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Book Review: Rage – Bob Woodward

Ford, G. (2020). Bob Woodward’s ‘Rage’ reveals more about Trump than North Korea, NKNews, 29 October.

It started almost before the beginning. On Jan. 26, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump asked Matt Pottinger — who would later become deputy national security adviser — to prepare options on North Korea. It was only his sixth day in office.

Tensions were high. Pottinger came back with a spectrum bent in the direction of malign rather than benign: Options ranged from accepting North Korea as a nuclear power to regime change through CIA covert action or a military attack.

Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage” — which was published on Sept. 15 — recounts this moment and many others in the White House. Written by the reporter who exposed the Watergate scandal in 1972, the book details Trump’s diplomatic journey with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and reveals 25 personal letters between the two leaders.

However, “Rage” has its shortcomings, holding up a distorting mirror to events: The book tells the world more about Trump than what happened in history.

Back in 2017, Trump picked maximum pressure, ratcheting up economic and military pressure with diplomacy and covert action. Trump also began building the roster of people who would deal with North Korea — his choice of Mike Pompeo to head the CIA was a neat fit. By March, he had Andy Kim setting up a North Korean Mission Centre, staffed by hundreds, putting in place covert action to weaken and overthrow Kim’s cabal in Pyongyang.

Three years on, Pottinger began lauding the upside of the pandemic in the White House. “The coronavirus is probably doing more to advance our maximum pressure campaign than anything at the moment,” Woodward wrote in his book.

All of Washington’s sophisticated signaling went missing. Woodward reported that, after North Korea launched its first ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. on July 3, 2017, the U.S. Commander in South Korea, Vincent Brookes, replied by firing a tactical missile 186 miles into the East Sea, the exact distance between its launch and Pyongyang’s missile site.

The message was not received. There was no evidence that North Korea even noticed. In comparison to Washington with its global surveillance through the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Pyongyang is deaf and blind.

After all, the North’s total military budget is less than that of the combined NRO and NGA.

Washington was as deaf as Pyongyang was blind. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was handed the military options by the president and delegated to shoot down any North Korean missile threatening the U.S.

According to Woodward, the U.S. was on the brink of war around the turn of the year 2018. Mattis was resorting to prayer and the Pentagon to preparing a pre-emptive attack against the North with 80 nuclear weapons.

Yet Pyongyang, via North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), had announced after the Nov. 29 ICBM test that “the historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” was done. Yet the war of words continued to threaten to go ballistic with “The Guns of August” rerun as “The Nukes of Winter.”

In his 2018 book called “Fear,” Woodward reported that, on Dec. 4, Trump’s, then, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster “had received a warning at the White House. Ri Su-yong, the vice chairman of the Politburo, had told intermediaries ‘that the North would take the evacuation of U.S. civilians as a sign of imminent attack.’”

For Pyongyang, the response would be pre-emptive deterrence. Trump’s tweets to the effect were reluctantly put on hold.

Only when Kim repeated “completion” in his 2018 New Year’s Address was the U.S. listening. Winter Olympics were followed by a Singapore summit between Trump and Kim in the spring.

“Rage” shows that, for all of Trump’s efforts to find a way forward with Kim Jong Un, his steering cables were cut. Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang after Singapore — when he was now secretary of state rather than CIA director — didn’t deliver on the president’s promises to Kim, but rather delivered fresh lists of demands. It’s hardly a surprise Pyongyang labeled him a “gangster.” There was more in the same vein.

Woodward provides readers with new and fresh insights into just how close the World was to its first — and maybe last — nuclear war 12 months on from Trump’s election, and confirmation that those around him subverted his intentions when they were at odds with their own political tastes.

Woodward’s emphasis on covert action is the missing leg. It does explain the obsession with the internal dynamics of the Workers’ Party of Korea leadership.

At times, the U.S. was too clever by half and at others, totally oblivious. Fascinating, but partial. One suspects the sins of omission and commission reflect Trump, not Woodward.

In the book, North Korea’s 2019 New Year’s Address — Kim’s last best offer to Trump — goes unremarked. Meanwhile, Hanoi fails to make the index while Singapore makes it nine times.

Readers “unlearn” things about Hanoi that they thought they already knew. The summit does get a single page, even if it’s not registered: The book details Trump offering Kim a movie or round of golf as redress for no deal, as well as a barren journey after Trump ambushes Kim and ups the demand to five nuclear sites rather than the one on the table.

As previously stated, “Rage” tells the world more about Trump than what happened in history. That’s certainly true for the book’s coverage of North Korea, and one suspects the same is true for the other threads Woodward covers running through the Trump presidency. Kim’s letters are titillating rather than revealing. The president is more obsessed with the wrapping than the box. Pictures of Trump’s step into the North are laid before visitors as policy progress is neatly sidestepped.

But with all of that said, “Rage” needs a health warning on the spine, for it is addictive. Edited by Kelly Kasulis and James Fretwell