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The Morning Dispatch: North Korea’s Nuclear Escalation
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The Morning Dispatch: North Korea’s Nuclear Escalation

Plus: An explainer on Biden’s pot pardons.

File footage of a North Korean missile test on September 29, 2022. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.)

Happy Thursday! We’re grateful a copyright dispute between photographer Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation ended up before the Supreme Court, because we learned in oral arguments yesterday that Justice Clarence Thomas was a big Prince fan “in the ‘80s.”

“No longer?” Justice Elena Kagan interjected. 

“Well,” Thomas responded, smiling, “only on Thursday nights.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Officials with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said Wednesday they had detained eight individuals—five Russian, three Ukrainian or Armenian—on suspicion that they were involved in the detonation last weekend that killed four people and partially destroyed the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting mainland Russia to Crimea. Russian officials also accused Ukrainian military intelligence officials, including their chief Kyrylo Budanov, of orchestrating the sabotage. No group or entity has formally claimed responsibility for the explosion, but Ukrainian officials have openly celebrated its success in recent days.
  • Nearing the end of their fourth week, the Iranian protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody have continued to rage despite internet blackouts and vicious crackdowns from security forces, with strikes spreading from the oil industry to shopkeepers in one of the country’s most populous cities. At least 201 people have died in the demonstrations, according to the Oslo-based humanitarian organization Iran Human Rights, including 23 children. The European Union is expected to impose sanctions next week on at least 15 people and entities linked to Amini’s death, and U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday the Iran nuclear deal is “not our focus right now.” Instead, Price continued, the Biden administration is “shining a spotlight on what [Iranian protesters are] doing and supporting them in the ways we can.”
  • The Biden administration released its long-anticipated National Security Strategy on Wednesday, outlining its vision for the “decisive decade” ahead and the strategic competition that will “shape the future of the international order.” The document—which every administration is required to issue—describes “out-competing China and constraining Russia” as two of the United States’ greatest challenges in the coming years, and highlights the importance of diplomacy to build the strongest possible coalitions to deal not only with those threats, but also with cross-border issues like climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, and inflation. “The need for a strong and purposeful American role in the world has never been greater,” Biden wrote.
  • The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday it had reached an agreement with the Mexican government that, effective immediately, will allow U.S. border officials to expel thousands of Venezuelan migrants entering the United States illegally to Mexico, rather than release them into the U.S. to await their court proceedings. Contingent on Mexico continuing to accept those migrants, the United States will also introduce a limited humanitarian parole program, allowing up to 24,000 qualifying Venezuelans who apply and are accepted for entry to travel to the United States by air directly, relieving pressure at the border.
  • Hours after the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer and Moderna’s updated, bivalent COVID-19 boosters for use in children as young as 5 and 6 years old, respectively, the Centers for Disease Control on Wednesday formally recommended the shots for those younger ages. Per the CDC, just 11.5 million Americans—about 4 percent of those eligible—had received an updated COVID-19 booster shot as of last week, despite the Biden administration securing 170 million doses heading into the fall.
  • Citing “people familiar,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday that federal investigators have gathered witness accounts—corroborated by security-camera footage—indicating that former President Donald Trump directed employees to move boxes of documents at Mar-a-Lago to his residence on the property after he and his team received a subpoena requiring them to turn over any classified material that remained in their possession. The employee who was working at Mar-a-Lago is reportedly cooperating with the Justice Department and has been interviewed by federal agents multiple times.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday that the producer price index—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging their customers—increased 0.4 percent in September on a seasonally adjusted basis, after decreasing 0.2 percent in August and increasing 0.4 percent in July. On an annual basis, PPI inflation continued to come down from record highs, but remained hot at 8.5 percent. New consumer price index (CPI) inflation data for September will be released later this morning.
  • The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reported Wednesday the average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage reached 6.81 percent last week, the highest level since 2006. The MBA’s Unadjusted Purchase Index—which measures the volume of mortgage loan applications—decreased 2 percent week-over-week, and is down 39 percent from the same week one year ago.
  • A Connecticut jury ordered Alex Jones, a right-wing infotainment host, to pay $965 million in compensatory damages to the families of Sandy Hook school shooting victims whom he spent years defaming by claiming the 2012 massacre was staged by crisis actors to create a pretext for confiscating guns. Jones—who vowed to appeal the decision and whose company has already declared bankruptcy—owes a separate set of Sandy Hook parents in Texas about $50 million, and could face additional punitive damages from a judge next month.

North Korea Is Up to Something

Kim Jong-un has had a busy few weeks. In addition to breaking the internet by stepping out in a breathtaking white tunic and daring straw safari hat, North Korean state media reports the Respected Comrade has been personally guiding a series of military drills and missile launches. “Expressing great satisfaction over the result of the test-fire,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) read Wednesday, “the Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un highly appreciated the high reaction capabilities of our nuclear combat forces which proved again their full preparedness for actual war.”

