Maybe We Have No Impact At All


TPM Reader ML thinks I’m mistaken to believe Trump’s bellicosity has played a role in the recent escalation between the US and North Korea …

I am a big fan of your work. TPM is absolute “must-read” for me every morning (right after the Red Sox box score). But, I have a bit of of a dissent to offer related to something you said in your Korea piece. It will seem like a minor point on the surface, but there is a larger issue at stake that troubles me.

You wrote “His [Trump’s] volley of threats over recent months appears to have spurred the North Koreans to quicken the pace of their ICBM tests.” I don’t buy that, nor do I think there is evidence to support it. The DPRK has hastened and slowed its missile and nuclear programs off and on for years, and the reasons behind it appear to reflect internal dynamics not external provocations. Your sentence strikes me as the classic example of post hoc, ergo, porter hoc logic. Just because Trump shot off his mouth and Kim increased the pace of tests does not demonstrate that one led to the other. And at least by implication your phraseology places more responsibility on the US than it likely deserves, and it overemphasizes the role the US has in driving DPRK policy.

But does this really matter? I would argue that it does. Your claim (which is echoed elsewhere, of course) presents an image of Kim as reactive rather than proactive. If we accept that he increases his provocations in response to American actions, one likely concludes that he might slow them in response to opposite (or at least different) American actions. In other words, if we believe that Kim was driven to change his behavior by external stimuli (in whatever form), we should believe that a removal of those stimuli would likely lead him to undo that change. And that leads us to conclude that Kim might be convinced to slow his drive for a nuclear ICBM if only the US took certain actions. But the problem is that such sentiments are wishful thinking. The overwhelming evidence suggests that Kim is determined to develop that capability regardless of what the US and its allies do. We Korea-watchers might argue about the motives behind this desire but few, IMHO, think he is wiling to abandon his objective under any circumstances short of being physically made to stop. So to imply that US actions are a stimuli in any way just feeds into the false narrative that a compromise can be found if both sides would just alter their behaviors, when in fact, I think recent American actions are largely irrelevant and we would be going down the same path regardless of what was emerging from the White House. And that means that the first step towards a solution requires the US to abandon any idea that Kim will compromise if only the US does XXXX, and instead face the harsh reality of the very limited options that remain.

As I told ML in my response, he certainly may be right. I’m happy to be corrected on this front. More central in my mind however is. We talk a lot about Kim’s irrationality, craziness, all sort of other geopolitical trash-talk. But on the most rational analysis, why on earth would North Korea ever give up its nuclear arsenal? That seems entirely unrealistic absent an actual war to topple the North Korea government which would be madness. The same likely applies to the missile development, though perhaps there’s some hope there of at least a hiatus. It’s a pretty bad situation.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of