What to read about North Korea

January 4, 2018


North Korea may be the most secretive and totalitarian country in the world, as well as the wackiest. As a result, it inspires some of the best fiction and nonfiction, so the upside of the risk of nuclear war is an excuse to dip into literature that offers glimpses of this other world — and some insights into how to deal with it.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland since the famine of the late 1990s, and many are writing memoirs recounting their daily lives and extraordinary escapes. A leading example is IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, paper, $17) by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Park is a young woman whose father was a cigarette smuggler and black market trader. As a girl, she believed in the regime (as did her mother), for life was steeped in propaganda and anti-Americanism. Even in her math class, “a typical problem would go like this: ‘If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?’”

What opened Park’s eyes was in part a pirated copy of the film “Titanic.” The government tries hard to ban any foreign television, internet or even music, and North Korean radios, which don’t have dials, can receive only local stations. But the black market fills the gap, with handymen who will tweak your radio to get Chinese stations, and with illegal thumb drives full of South Korean soap operas.

I’m among those who argue that we in the West should do more to support this kind of smuggling, because it’s a way to sow dissatisfaction. Indeed, what moved Park was the love story in “Titanic”: “I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”

In the end, Park’s father was arrested for smuggling, and the family’s life collapsed. Park and her sister went hungry and had to drop out of school, and she survived eating insects and wild plants.

So at age 13, Park and her mother crossed illegally into China — and immediately into the hands of human traffickers who were as scary as the North Korean secret police. They raped her mother and eventually Park as well, and both struggled in the netherworld in which North Koreans are stuck in China — because the Chinese authorities regularly detain them and send them home to face prison camp. Park and her mother were lucky, finally managing to sneak into Mongolia and then on to South Korea.

Another powerful memoir is THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES: A North Korean Defector’s Story (William Collins, paper, $15.99) by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. She is from Hyesan, the same town as Park. It’s an area on the Chinese border where smuggling is rampant, where people know a bit about the outside world and where disaffection, consequently, is greater than average.

Still, Lee’s home, like every home, had portraits of the country’s first two leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, on the wall. (The grandson now in power, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t yet made his portrait ubiquitous.) Lee begins her story recounting how her father dashed into the family home as it was burning to rescue not family valuables but rather the portraits of the first leaders. There’s an entire genre of heroic propaganda stories in North Korea of people risking their lives to save such portraits.

Like other kids, Lee grew up in an environment of formal reverence for the Kim dynasty. At supper she would say a kind of grace — to “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” — before picking up her chopsticks.

“Everything we learned about Americans was negative,” she writes. “In cartoons, they were snarling jackals. In the propaganda posters they were as thin as sticks with hook noses and blond hair. We were told they smelled bad. They had turned South Korea into a ‘hell on earth’ and were maintaining a puppet government there. The teachers never missed an opportunity to remind us of their villainy.

“‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘If you do, he’ll claim North Korean children are beggars. Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’”

Hmm. No wonder my attempts at interviewing North Korean kids have never been very fruitful.

Lee escaped to China at age 17 and started a new life in Shanghai but remained in touch with her family. One day her mom called from North Korea. “I’ve got a few kilos of ice,” or crystal meth, she said, and she asked for Lee’s help in selling it in China. “In her world, the law was upside down,” Lee says, explaining how corruption and cynicism had shredded the social fabric of North Korea. “People had to break the law to live.”

It’s fair to wonder how accurate these books are, for there’s some incentive when selling a memoir to embellish adventures. I don’t know, and in the case of “In Order to Live,” skeptics have noted inconsistencies in the stories and raised legitimate questions.

So how did North Korea come to be the most bizarre country in the world? For the history, one can’t do better than Bradley K. Martin’s magisterial UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $29.99). Martin recounts how a minor anti-Japanese guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung came to be installed by the Russians as leader of the half of the Korean peninsula they controlled after World War II. Martin discovers that Kim’s father was a Christian and a church organist, and Kim himself attended church for a time. That didn’t last, and Kim later banned pretty much all religion — though he became something of a god himself, quite a trick for an atheist. But do North Koreans really believe in this “religion”?

