It’s just the beginning of August and sh*t has gotten very real.
The President is meant to be on vacation, except it’s not really a vacation – it’s working.
He’s at one of his golf courses, where he keeps tweeting and he is “very busy doing lots of meetings and calls”. As Seth Meyers puts it, that’s exactly how a small child would describe what an adult does in an office #briefcase.
In a press conference that was meant to be about the opioid crisis, Trump suddenly veered wildly off-script and threatened to nuke North Korea and kill us all.
The dark humour about the leader of the free world being an erratic toddler with access to the nuclear codes, until now, seemed almost as far-fetched as a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy becoming President.
And here we are.
Like our co-founder, Mia Freedman does every time she’s freaking out, she picked up the phone to call her podcast co-host, Amelia Lester.
You can listen to the full conversation with Mia and Amelia on Tell Me It’s Going To Be OK, right here. (Post continues after audio.)
Mia: Amelia, hi. Tell me it’s going to be ok. Seriously, tell me can it be ok because it feels like it’s not.
Amelia: It feels like it’s not. I remember after Trump was elected, I’ve had this gnawing sense of anxiety. The best analogy is that it feels like the whole world is locked in a room with a toddler who has a gun. The toddler could not let off the gun. The toddler could not get around to it, they may not figure out how to do it. Or, the toddler could just pick up the gun and fire it.
It feels like that analogy is more relevant than ever. Every morning, we wake up and I am braced to see what he has said. Waking up two days ago to see that he has said things that no other U.S. President has ever said, which is reminiscent of how dictators just like Kim Jong-un speak, was pretty jarring.
I don’t know if it’s going to be OK.
Mia: Can you take us back to what’s been happening with North Korea, in the last few months?
Amelia: North Korea has been a simmering issue for 50 years or so now.
Intelligence reports suggest that North Koreans have figured out how to not only build nuclear weapons, but also to miniaturise them. The reason why that’s key is because it means they can travel over long distances on missiles.
Mia: Why do you they want to blow people up? Why do they want to hit America with a nuclear weapon?
Amelia: One constant that comes through in reports regarding North Korea, is that Kim Jong-un is not crazy. Anyone who tells you he is, they don’t know what they’re talking about. He is a rational actor in all of this.
Mia: Just so I understand, what is Kim Jong-un’s end game? Who are his enemies?
Amelia: He wants to stay in power for as long as possible. He’s sensible enough to know that if he moves to attack the U.S. or any of the U.S. allies in the region, most notably South Korea and Japan, then his entire country would be decimated.
There is an argument that if he’s rational and if his main goal is to stay in power, he’s not going to act in a way that leads to the wholesale destruction. So, that’s reassuring.
Mia: The whole escalation that’s happened recently is because of North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. Tell me about that.
Amelia: The reason why this has been simmering for so long is because it’s really hard to build nuclear weapons. Not only, that it’s really hard to build a nuclear weapon that you can transport across long distances.
The science is just really difficult.
They have been threatening for a long time that they are developing miniaturised nuclear weapons but it was only last year, 2016, when they released this photo of Kim Jong-un holding, what the CIA describes as, a disco ball.
This disco ball was supposedly a nuclear weapon that had been shrunken to fit inside a missile. That was a real turning point because that meant scientists who had been working for decades to try and catch up to nuclear powers and develop miniaturised weapons, had gotten there.
Basically, it was a race against science.
Mia: Don’t they have parades where they show off all their weapons?
Amelia: It’s really hard to know because there’s no free press in North Korea and they don’t welcome visitors. They say there are nuclear weapons inside the missiles, but we have no way of knowing if they’re telling the truth.
US intelligence agencies do monitor their nuclear tests. What we know, is they have been testing nuclear weapons in mountainsides, in regional parts of North Korea. Up until recently we, in the West, thought that they were exaggerating their nuclear capacity. But, over the last month or so, they have sped up their tests so dramatically, so beyond what anyone thought they were at that.
