No More Psychic Numbness

Back when nuclear proliferation was rampant and nations detonated warheads across the globe, back during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later, the reactor meltdown in Chernobyl, back when anti-nuke groups were The Resistance, an American psychiatrist and prolific author named Robert Jay Lifton coined the phrase: “psychic numbness.”


The phrase signified a cognitive dissonance affecting children and adults of the nuclear era – an existential fear of death by nuclear annihilation and simultaneously, a heightened state of denial that let us live, laugh, work and play with a veneer of normalcy.

With the sudden crisis in North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), a totalitarian, nuclear state governed by an amoral and pugnacious boy leader, the threat of nuclear war has swiftly resurfaced. While the DPRK has tested nuclear-armed missiles for years, fear of an actual attack has been heightened by the aggressive rhetoric and provocative military incursions of the new Trump administration.

Any residue of psychic numbness has been ripped away, as ordinary citizens and people-in-the-know anxiously await … for whatever happens next. The stress pulsating across social media is a barometer of the fear we are feeling in real life. That anxiety may or may not be warranted. But not knowing is what causes it to swell, and when ex-intelligence folks like Malcolm Nance and John Schindler voice their concerns, then our collective blood pressures spike.

Nance is referring to a Reuters article from 24 April reporting that the entire Senate will meet at the White House on Wednesday for a briefing related to the tensions surrounding DPRK. Top brass and suits in attendance will be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While we ponder the significance of this unprecedented peacetime meeting, Raymond Farrell presents us with his scenario of a resumed Korea war at Real Clear Defense. His analysis paints a conventional combat with surprise, subterfuge, Special Ops and the mobilization of millions of troops by DPRK, followed by missiles, rockets, artillery, war planes and the possible use of chemical warfare and other WMDs – all directed at our allies, Japan and South Korea.

We read such assessments breathlessly and our alarm is mollified only by Farrell’s judgment that such a conflict “would entail horrific destruction and suffering” and thus, “planners should strongly question whether each DPRK provocation—even the imminent development of a ICBM—justifies risking such a war.”

But is Trump listening? No. He is antagonizing the boy ruler with his “all options on the table – preemptive strike” declarations. He is piling on with the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group and now, a submarine capable of launching cruise missiles deployed to the port of Busan.

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Michigan arrived at the Korean port of Busan on Tuesday local time. (AP Photo/Jun Dumaguing)

Meanwhile the Nikkei Asian Review publishes headlines that while not sensational, are preoccupied with North Korea and the US. The 24 and 25 April editions contain a passel of related stories:

There can be no lessening of worry so long as the two fools play their tough guy game. No sense of relief. We – you, me, our family, friends, neighbors, our allies, the world – we are unsteady. Each morning carries an undercurrent of terror.

We are no longer numb. We are hovering on a sharp edge of panic, our sense of comfort shattered by an incompetent, insecure and bullying president in a nuclear face-off with a paranoid and labile killer defending his fiefdom.

State Department Rep In Moscow Discussing DPRK With Deputy Foreign Minister

On the morning of 4 April, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. As news broke of this provocative incident, it was easy to miss a single tweet from the innards of the U.S. State Department. After all, world media was focused on the cryptic response from the Secretary of State.

“North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea,” Tillerson said. “We have no further comment.”

Yet, as Tillerson was issuing his “No comment” response, an uncelebrated foreign policy expert was en route to Moscow to talk with “Russian officials” about North Korea.

Joseph Yun, born in South Korea and credited with expertise on EuroAsian affairs, is that policy wonk and his area of specialty is North Korea.

Joseph Yun, Special Representative for North Korea Policy and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan, U.S. State Department.

The tweet announcing his trip to Moscow was issued by a section within State called the Bureau for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (US EAP).

Igor Morgulov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Russian Federation.

A fuller press release explained that the purpose of Yun’s Moscow visit was to “discuss cooperation on DPRK issues.” It also named the Russian official meeting with Yun: Igor Morgulov, the Russian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. Unnamed individuals from “academia” and Russian “think tanks” are included in the discussions.

Morgulov’s specialty area is also the Asia Pacific.

The missile launch by North Korea, the empty remarks by the Secretary of State and the meeting of a State Department underling with one of Russia’s most prominent officials to discuss North Korea is a mystery within a conundrum.

EAP is headed up by Susan Thornton, whose career in foreign service stretches back to 1991. Thornton is the Acting Assistant Secretary, a confirmation issued less than a month ago.