Judging from defectors I’ve interviewed and much of the literature on North Korea, many do — especially older people, farmers and those farther from the North Korean border. That’s partly a tribute to the country’s shameless propaganda, which B.R. Myers explores in his interesting book, THE CLEANEST RACE: How North Koreans See Themselves — And Why It Matters (Melville House, paper, $16). He notes that North Korea produced a poster showing a Christian missionary murdering a Korean child and calling for “revenge against the Yankee vampires” — at the same time that the United States was the country’s single largest donor of humanitarian aid. Myers argues that North Koreans have focused on what he calls “race-based paranoid nationalism,” including bizarre ideas about how Koreans are “the cleanest race” — hence the title — bullied and persecuted by outsiders.

For a more sympathetic view of North Korea’s emergence, check out various books by Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago historian, like KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History (W.W. Norton, paper, $19.95). Cumings argues that North Korea is to some degree a genuine expression of Korean nationalism. I think Cumings is nuts when he says, “it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility” for the division of the Korean peninsula. But his work is worth reading — unless you have high blood pressure, in which case consult a physician first.

Whatever the uncertainties about the accuracy of recent North Korean memoirs, it’s absolutely clear that some stories about North Korea are fabricated — because they’re fiction. Today’s political crisis with Pyongyang is a great excuse to read Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON (Random House, paper, $17), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. Johnson tells the story of a military man turned prisoner turned celebrity turned villain, dealing for a while with utterly confused American visitors — an account so implausible and bizarre that it’s a perfect narrative for North Korea.

The other fiction that I’d recommend is the Inspector O series by James Church, the pseudonym of a well-respected Western intelligence expert on North Korea. Inspector O is a North Korean police officer who investigates murders, a bank robbery and various other offenses, periodically dealing with foreigners and turning down chances to defect.

Inspector O is a complex, nuanced figure who understands that the regime he serves is corrupt, brutal and mendacious, but he remains loyal. That’s because he is a deeply patriotic and nationalistic Korean, and he resents the patronizing scorn of bullying Westerners. I think many North Korean officials today are an echo of the conflicted nationalist Inspector O.

Canada’s Foreign Policy: Middle Power Engagement with Asia-Pacific in Trade and Peace

April 23, 2017

Canada’s Foreign Policy: Middle Power Engagement with Asia-Pacific in Trade and Peace

by Adam P MacDonald


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Ever since Washington unveiled its ‘rebalance’ strategy for the Asia Pacific, debate has emerged in Canada over the need for a similar ‘mini-pivot’ towards the region. Despite its large Western coastline, Canada does not self-identify as a Pacific state due to enduring ties to Europe and the Atlantic.

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But East Asia is increasingly the focus of Canada’s efforts to diversify trade partners and secure access to emerging markets. This is exemplified by the 2015 Canada–Korea Free Trade Agreement, China recently becoming Canada’s second largest trading partner, and Ottawa’s support for and participation in the now terminated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.

Still, growing economic relations in East Asia have not been accompanied by any sustained political or strategic engagement despite the abundance of security interests of direct relevance for Canada. These interests include promoting global and regional stability amid shifting power configurations, resolving outstanding regional maritime disputes and North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities (motivating renewed discussions about Ottawa joining Washington’s Ballistic Missile Defence program). East Asian states’ growing interest and involvement in the Arctic — particularly China — is also a source of speculation and debate within Canadian strategic circles.

Successive governments have spoken eloquently of Canada’s long and enduring interests and involvement in East Asia. But Canada’s presence has been sporadic and on a downward slope since its zenith in the mid-1990s. Canadian engagement with the region has been ‘fair-weather’, whereby the degree of participation is not determined by enduring interests but as a function of available resources and the absence of competing foreign policy demands.

But there may be glimpses of a more concerted and sustained Canadian effort to remain regularly engaged with East Asia. Prime Minister Trudeau’s high-profile visits to Japan and China within the first year of his tenure along with the ongoing six-month deployment of two Canadian naval warships to the region are positive signs. Defence officials, in particular, explain the recent deployment as signalling the strategic importance of the region to Canada and as reinforcing a commitment to regional peace and security. Despite the navy’s declining size and capability, major deployments to East Asia are planned for the next two years.