Even the experts are having to turn around and question if they’re a little bit further along than we thought.
Mia: Why do they want all these weapons if they don’t want to start a war? Nobody’s attacking them?
Amelia: They want to be a nuclear power. They want nuclear weapons for the same reason why any country rising up in the world wants nuclear weapons: it’s a sign they’re a great world power. They want to be seen as a major player on the world stage.
Mia: Talk me through the sanctions that the US put on North Korea.
Amelia: The United Nations, led by the US, has been imposing sanctions on North Korea and conduct diplomacy behind the scenes with North Korea for 50 years. It’s particularly intensified since the mid-90s when they announced their intentions to ramp up their nuclear program.
The sanctions are designed to stop the making of nuclear weapons. They have been in place for decades now and different presidents have had different approaches to this problem. Unfortunately, there are no good answers.
Thinking about the military option, that’s not a good answer because if you launch a preemptive strike on North Korea they can destroy large swaths of Seoul or Tokyo, almost immediately. You’ve got to dispense with the military option.
Then you think about diplomacy, which President Obama was was a big proponent of. His basic plan was, “Let’s ignore them. They just want attention.” That didn’t work because North Korea, fundamentally, wants something that the US doesn’t want to give them, which is nuclear weapons.
President Obama's strategy against North Korea was one of diplomacy. Image via Getty.
The third approach, which has been a constant, is the imposition of sanctions.Those have been particularly ramped up since the mid-90s
Mia: What kind of sanctions?
Amelia: The sanctions mean that countries are given very stiff penalties for trading, in any way, with the country that is being sanctioned. Sanctions worked really well in dismantling apartheid in South Africa, for instance. There's a lot of examples showing that sanctions work because they can economically cripple a country.
The problem is that there is evidence trickling out of North Korea that the sanctions haven't worked because they have been thriving a black market there. There are more cars in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, than there have ever been.
People are still conducting commerce, through some kind of black market or other means. They're still quite close to China. Russia is probably involved in some way. The North Korean ambassador was seen at a regional conference, this week, in a quite intense conversation with the Russian and Chinese representatives. So, the sanctions aren't working either.
Mia: What's happened in the last week that's found us here on the possible brink of war?
Amelia: There is credible evidence that North Korea has made such scientific progress with their nuclear weaponry, that their missiles can strike the U.S. mainland.
That comes back to the miniaturised nuclear weapon, where they can now carry this nuclear weapon the size of a disco ball across the ocean to the continental United States.
All that happened to trigger Trump saying this is scientific progress. Is North Korea getting to the point where they are a nuclear power? And that's what people, in the know, say. The idea that we could get to the table with North Korea and ask them to hold on the nuclear weapons is not happening anymore.
What we have to figure out is how to deal with North Korea having nuclear weapons.
Mia: Who's talking sense to Trump?
Amelia: Here's the problem, at this point. This is a problem that has eluded much greater minds than Donald Trump's or, Ivanka’s or Jared's. It eluded Barack Obama. It eluded Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and other great presidents with much bigger minds, with much better teams around them.
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Unfortunately, North Korea reaching a tipping point on science, where they have miniaturised nuclear weapon, just happens to occur when Donald Trump is President.
Mia: Does he have the nuclear codes in his fingers? Can he literally wake up in the morning, be sh*tty and nuke North Korea.
Amelia: Yes, the nuclear codes set-up is designed for maximum speed. It's not designed for debate. It's not designed for checks and balances. The nuclear codes are in his possession at all times.
There's a man who walks behind him with a briefcase, which has the nuclear codes in the briefcase. If Donald Trump wants to launch a nuclear strike, it goes up the military chain of command. Theoretically, someone higher up could not allow it. But the military is not going to ignore the orders of their commander-in-chief.
The system is designed so that when Donald Trump says that he wants to launch a nuclear weapon, then a nuclear weapon gets launched extremely quickly. We're talking minutes not hours.
