Weighing the risks in responding to North Korea

The Korean peninsula has been divided since the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War. South Korea has always faced a hostile, antidemocratic, heavily armed, nation just an hour’s drive from the capital of Seoul. Now North Korea’s pursuit of a functional warhead that can reach American shores is a major security threat to the United States.

North Korea is a highly centralized communist state with about 25 million people and almost no real GDP growth. According to the State Department, the North’s annual military expenditures average about $4 billion, which accounts for around a quarter of the country’s average $17 billion gross domestic product. China is North Korea’s most important ally, biggest trading partner and main source of food and energy.

Take away North Korea’s nuclear weapons and it would be regarded as a failed state. In contrast, South Korea is a high-tech, industrialized economic power fully integrated into the global economy.

North Korea’s nuclear threat to its neighbors, America’s interests, and the rest of the world has escalated. Earlier this month it fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast, provocatively landing about 200 miles from the mainland. The country’s missile program has progressed from tactical rockets in the 1960s and 70s to short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s and 90s.

The launches violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions and represent a direct challenge to the international community. The test launch apparently was a response to annual United States and South Korea military exercises that the North regards as a rehearsal for an invasion.

North Korea said its launches were training for a strike on U.S. bases in Japan. It appears that North Korea is on a trajectory to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States, something President Trump has vowed would not happen.

The day after North Korea launched the ballistic missiles toward Japan, the United States deployed missile launchers and other military hardware needed to create an anti-missile defense system in South Korea to intercept and destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The North’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile development and testing program pose a security threat to the region and the global order. Decades of economic sanctions, diplomacy, and sweet words have failed to topple the neo-Stalinist hermit kingdom or force a rollback of its nuclear and missile programs.

The underlying assumption behind economic sanctions is that North Korea’s leaders care about their country’s economy and the deprivations endured by their civilian population. They understand that in chess, the pawns are always sacrificed first.

Tightening the economic noose around North Korea bought time without using American muscle, but at the cost of delaying hard decisions and creating an unacceptable risk to America’s national security. In turn, the breathing space gave North Korea time to develop its weapons program. It’s wise to remember soft power is irrelevant unless underwritten by hard power.

The North Korean mess is another example of U.S. administrations kicking the can down the road, then discovering at the 11th hour that they have run out of road. President Trump is dealing with a more dangerous North Korea than did any of his predecessors and has little room to navigate.

His options are limited and all involve risks, trade-offs and hard choices. They include continuing to increase the use of sanctions and hoping the cumulative effect will work, engaging in high-pressure diplomacy with China to rein in its client state, or cutting a deal directly with North Korea. All should be weighed against the risk of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Then there is the high-risk military option: a limited surprise attack on this rogue state. Or even allowing South Korea and Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Sadly, the most likely outcome may be learning to live with a clear and present danger to the United States and its allies in northeast Asia

Originally Published: March 18, 2017

Technology transforming the automobile industry

It’s obvious that the automobile industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution. Manufacturers and technology companies are working together to reinvent the automobile, much like the way Apple reinvented itself from a computer company to a cultural force or even how Madonna has remained a media icon by constantly adapting to new trends.

Although new technologies and consumer markets are still in their gestation stage, Ford, for example, is making major investments that will transform it from a company that just makes cars to one that touches all aspects of mobility.

Technology companies see a driverless world of autonomous or robotic vehicles as a software and artificial intelligence play. For them, the car is a platform, a commodity, like a cell-phone body. You can get the car body anywhere; the real smarts are in the software. The car may be the ultimate mobile device.

As the value of each vehicle becomes more dependent upon the software it contains, tech companies may be in a better position to capture this value than the automakers. New technologies are redefining boundaries between software firms and the lumbering dinosaurs of the automobile industry.

Opinions differ as to when widespread adoption of fully autonomous and commercially viable vehicles will occur. They could dot our roadways in five-to-ten years but saturation will take several decades.

Market penetration may not be uniform; it could start in trucks, for example, before private cars, or even as part of an on-demand commercial ride sharing fleet. In any case, it is not too early to start planning for the roadway management challenges that will be created by autonomous trucks and cars sharing the roads with driver-operated vehicles.

Autonomous vehicle proponents claim they hold the potential to dramatically reduce traffic casualties by eliminating human error. Activities like speeding and driving while texting are deadly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says human error is a factor in 94 percent of fatal crashes. According to the National Safety Council, as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, a 6 percent increase over 2015. An estimated 4.6 million people were seriously injured.

When we begin seeing fully driverless cars hinges as much on the regulatory environment as advances in self-driving technology. Autonomous vehicles operating without a steering wheel, brake pedals, and human intervention pose questions about whether regulations can catch up to technological advances.

Market participants argue that realizing the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles will require a single national standard, not 50 sets of rules. Automakers complain that states are moving ahead with their own regulations, creating the potential for a confusing “patchwork” of laws under which autonomous vehicles operate. As of December, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Utah, and the District of Columbia had enacted laws authorizing autonomous vehicle testing under certain conditions. Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have active testing programs but no legislation.

On the same day Uber started to test its self-driving Volvos near its Bay Area headquarters, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles ordered the firm to stop because its cars did not have the proper registration for such testing. Uber loaded the cars onto a self-driving truck and sent them to Arizona.

Michigan now allows companies to test self-driving vehicles without steering wheels, pedals or a human that can take over in an emergency. In contrast, California has a rule that self-driving vehicles can only hit the road with a safety driver.

It is uncertain how soon fully autonomous vehicles will enter the mainstream. When they do, avoiding the pushback that, for example, on demand mobility firms such as Uber and Lyft have faced in a variety of cities will require clarifying the proper role of all levels of government within the regulatory landscape. If autonomous vehicles are safer than their driver-operated counterparts, it is imperative that regulators not risk preventable injuries and deaths by unnecessarily delaying their deployment.

Originally Published: March 4, 2017