While it is premature to extrapolate any emerging trends from these plans, a number of scholars advocate regular naval deployments for Canada to pursue maritime diplomacy as an ambitious but attainable avenue to achieve staying power in the region. This would also provide in-theatre capability for Canada to conduct a wide spectrum of operations ranging from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

But even with the recent comprehensive refit of Canada’s last remaining major class of surface ships and a large-scale shipbuilding strategy to recapitalise the Canadian Navy, Canada’s naval forces will remain highly limited both in numbers and capabilities for the next 10–15 years.

Maritime diplomacy enables and supports but does not in and of itself constitute a regional strategy. While Ottawa is in the midst of a defence policy review largely focused on constructing a fiscal framework for major procurement projects, there appears to be little appetite to conduct a foreign policy review to guide and inform the use of military power in Canada’s international affairs.

Some have voiced aversion to any increased strategic interaction in East Asia, arguing the presence of even a small Canadian naval force will unnecessarily antagonise China and hamper economic relations. It would also put warships at risk in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment, be seen as an unwelcome interference in regional issues, and ultimately as a disjointed venture given the now uncertain trajectory of US regional policy.

Despite some reasonable concerns, Canada should also not avoid the region due to fears of being dragged into a local conflict or that national interests do not warrant such an investment. Canada has direct economic and political ties to the region and has a larger interest as a middle power supportive of a rules-based international system. Canada has also been criticised for too little engagement with the region, not too much. But such a maritime diplomacy strategy also requires Ottawa to acknowledge the reciprocal freedoms of other states to access maritime regions sensitive to Canada, especially the Arctic.

Any augmentation of strategic interactions also presents the challenge of perceptions that Ottawa’s presence is an extension of US policy in the region, especially regarding how military power is employed. While a close ally with the United States and sharing common international interests, Canada is never going to be a major player in the region given its limited ability to project power and influence. Ottawa is ill-suited to adopt similar strategies to Washington in this respect.

Instead, Canada does have an ability to participate in the regional political discourse, especially regarding areas of tension. For example, as an Arctic state, Canada could positively contribute to advising on structures for joint management by competing claimants over disputed areas, such as in the South China Sea. But Ottawa should not confuse a regional strategy with a strategy specifically about this or other disputed areas. Canada must first build and strengthen relations with the region to promote the necessary political conditions to address outstanding territorial and maritime disputes.

Maritime diplomacy is not the only avenue towards increasing relations with East Asia. But it does allow Canadian leaders to signal a visible presence and commitment to the region and creates an impetus for Ottawa to construct a more comprehensive, clear and independent foreign engagement strategy. Whether the recent dispatching of warships is the start of a real determination to shed its fair-weather status is yet to be seen.

Adam P MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.

Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State–A Good and Refreshing Choice

December 14, 2016

COMMENT: Mr. Tillerson is an excellent choice given his wide international experience as Exxon’s CEO. Politicians in Washington DC should come off their high horses and vote to confirm the President-Elect’s nominee. It would be disappointing if the US Senate voted against his confirmation because politicians like John McCain and others, democrats and republican alike, would oppose his nomination on the grounds that he is perceived as having a cosy relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.

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Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio

Are they assuming that he is not a patriot and will, therefore, compromise his country’s interests to Russia? How more naive can these experienced legislators can be. Former Secretaries of State Condolezza Rice and James Baker III and ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates think he is an excellent choice because of his wide commercial and managerial experience. Managing a huge State Department bureaucracy is a challenge and to my mind, no one is better qualified than Mr. Tillerson to manage it. –Din Merican

Rex W. Tillerson is Secretary of State–A Good and Refreshing Choice

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday officially selected Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to be his Secretary of State. In saying he will nominate Mr. Tillerson, the President-Elect is dismissing bipartisan concerns that the globe-trotting leader of an energy giant has a too-cozy relationship with Vladimir V. Putin, the President of Russia.