With the Western world hyperfocused on the nuclear threat from Russia, North Korea has quietly launched more than 40 ballistic and cruise missiles this year across two dozen launch events—and at least 12 of those tests have come in the past two-and-a-half weeks. From a single short-range ballistic missile on September 25 ahead of planned joint naval exercises by South Korean and American forces, to a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan on October 3, to two long-range strategic cruise missiles yesterday, North Korea is clearly up to something. On Monday, KCNA told us what. 

In response to the aforementioned joint naval exercises—and “unreasonable and provocative remarks” from South Korea’s military chief—top North Korean leaders decided to “organize military drills under the simulation of an actual war at different levels in order to check and improve the reliability and combat power of our state war deterrence and send a strong military reaction warning to the enemies,” KCNA reported. The September 25 launch? Designed to practice loading tactical nuclear warheads at a silo under a reservoir. September 28’s test? Training to “neutralize” South Korea’s airports. October 6 was about testing rocket launchers and tactical ballistic missiles designed to target enemy military command facilities, and October 9 launch simulated a strike on an enemy’s port. 

“Through seven times of launching drills of the tactical nuclear operation units,” the KCNA readout said, “the actuality of the nuclear combat forces of our state and its militant effectiveness and actual war capabilities, which is fully ready to hit and wipe out the set objects at the intended places in the set time, were displayed to the full.”

Why Pyongyang felt the need to demonstrate that now has been an intense focus of debate, but Bruce Klingner—a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea—told The Dispatch this week the why matters much less than the what.  “North Korea often gives reasons, which always put the blame on the U.S. or South Korea,” Klingner said. This time, it was Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the region, and/or the resumption of U.S.-South Korea combined military exercises, and/or the repositioning of a U.S. aircraft carrier. “Some experts will then say, ‘Oh, if only the U.S. hadn’t done those things, North Korea wouldn’t have done this. But North Korea has done some 40 or more missile launches this year, they did 26 in 2019, and then a few in 2020 and 2021. Even North Korea couldn’t claim that every one of those was a response to a U.S. or allied action.”

It was more of a codification of existing policy than anything else, but North Korea’s parliament—the Supreme People’s Assembly—passed legislation last month governing when and why the country would deploy nuclear weapons. According to KCNA’s writeup of the session, the Kim regime can use nuclear weapons not only “in case an attack by nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction was launched or drew near,” but also in case of “a fatal military attack against important strategic objects of the state,” “the need for operation for preventing the expansion and protraction of a war and taking the initiative in the war,” or “catastrophic crisis to the existence of the state and safety of the people.”

North Korea’s capabilities are continually improving. The October 3 IRBM over Japan reportedly flew about 2,800 miles—the longest distance ever traveled by a DPRK weapon, far enough to reach the American territory of Guam—and the New York Times reports the country has “rapidly expanded its nuclear program and modernized its missile fleet” in recent years. That includes shorter-range weapons, too, striking fear in the hearts of many on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula—and leading some to call for the redeployment of the tactical nuclear weapons the U.S. withdrew from South Korea in the early 1990s. South Korea does not have its own nuclear weapons.

When asked recently if he’d considered requesting such a move—which a U.S. State Department official pooh-poohed last year—South Korea’s new conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol declined to answer. “There are various views being expressed in the government and private sectors of our country and the United States regarding the (U.S.) extended deterrence, and we are carefully listening to those opinions and closely examining various possibilities,” he said. The debate is about to get a lot more real, as the United States and its allies believe North Korea is on the verge of conducting its seventh-ever nuclear test—and first since 2017.

“It won’t be another huge blast like November 2017, when it was 200 or more kilotons,” Klingner predicted, c0ntrasting North Korea’s last test with the 15-20 kiloton nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. “It’ll probably be a small nuclear explosion, and it’ll be the testing of this new generation of battlefield, tactical warheads.”

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price pledged the DPRK would face “significant additional costs” if it went through with a seventh nuclear test. “We have made clear ourselves, we’ve made clear bilaterally with our South Korean allies, we’ve made clear trilaterally with our South Korean and Japanese allies, that there will be additional costs imposed on the DPRK if it goes forward with a seventh nuclear test,” he said.

Biden’s Last Dance With Mary Jane

Late last week, President Joe Biden made waves by announcing he was pardoning everyone convicted under federal law of simple marijuana possession and urging state governors across the country to follow suit. He also directed the Department of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to reconsider how marijuana is scheduled as a controlled substance.

It sounded like a huge deal. But is it really? In an explainer on the site today, Price digs into the relatively narrow scope of Biden’s move, the president’s legal authority—or lack thereof—in this area, and the obstacles in the way of any potential rescheduling.

No one’s receiving a get-out-of-jail-free card as a result of Biden’s decision. 

According to the New York Times, U.S. officials say there were zero people serving time in federal prison last week for simple possession of marijuana. The pardons will, however, affect roughly 6,500 people nationwide and a few thousand more in the District of Columbia by helping to ensure they are not “denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities” as a result of their past convictions, per the White House announcement.

But federal and D.C. arrests are a tiny fraction of the roughly 29 million state and local marijuana-related arrests that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates have taken place since 1965, mostly for possession only. A Pew analysis of the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report found that 92 percent of marijuana arrests in 2018 were for possession, with the remainder involving the sale or manufacture of the drug.

