom very few people, perhaps none who are alive, have said no to, and survived. Appreciation of a force against which he cannot prevail may not be wired into his brain. This encourages a strategy to push the boundaries.
To evaluate the probability of a strike, Benjamin Franklin’s method was used on 4/13, with 6 points pro U.S. strike / 2 con. It was updated on 6/1:
I did not assign a probability, an “XX percent.” As a member of the Forecasting World Events team, my numbers were weighted with many others — a “transverse ensemble”, so it made sense to do so. But Franklin’s score, formerly 6 pro/ 2 con, is now 8 pro / 2 con.
Since there are no positive signs from the (Atlantic) back channel NY meetings, the table acquires two new elements. One is based on progression of rhetoric. Draw a graph of North Korea’s rhetoric through the event points. It goes up to the right without a break.
A new point is also provided by the objective increase in danger to the U.S. So these are added to Franklin’s table:
- Escalation of rhetoric, without a break, by Kim.
- Objective increase in danger to the U.S., which implies that doing nothing is not an option.
For reasons given in U.S. Strike on North Korea? Prediction Update, odds are not given. In the context of an individual prediction, odds have no statistical validity.
The updated prediction score is now 10 pro strike / 2 con.