It seems every time you open your news feed, turn on TV or radio news, or read a newspaper, there's a story about something that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, has done. Since he came to power a few years ago, many of those stories have been funny, but increasingly they're frightening. Kim Jong Un's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology may be one of the biggest menaces faced by the USA, and many other countries, in decades. The policy choices facing the Trump Administration, as well as America's allies, and even competitors like China and Russia, are increasingly unpalatable. A nuclear war of any sort is pretty much unthinkable, but that's looking increasingly likely. Is there any new place to search for ideas or inspiration? "The Unexpected Perspective" blog focuses on looking at important issues from surprising and unexpected angles, and that's what I propose here.
The obvious place to seek ideas is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but I think there may be a better one; and it's from pretty unexpected place: the Bible. So what insight might the Bible have with respect to Kim Jong Un? I think it's the Old Testament story of David and Goliath. The story has inspired Christians and Jews for more than 2,000 years, and it's even an inspiration for many non-Christians. In the story the Israelite army faces off against the army of the Philistines. Each army is lined up on opposing sides of a valley. Rather than have the two armies attack one another, the proposal is for each army to offer up one soldier to represent his army. The "two man" contest will determine the outcome of the war.
The Philistines offer up Goliath, a huge man bedecked in full armor. Goliath is so large, so fearsome, that no Israelite warrior wants to take him on. Who could blame any of them? The most unlikely warrior of all then offers himself, a teenage shepherd named David. David is offered armor and a sword, but eschews them in favor of his sling shot and some stones. All figure it will be a suicide mission until David surprises everyone by knocking down Goliath with a single shot from his sling. He then slays the wounded Goliath and the Israelites are victorious.
Christians and Jews, including myself, have always believed that God was behind David's victory. The fight, however, really wasn't as lopsided as everyone has tended to believe. On a practical level, David's victory included three strategic elements: 1) surprise; 2) avoiding the strength of the enemy; and 3) changing the "rules" and playing to his own strength. If David had played Goliath's "game" of fighting with swords and armor, he would have surely died. Instead, he used a sling shot – a highly lethal weapon in its own right when used by an expert – and brought Goliath down. He surprised the Philistines, played to his own strengths and away from Goliath's. When the game changed, David's weakness was the inspiration for his strength, and Goliath's strength - being in armor and wielding a sword - became a great weakness.
An ever-inspirational story, but what in the world does it have to do with Kim Jong Un? My belief is that today we have a "David and Goliath story" in reverse:
- The USA and its allies are Goliath;
- Kim Jong Un is David;
- Kim Jong Un wants to "play out" the story and is trying to draw the USA and its allies into the battle, but on his terms, not ours.
On the surface, it definitely does look like "David and Goliath": the USA is far superior to North Korea, both in economic and military terms. If the two countries engage in nuclear war, the USA will highly likely blow North Korea off the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, there will be huge collateral damage to South Korea and possibly other countries, including the USA. Definitely, a pretty awful scenario, with millions of casualties; but the USA would certainly be "victorious", even though the USA victory in such a contest would be an incredibly hollow one.
What is a little less obvious, however, is Kim Jong Un's "sling shot". It isn't the nuclear weapons he is building, or even the missile delivery system. If Kim tries to use these weapons, it would be comparable to the Biblical David utilizing the sword and armor provided to him, but which he rejected.
Instead, in my mind, Kim Jong Un's "sling shot" is cyber hacking. While Kim can't possibly win a war against the USA with missiles and nuclear weapons, he could potentially win one if it's a battle of cyber hacking. There's no question North Korea has developed formidable hacking prowess. The WannaCry virus had significant impact several months ago, but what if that was merely a "dress rehearsal", or "battle game", to test North Korea's capabilities? They could very well have been holding back.
Now imagine that North Korea launched a live attack, for example, against the USA's electrical utility grid? Not only might they disable it, they could potentially literally destroy infrastructure in the USA. Imagine they did it in the dead of winter? Or what if they went after other vulnerable points? They're all kinds of them. The good news is that the USA and other developed countries have so much advanced computing technology, and the bad news is that we have so much exposed advanced computing technology. Imagine, a bloodless war launched from desktops in Pyongyang?
The idea of such an attack is certainly not far-fetched. There is evidence the Russians have been deploying a similar strategy against Ukraine's electric utility grid the past several years.
So let's get back to David and Goliath. David completely surprised Goliath and the Philistines, and won the battle he could win rather than the battle that Goliath could win. My assumption is that while Kim Jong Un seems to act irrationally, he is anything but irrational. The fact that he has systematically eliminated all of his opponents in North Korea leads me to think he isn't a crazy man; he's only feigning craziness. Assuming he isn't crazy, then he isn't going to launch a nuclear war that he would surely lose.