That means the state-level pardons that Biden is pushing governors to issue would affect far more people. Some have already started. In 2020, for instance, Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned more than 9,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes, and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, also a Democrat, did the same for 15,000 people in his state. 

Republicans, however, have been less amenable. “Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals,” a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said last week. Republican governors in Arkansas and Ohio—as well as the Democratic one in Louisiana—have also rejected Biden’s call, either on the merits or because they believe they lack the authority.

Worth Your Time

  • In The Atlantic’s November cover story, CNN’s Jake Tapper chronicles the tragedy of C. J. Rice, a Philadelphia man who, as a teenager, was charged with an attempted murder that Tapper’s father—Rice’s pediatrician—believes he was physically incapable of committing. “Readers will draw their own conclusions about what happened on the night of September 25, 2011. My father and I have drawn ours,” the younger Tapper writes. “But what happened after that night is not open to argument: Rice lacked legal representation worthy of the name. And as he has discovered, the law provides little recourse for those undermined by a lawyer. The constitutional ‘right to counsel’ has become an empty guarantee.” Why should readers care? “Rice’s story has produced no bumper stickers or T-shirts or movies,” Tapper continues. “There is no corrupt cop or evil prosecutor. There is only doubtful evidence, deficient counsel, and the relentless grind of the criminal-justice system itself. Rice’s story is meaningful precisely because it is not unusual. Change the details, and it is the story of tens of thousands of poor defendants and the accumulation of large and small injustices that define their lives.”
  • What happened when one of the best public high schools in the country changed its merit-based admissions policy to a lottery system? Students’ grades decline, and the school tanks in the national rankings. “I have three times as many students as usual failing—instead of one or two, I have three to six,” Mark Wenning, a biology teacher at Lowell, told The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller. “I have some students who have done no work the whole first grading period.” Wenning “had contacted students, parents, and counsellors,” Heller writes. “He’d offered extra-credit points if kids came to see him for tutoring; when they showed up, he’d let them elect to retake one test. He tried to help organize study groups (only one student signed up) and circulated a list of Web sites, podcasts of his own creation, and other resources. ‘I’m at the end of my rope in what I can offer,’ he told me. ‘I don’t think some of these students would be doing well at any high school, which makes me wonder why they wanted to come to Lowell.’ [Fellow Lowell teacher Rebecca] Johnson thought that the pandemic, rather than the lottery, might explain much of the change. ‘I have to keep reminding myself that these guys were halfway through seventh grade when they left school,’ she told me.”

Presented Without Comment 

Also Presented Without Comment 

Also Also Presented Without Comment 

Toeing the Company Line

  • We’re hiring again! Can you help us spread the word? If you know anyone who would be a good fit for our new associate editor position—or you’re interested yourself—more information can be found here. We’re looking for an individual with at least three years of editing experience who will work closely with outside contributors and Dispatch staffers on both the front- and back-end of the writing process.
  • Kevin Williamson, The Dispatch’s new national correspondent, joins Jonah on today’s episode of The Remnant for a conversation that careens wildly from the oppression of the QWERTY keyboard to the legacy of the New Deal. Will the remnant ever become the majority? Have Kevin’s anarchic instincts mellowed? And what does the future hold for The Dispatch?
  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah are joined by Josh Balk and Jonathan Lovvorn of The Humane Society for a conversation about animal cruelty in light of a case recently argued before the Supreme Court touching on California’s pig farming regulations. Can the judicial branch resolve moral questions? Should it?
  • There’s a difference between disagreement and bigotry, David writes in his latest French Press (🔒), and University of Florida students protesting Sen. Ben Sasse’s likely selection as the school’s next president fail to make that distinction. “One test of a good leader isn’t whether he agrees with you, but rather whether he recognizes your fundamental dignity, protects your liberty, and upholds a commitment to equal protection of the law,” David writes. “And that’s exactly what Sasse said he’d do.”
  • Jonah thinks the racism scandal facing Los Angeles City Council members is kind of great—not because he agrees with what was said in the secretly recorded conversation or because it benefits Republicans politically, but because it presents a great teaching moment. “Part of the problem with our obsession with hypocrisy and ‘authenticity’ is that it encourages people to make peace with their sins to avoid the charge of hypocrisy,” he writes in Wednesday’s G-File (🔒). “There are worse things than being a hypocritical ass or racist, namely being a proud ass or racist.”
  • We have an impressive lineup on the site today: Kevin explains in a well-reported piece why title fraud protection services are a racket, and Nick weighs in on why it is that the right loves Kanye West (spoiler: it has nothing to do with his music). Audrey checks in on the Pennsylvania Senate race to ask whether John Fetterman’s health issues will determine control of the Senate, and Arthur Herman argues that Russia’s biggest enemy is China—and explains why that’s bad for the West.

Let Us Know

What’s your general sense of the current state of the country’s marijuana laws? Have various state legalization efforts been a welcome or unwelcome development? And what line should the federal government take on the substance?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.