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A statement from Mr. Trump’s transition office early Tuesday brought to an end his public and chaotic deliberations over the nation’s top diplomat — a process that at times veered from rewarding Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of his most loyal supporters, to musing about whether Mitt Romney, one of his most outspoken critics, might be forgiven.

Instead, Mr. Trump has decided to risk what looks to be a bruising confirmation fight in the Senate.

In the past several days, Republican and Democratic lawmakers had warned that Mr. Tillerson would face intense scrutiny over his two-decade relationship with Russia, which awarded him its Order of Friendship in 2013, and with Mr. Putin.

The hearings will also put a focus on Exxon Mobil’s business dealings with Moscow. The company has billions of dollars in oil contracts that can go forward only if the United States lifts sanctions against Russia, and Mr. Tillerson’s stake in Russia’s energy industry could create a very blurry line between his interests as an oilman and his role as America’s leading diplomat.

Mr. Tillerson has been publicly skeptical about the sanctions, which have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in Russia, including an agreement with the state oil company to explore and pump in Siberia that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on Saturday that Mr. Tillerson’s connections to Mr. Putin were “a matter of concern to me” and promised to examine them closely if he were nominated.

“Vladimir Putin is a thug, bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” Mr. McCain said on Fox News.

Mr. Trump has fanned speculation about his choice for Secretary of State for weeks. In the end, he discarded not only Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney, but also an endlessly changing list that at times included Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee; David H. Petraeus, the former Army general and C.I.A. director; and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and presidential candidate in 2012.

Mr. Romney, Mr. Petraeus and Mr. Corker, the three leading runners-up, all received calls late Monday informing them of Mr. Trump’s decision, according to people familiar with the President-Elect’s final choice.

He settled on Mr. Tillerson, a deal maker who has spent the past four decades at Exxon, much of it in search of oil and gas agreements in troubled parts of the world. A native of Wichita Falls, Tex., who speaks with a strong Texas twang, Mr. Tillerson, 64, runs a company with operations in about 50 countries, and has cut deals to expand business in Venezuela, Qatar, Kurdistan and elsewhere.

If confirmed as Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson would face a new challenge: nurturing alliances around the world that are built less on deals and more on diplomacy.

That could prove to be a special test when it comes to Russia, where Mr. Tillerson has fought for years to strengthen connections through business negotiations worth billions of dollars. Under his leadership, Exxon has entered into joint ventures with Rosneft, a Russian-backed oil company, and donated to the country’s health and social programs.

In his new role, Mr. Tillerson would have to manage the difficult relationship between the United States and Mr. Putin’s Russia, including the economic sanctions imposed after Moscow intervened in Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Last month, President Obama and European leaders agreed to keep sanctions in place until Mr. Putin agrees to a cease-fire and to the withdrawal of heavy weapons from front lines in eastern Ukraine.

Other Republicans who have challenged Mr. Tillerson’s potential selection include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who expressed concern in a Twitter post on Monday about his relationship with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Trump favored Mr. Giuliani, the former New York Mayor, initially, but quickly grew weary of his penchant for drawing outsize media attention. Mr. Trump was also troubled by reports of Mr. Giuliani’s business entanglements overseas. And some of the president-elect’s closest advisers, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, saw Mr. Giuliani as a poor fit for the job.

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s cabinet and top staff are shaping up to be a mix of wealthy Washington outsiders, Republican insiders and former military officers who have been critical of the Obama administration.

That led to interest in Mr. Romney, who had called Mr. Trump a “fraud” and a “phony” during the campaign. Mr. Romney had also highlighted Russia as a danger to United States interests during the 2012 race.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney made peace, meeting twice and speaking periodically by phone. But some of Mr. Trump’s advisers, including his last campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, warned publicly in a series of television interviews that some of his supporters would quickly drift away if Mr. Romney were chosen for the job.

Mr. Tillerson emerged as a contender on the strong recommendations of James A. Baker III, the Secretary of State under President George H W Bush, and Robert M. Gates, the former Defense Secretary, according to a person briefed on the process.

Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, argued strongly for Mr. Tillerson, and the President-Elect was intrigued.

Mr. Trump met with Mr. Tillerson for more than two hours on Saturday at Trump Tower in Manhattan. To his aides, Mr. Trump described Mr. Tillerson as in a different “league” than his other options.

Mr. Romney acknowledged late Monday night in a Facebook post that he had been passed over, writing, “It was an honor to have been considered for Secretary of State of our great country.”

“My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening,” Mr. Romney wrote.

The New Muhyiddin Yassin baptised by BERSIH 5.0?

November 2, 2016

The New Muhyiddin Yassin baptised by BERSIH 5.0?

by Mariam Mokhtar


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Former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin speaks to the crowd at the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur November 19, 2016. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

If ever there was a rousing speech to stir the masses to fight for Malaysia and eject Najib Abdul Razak and his cronies, this had to be it. This was the ‘mother-of-all-speeches’, not just because of its content, and delivery, but more important because of the man who made it.

Who would have thought in their wildest dreams that former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Muhyiddin Yassin, who uttered the infamous words, “I am Malay first, Malaysian second”, would have become the latest darling of Malaysia?

One could easily argue that the speech, which he made from the back of a truck in the shadow of the Petronas Twin Towers, was the most important political speech of Muhyiddin’s life.

Having worked his way up to the post of DPM, then vilified for his ‘I am Malay first’ speech, then unceremoniously chucked out of Najib’s cabinet for opposing him, Muhyiddin has made a spectacular political comeback.

He said, “I must appeal to all of you (to) set aside all our differences, so that we may face (BN) on a one-to-one basis.We want an honest and clean government.”

His speech was spontaneous and off the cuff. There were no teleprompters. He spoke in English and Malay, sending the crowd wild with jubilation.

Who would have thought that the former UMNO Baru strongman would demand clean elections, and a democratic government?

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Such was his punchy delivery that he overshadowed former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had spoken before him. The former DPM has undergone a political rebirth from his political pariahdom. His reincarnation has been both elating and confusing.

Some of the nuggets in his speech, were; We must see change happen, in the next general election. The present government does not care about you, they only care about themselves. They have sold our pride. Malaysians must show that we are united, irrespective of where we come from.

Let us hope he has been sincere and is not just spouting platitudes. He spoke about a fair, just government for our children and our grandchildren. “The time is up for BN. We must dictate the future of the country. This is the time for us to work together. Malaysia belongs to all of us.”

“Time is up for the cronies, Riza Aziz, Jho Low and the ministers who speak nonsense. Berani kerana benar.”

A few days before the BERSIH 5 march, the Malay NGO Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM), announced that the Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi) should investigate Muhyiddin for his alleged affair.

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You just wonder what goes on in the minds of the JMM office-bearers. Are they obsessed with sex and time-wasting, or are they so obtuse that they cannot see that the nation is undergoing its most serious peacetime political crisis in living memory?

If JMM had any sense, and if they were of any use, they would have demanded that the religious authorities investigate Najib, his cabinet ministers, the zakat and Tabung Haji funds, and the mosque administrations to see the depth of corruption and abuses of public funds that have been allowed to go unchallenged.

Dr M will always be a crowd-puller

The other prominent ‘M’ for BERSIH 5 is former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who rushed home from a conference in Sudan to ensure he was able to participate in BERSIH 5. Mahathir has and will always be a crowd-puller.

Anyone with an elderly person in the family would be worried by Dr M’s gruelling schedule, but credit to the nonagerian, who was able to set aside his tiredness to come before Malaysians and encourage them to demand a clean and fair government.

Again, who would have thought that in our lifetimes, we would see the man, who once opposed protests and dissent, to declare that Najib must be taken down.

What a pity that his efforts to galvanise Malaysians towards reform have been dismissed by Najib, who said that Dr M likes making U-turns.

Finally, the most feared and respected ‘M’ is Maria Chin Abdullah. A fearless defender of human rights, a champion of women’s causes, and a mother of three. She does not present a threat to a clean government. All she, BERSIH 5 and decent Malaysians want are clean, free and fair elections and a return to good governance and democracy.