Mia: Who is involved in that decision, between him launching a nuclear attack, deciding to and actually doing it?
Amelia: There are members of the military involved but Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief.
He's not just a politician. He is the head of the American military. Yes, it goes through various members of the military in order to actually enact his orders, but he has the final say.
Mia: Can they refuse him?
Amelia: The military is not there to question but obey orders from their commander-in-chief. That's what Donald Trump's advisers are there for.
Mia: Is there any good news here, at all?
Amelia: Here are a couple of ways to look on the bright side.
Kim Jong-un is a rational actor. He does not want his entire country decimated in a matter of minutes. It's very unlikely that he would want that.
Number two, is that the US has been issuing these kinds of threats to North Korea for 15 years, at least. Donald Trump often speaks in a very hyperbolic, dramatic way as he did this week. Off the cuff, it just happened to be about nuclear war but this kind of rhetoric has been used for a long time by the U.S.
It's, conceivably, a strategic move to talk tough so that North Korea starts listening.
North Korea certainly don't have the kind of ammunition or artillery to destroy the U.S. mainland. But, what we do have, is two egomaniacal leaders who don't want to die. And that's what I cling to in all this.
Mia: Where does Guam come into it?
Amelia: Guam is a small island in the Pacific, which is a territory of the United States. It's basically the United States' military strategic spot in the Pacific. It's where they keep the planes with the nuclear weapons that would go to North Korea, for instance.
It's very important to remember the ongoing conflict in the North China Sea, with China building these islands in international waters. Guam is important for that reason, too.
Mia: How far away is Guam?
Amelia: Guam is right in the middle of the Pacific. If you look it up on your iPhone you have to do a lot of zooming in through just a blue screen of ocean to get there.
It’s halfway between Japan and Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
Guam is approximately here. Honestly, though, it's too tiny to see slightly zoomed out. Image: supplied.
The thinking of why Kim Jong-un is threatening to destroy Guam is because he doesn't have the technical or scientific capability, at this point, to launch a meaningful attack on the US market. Instead, he can launch an attack on Guam, which is technically the U.S., and make a statement.
Mia: Why would he do that?
Amelia: I don't believe he would do that because if he launches any kind of attack on Guam, it’s technically the U.S. We have no doubt that Donald Trump would retaliate and destroy his country.
Mia: But could he do that if all of America's nuclear weapons are in Guam?
Amelia: They're not all there, that just an important strategic base for some of them. America has a lot of nuclear weapons. That's why this isn't mad. It's not an equal balance.
Mia: It's it's really it's hard to know how to process this because every day we laugh about Trump, but this feels different.
Amelia: And, I don’t know whether Trump’s unpredictability makes him a more formidable opponent for Kim Jong-un.
Mia: Meanwhile, on of Ivanka’s Instagram, she's posted a photo of the cover of her book, Women Who Work. What's just so hilarious is she’s meant to be on this non-vacation location with her kids and, hashtag nuclear war.
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Amelia: I read a funny story yesterday from a professor at Dartmouth University, and he’s an expert on nuclear proliferation.
His advice to everyone on Twitter was get off Twitter, go and have a nice dinner because at least if a nuclear holocaust happens, you will have had some good food.
It's hard not to look at Trump and Kim Jong-un and feel angry that there are these men, who bring their ego to the table instead of trying to solve problems for the entire world. That's why we end up not being able to sleep at night.
Mia: If I wasn't already angry enough at Donald Trump. If only Hillary was in the White House we would not be having this conversation, or it would be a very different conversation.
Amelia: One thing the Hillary Clinton would never say is, "I'm going to unleash fire and fury unlike what the world has never seen.” She probably would have tested it in a focus group and said something, “I will be irritated.”
I wish it were more positive but I actually do think it's going to be OK. I'm much more worried about Trump than I am about Kim Jong-un.
Trump is actually crazy.
Mia: Look our only hope is that he's just going to keel over. Alright. Thank you, my friend. We will speak soon. Stay safe.