alliances, allies, Berlin crises, China, Cold War, communism, cruise missiles, de-Stalinization, deterrence, Great Cultural Revolution, ICBM, Japan, Kim Jong Un, Nikita Khrushchev, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, South Korea, Soviet Union, strategic bombers, USSR
North Korea has just thrown down a major gauntlet to President Trump, escalating the crisis caused by its nuclear weapons program by launching missiles that briefly overflew Japanese territory. This provocation of course follows Mr. Trump’s August 11 warning to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, “If he does anything with respect to Guam or anyplace else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and regret it fast.”
Since Japan is a U.S. treaty ally, Pyongyang’s newest missile action clearly crosses one of those red lines. And obviously it puts the onus on the President to either retaliate in some meaningful way – with all the possible risks to Asia and to American territory, including the risk of nuclear attack – or implicitly acknowledge that the credibility of U.S. defense commitments to Japan and South Korea has been severely compromised. That second development wouldn’t be risk free either, as it’s likely to increase pressure on those and other allies (or protectorates, a word more suitable for Japan) to strengthen their security by building their own nuclear weapons.
Although the American foreign policy establishment views that as a nightmare scenario, I disagree – and in fact have argued for pulling U.S. forces out of the area completely and letting Northeast Asia’s strong, wealthy countries (which include China and Russia) deal with North Korea however they see fit. As I’ve explained, that’s the best way to minimize the danger of a North Korean nuclear weapon taking out an American city, or two or three – which should be Washington’s overriding priority in a situation in which core U.S. security is not inherently threatened.
But rather than restate this argument, today I’d like to deal with one of the most serious claims made in favor of maintaining the American policy status quo on the Korean peninsula. It’s the contention that despite the North’s new, growing ability to hit the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons, Washington should continue running this risk to defend its allies, help keep the peace in economically dynamic East Asia, and preserve America’s overall influence in the region because it’s dealt successfully with much greater nuclear threats before. As argued in this typical post, during the Cold War, the United States deterred aggression from the Soviet Union and China even though they (and especially the USSR) long had vastly larger and more sophisticated nuclear forces than North Korea either has today or will have for the foreseeable future.
There’s a seemingly obvious retort: Kim Jong Un is literally nuts and the Soviet and Chinese Cold War leaders weren’t. But I don’t buy this point for two reasons. First, for all his apparent erratic-ness, no one can confidently assess the North Korean leader’s mental state. And it’s entirely possible for individuals to me hot-headed and megalomaniacal without being suicidal – which Kim would have to be by definition if he thought that even in the worst case for the United States (some of his missiles land on American territory after whatever sequence of events triggers this catastrophe), Washington wouldn’t retaliate by rendering North Korea practically uninhabitable.
Second, not only did the Cold War witness terrifying moments arguably due to reckless behavior from the Communist world (like the 1958-61 Berlin crises). It also featured lots of bombastic rhetoric from Moscow and Beijing (like “We will bury you” — a boast from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that may or may not have deserved to be taken at face value). In fact, Khrushchev’s “shoe-banging” at the United Nations — another episode surrounded by some uncertainty nowadays — suggested to many Americans at the time that the Soviet leader was unstable, and the Great Cultural Revolution convinced much of the world that the Chinese leadership collectively had gone off its rocker.
But I do think that Kim Jong Un is different, and more dangerous, for several reasons. For all the saber-rattling even during the Cold War’s most dangerous days, from the mid-1950s on, when the Soviet Union had developed intercontinental nuclear striking power, the two superpowers had also established an impressive record of working together to defuse tensions and even solve problems in several key areas.
Not only did Soviet leaders change their rhetorical tune almost immediately following Stalin’s death in 1953, but cease-fires were negotiated in the East-West proxy wars in Korea itself along with Indochina, the two superpowers also and Washington and Moscow agreed to eliminate an important central European bone of contention by agreeing on neutral status for Austria. This anthology contains a good summary. In addition, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program entailed a series of liberalizing economic and even political reforms, however unsuccessful or inadequate most clearly were.
So although the Soviets never stopped probing and seeking advantage – sometimes, as in Berlin, to the point of challenging major declared Western interests – by the end of the 1950s, American leaders had ample reason to conclude that other impulses were also at work that were more reasonable and more compatible with an acceptable version of “peaceful coexistence.” It’s true that domestic Soviet reforms were abruptly halted and in some instances reversed following Khrushchev’s ouster. But in an apparent paradox, Moscow’s foreign policy began displaying more caution, too – and in fact, prompted angry accusations from China that Soviet “revisionists” had betrayed Communism’s revolutionary heritage and ambitions.
As indicated above, China’s foreign policy rhetoric and domestic behavior displayed no shortage of Kim Jong Un-like characteristics during the 1960s. But the argument that the United States successfully deterred this Communist power as well suffers a fatal flaw: Beijing wasn’t able even to reach the United States with a missile of any kind until 1981. Its power to use long-range bombers to deliver nuclear-armed cruise missiles to U.S. targets only dates back to the 1990s at the earliest. And of course, by the first of those dates, China had entered into a quasi-alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union, and by the second, it was well into one of history’s great market-oriented economic development drives, and was rapidly expanding its economic ties with the United States.
By contrast, North Korea can nuke American targets now, has shown its neighbors (especially South Korea) the most belligerent possible face on an almost nonstop basis, and Kim Jong Un has displayed absolutely no interest in the kind of meaningful domestic reform that would indicate he values preventing his country’s near or utter destruction over dreams of conquest.
I’m certainly not ruling out some kind of negotiated solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis – at some point. But because we know so little about Kim and his regime, and because it’s behaved so aggressively for so long, I remain convinced that it would be nothing less than deranged for the United States to keep its forces so directly in harm’s way in Asia, and thus run a growing risk of nuclear attack, on the mere hope that he either can be deterred in ways that worked in the past in dramatically different circumstances, or that he eventually comes to his senses