Locked in solitary confinement, in a 15ft by 8ft windowless cell, with two light bulbs on 24-hours a day, Maria’s comforts are a cold cement floor and wooden pangkin (bench).

So, why would the red-shirt thugs be ordered to terrorise all of Malaysia, and cultivate a culture of fear in the run-up to BERSIH 5? Why was her arrest ordered?

It is because Maria has the secret to the remaining ‘M’ – the largely sleeping dragon, the Malaysian rakyat, which she is trying to awaken.

Maria has the power to unite all Malaysians to oust Najib. That is why Maria has to be locked away in a secret location, detained for 28 days under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma).

She is not a terrorist; she is a freedom fighter. If Maria is free, Najib’s political future is at risk. No wonder Najib is afraid.


Donald Trump’s Hip Shooting Foreign Policy Babble

March 29, 2016

Donald Trump’s Hip Shooting Foreign Policy Babble

The Opinion Pages | Editorial

Donald Trump might use nuclear weapons to go after Islamic State terrorists. Or maybe not. In a recent spate of interviews, including with The Times, he was unable or unwilling to clarify his disturbing views on this and other critical national security issues, which sometimes shift from one minute to the next.

The recent horrific terrorist attacks around the world have provided a new opportunity for Mr. Trump to fan fears and throw out his alarming prescriptions for dealing with the world’s most complex challenges. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump was asked if he would use tactical nuclear weapons against the Islamic State. “I’m never going to rule anything out — I wouldn’t want to say. Even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to tell you that because at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would use them,” he said on the Bloomberg Politics program “With All Due Respect.”

He was more measured in his comments to The Times on Friday, saying nuclear weapons are “the biggest problem the world has” and he would use such weapons only as “an absolute last step.” Even if Mr. Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, doesn’t really believe that nuclear weapons should be used against a terrorist group, the fact that he has voiced it lends weight to this insane notion and could make it easier for other nuclear-armed states to think about that possibility.

The consequences of using a nuclear weapon in terms of lives lost, physical destruction and cost to American moral standing would be devastating. The United States and Russia have significantly reduced their nuclear arsenals, and the threat that either would ever use the weapons has greatly receded, in part because advanced conventional weapons can destroy almost any military target. Equally bizarre was Mr. Trump’s casual attitude in endorsing the idea of Japan and South Korea developing their own nuclear weapons, which would reverse America’s longstanding efforts to prevent the number of nuclear-armed states from expanding.

Mr. Trump also challenged decades of American policy by calling NATO “obsolete.” Since the Cold War, the alliance has undergone reforms and remains the primary organization that can deal with military threats. It is central to the stability of Europe, which is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, weak economies and the flood of refugees from the Syrian war. With Russia’s aggressive movements in Ukraine and threats to the Baltics, this is no time to suggest that Washington is rethinking its strongest commitments to its allies. Although Mr. Trump said he doesn’t want to pull America out of NATO, he said it has to be changed so the United States bears less of the cost.

Mr. Trump is confronting most of these issues for the first time, and many of his thoughts are contradictory and shockingly ignorant. In speaking with The Times, for instance, he complained that one problem with the Iran nuclear deal is that American businesses are now losing out to Europe on lucrative deals with Iran. He did not know that that is because Congress has insisted on keeping American sanctions in place.

Mr. Trump claims he is not an isolationist and wants to “make America great again.” It is hard to see how he achieves that when he describes a completely unhinged view of international engagement that denigrates Muslims and other foreigners and international organizations, including the United Nations. Mostly, his vision of cooperation with allies depends largely on how much they would pay the United States for protection.

In his interviews, Mr. Trump has said “unpredictability” is central to his thinking. He seems to have no inkling that operating in a dangerous world — one in which the United States is militarily involved in many conflict zones — requires some ability to communicate intelligently and forthrightly with both allies and enemies. It also seems to have escaped him that American voters deserve to know what a candidate is actually proposing.

A version of this editorial appears in print on March 29, 2016, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Dangerous Babble on Foreign Policy. Today’s Paper