So is there a lesson out of David and Goliath that the USA and its allies might apply? Here's what I think it is. The Biblical story never really refers to the commanding officer of the Philistines, though surely they had one. Let's also assume he was a pretty bright, capable guy, so let's slightly re-write the story. We can confidently assume that the Philistines had scouts, so let's assume that one of those scouts had been "scouting" David and discovered that the teenage shepherd was a great with a sling. Surely, the scout would have informed the head of the Philistines. Armed with such intelligence, the Philistine commander would likely have done one of the following:
- Option A: proceed with a fight between David and Goliath, doing so either out of hubris, or a belief that Goliath might still beat the shepherd;
- Option B: find the guy in his own army who knew how to use a sling (or send home for a Philistine shepherd)
- Option C: delay the fight to another day.
The good news is that the USA and its allies have pretty good scouts. We know something about North Korea's "sling shot" hacking capabilities. We also suspect that Kim Jong Eun, while being extremely belligerent, is still presumably very rational. Drawing upon the analogy of David and Goliath, we're at the following point:
- Goliath (the USA) is telling the Israelites (North Korea), if you want to fight, you'll be crushed;
- David (North Korea) is getting ready to enter the contest, and the Philistines (USA and Allies) think he's getting ready to fight with sword and armor (nuclear weapons), but it's really with his sling shot (cyber hacking).
Thus, based upon the analogy, the commander of Goliath's army – President Donald Trump and his advisors – must make a decision. Right now, it sounds like Option A above, with the likely disastrous outcome for everyone. Moreover, as part of any nuclear war, North Korea would still likely utilize their "sling shot": unleashing cyber terror on the USA. None of North Korea's missiles might ever hit a USA target, but the cyber losses might be monumental. Still, a huge loss for the USA, definitely not a victory.
Drawing upon the analogy, I think Goliath's command – President Trump – should explore Options B and C. Let's look at what that might look like. Both Options B and C point towards moving the battle away from the current strength of the USA – nuclear war. Why would the USA and its allies want to avoid playing to their strength? It's because the likely outcome of that strategy would be a nuclear disaster. So what would make either Options B or C better? Quite simply, avoiding a nuclear conflagration. Further, delay will permit the Philistines (USA and allies) to find their own David with a sling shot (i.e., get better prepared for cyber warfare).
So how could Goliath – Donald Trump – most effectively implement either Option B or C? It would involve the following:
- Deescalate the rhetoric about missiles, but maintain, maybe even increase, economic pressure;
- Accept the obvious: North Korea is already a nuclear power and that we're not going to undo that;
- Don't give in to North Korea's demands that the USA remove its military presence in Korea and surrounding areas;
- Focus attention on reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" – the ability to unleash cyber terror.
The obvious objection to this strategy is, the USA wouldn't be eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea. Unfortunately, I don't see any way that could be done short of unleashing a nuclear war, which simply is unacceptable. Thus, North Korea would likely continue to build more nuclear weapons. The USA could respond by placing more weapons in and around South Korea. It would begin to look more and more the way Europe did during the Cold War. Not ideal, but it's something with which we're already familiar. It's also equivalent to the Philistine army standing down, or at least not engaging the Israelite army in a war they couldn't win at the time.
So if you're faced with the choice of fighting a war that either you can't win without acceptable losses, the best strategy is to avoid a war until you can get into better position. That's the same thing as the Philistines not engaging the Israelites – not letting Goliath battle David, at least for the moment.
Now will the status quo remain the status quo forever? Of course not, something will change. If the USA's leaders are smart, they'll avoid an unwinnable confrontation today to wait for a potentially winnable one at a future point. Drawing upon the analogy, it would be similar to the Philistines doing one of the following:
- Waiting until they found their own "David", who could be a match for the Israelite David;
- Waiting for the terms of battle to change so they might get into a winnable position.
Would failure to respond to another weapons launch by the North Koreans (i.e., a form of Option C) be perceived as weakness? Not necessarily, especially if is coupled by more sanctions. Building upon the analogy, the Philistine army probably had other ways to beat the Israelites than using Goliath, they simply failed to be sufficiently creative or imaginative.
In terms of the USA, "finding its own David" is the same as overcoming any vulnerability to cyber terror, reducing or eliminating North Korea's "sling shot" threat. Presumably, lots of work is already being done on this. Most likely, a lot more is required. Waiting for the terms of battle to change means keeping North Korea in check. The best way to do that is to maintain economic pressure and maintain military presence. However, it probably also means de-escalating the rhetoric. The Biblical Goliath taunted the Israelites to come out to fight. Today's Goliath – the USA – should be careful about making antagonistic statements – just maintain the pressure in more quiet, subtle ways. I'm reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt's dictum: walk softly but carry a big stick. Might be a bit of a challenge for the current President, but I think he can do it – and the world is depending upon him to do it.
The analogy to David and Goliath is not perfect, but I think it is instructive for the current situation. Let's hope our leaders do everything possible to avoid the mistakes by the leaders of the Biblical Philistines, and avoid creating a modern day version of the story of David and Goliath, with the roles reversed, but with an identical outcome.