Entry 10: Writing in the Middle of a Polarizing Crisis


Editor’s Note: This is the tenth installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


It’s getting harder to sustain a reasonable discourse about North Korea.

The political left keeps resorting to pacifist tropes about diplomacy being the only solution or the United States being the problem, but without advancing any theory of the case.  In what universe will sitting down with a nuclear state and saying some special configuration of words convince them to give up what they equate with their survival?  Diplomats are not wizards.

Alternatively, how would the United States abandoning South Korea improve the situation?  It would make conflict between North and South Korea more likely and still fail to address the problem of North Korea’s growing ability to threaten the U.S. homeland.

The political right has been making equally unreasonable, and even more dangerous, arguments.  They put forward two types of beliefs, both of which also lack a theory of the case.  One is that we’ve tried everything else with North Korea and none of it has worked, so why not a military option?  That’s senseless.  We also haven’t tried self-immolation, or inviting Kim Jong Un into a Fight Club.  If you think those options would be ridiculous, then you agree—using particular instruments of policy (like military force) should be based on an expectation of what it will achieve, not its novelty.

The other belief has been that giving Kim Jong Un a “bloody nose” won’t be a problem because he’s not suicidal.  But that’s a statement of logical fallacy.  Kim Jong Un doesn’t have to be suicidal to use nukes, and he certainly doesn’t have to be suicidal to fight back if attacked.  This is where a little knowledge of strategic theory, or even Cold War history, would come in handy.  Proactive violence will not produce disarmament, and the surest way to make deterrence fail is to resort to violence.

On the right and the left, then, people who are not experts on North Korea nevertheless have deep convictions about what we should do, and the arguments they advance either fly in the face of reason or the historical record.  The raw divisiveness on this issue among politicos concerns me.

What does any of this have to do with the book?  Everything.  On some level, I worry this book might end up pissing off hawks and doves, the left and the right.  Also, these strident opinions are helping me think through this chapter.  Divergent assumptions regarding how North Korea thinks about coercion are at the heart of exposing the analytical weaknesses of arguments from hawks and doves alike.

Anyway, today was not the high-productivity day I hoped for.  I wrote 411 words.  Not bad, but I need to do a better job of cashing in on the holiday downtime.  Right now, I’m about two-thirds through Chapter 3.  If political discourse about Korea is this polarized when this book finally drops, it’s going to be hard for my arguments to get a fair reading.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.


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