Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Thinking the Unthinkable With North Korea

| May 30, 2017

President Trump has promised the world that he will “solve” the North Korean nuclear crisis before the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, can screw a nuclear weapon onto a missile that can reach San Francisco or Los Angeles, a grim feat that experts say he is on track to achieve during Mr. Trump’s first term. The president is right to point out that his predecessors succeeded only at kicking this problem down the road. But Mr. Trump hasn’t said how he plans to solve the problem.

History suggests that as Mr. Trump comes to understand the risks involved, he will settle for constraints on North Korean testing to stop it from being able to reach the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile. President Xi Jinping of China pointed him in that direction at the Mar-a-Lago summit meeting in April, proposing a freeze on United States military activity on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for suspending North Korea’s long-range missile tests.

An approach that requires the United States to accept what it longed deemed “unacceptable” will strike many people in Washington as irresponsible. Is United States national security really strengthened if a 33-year-old dictator with a record of executing his enemies and defying red lines is left with an arsenal of 20 warheads and missiles that can deliver nuclear strikes against Seoul and Tokyo? It would be a hard pill to swallow, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged in South Korea two months ago, when he noted that such a freeze was “premature” since it does not readily solve anything.

But as Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson review the choices that Mao Zedong made in 1950, and John F. Kennedy made in 1962, they will come to appreciate the risks of cornering an adversary — and find the clearest clues for a deal that Washington and Beijing could support.

Start with Mao. In the Korean War, American policy makers assumed that if the United States went to the defense of South Korea, a China exhausted by years of civil war would not respond. They were wrong. Mao did not hesitate to unleash a huge counterattack on a nuclear superpower when United States soldiers in Korea neared the Chinese border. Overwhelmed, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s men retreated.

Could that happen again? Maybe. The United States intelligence community believes that American military strikes against North Korea would almost certainly trigger retaliation that would kill up to a million citizens in Seoul. The South Korean government would respond with a full-scale attack on the North. The United States is committed to support South Korea. But would Mr. Xi ever allow the Korean Peninsula to be reunified by a government allied with the United States?

And history is working against us. A Harvard study I led found 16 cases over the past 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of them, the outcome was war. Today, as an unstoppable rising China rivals an immovable reigning United States, this dynamic — which I call Thucydides’s Trap — amplifies risks.

What we see unfolding now is a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In the most dangerous moment in recorded history, to prevent the Soviet Union from placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy was prepared to take what he confessed was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. What risk will Mr. Trump run to prevent North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the United States?

As Kennedy approached the final hour in which he would have to attack, risking nuclear war, or acquiesce to a Soviet nuclear presence in America’s backyard, both he and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, began to examine previously unthinkable options. In the popular American narrative, Khrushchev capitulated. But we now know that both sides blinked. Kennedy agreed secretly to remove American missiles from Turkey, an option he and his advisers had earlier rejected because of its impact on NATO — and because he would look weak.

Kennedy’s central lesson from the crisis still offers wise counsel for Mr. Trump. “Above all,” Kennedy said, “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

At Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Xi reportedly urged Mr. Trump to accept “suspension for suspension.” For Mr. Kim’s freeze on additional ICBM tests, the United States could postpone or modify military exercises in the region. Some people in Mr. Xi’s circle have even proposed that the United States and China consider a new East Asian security architecture.

Indeed, they note that America’s presence in South Korea is an accident of history. Had North Korea not attacked the South in 1950, the United States would never have intervened. So if China were to assume responsibility for removing the Kim regime, denuclearizing the country, and reunifying the peninsula under a government in Seoul friendly to Beijing, would the United States remove all its bases from the South and end its military alliance?

For most American presidents, the idea would be a nonstarter. But Mr. Trump is nothing if not original. Will the necessity of avoiding nuclear war, in this case, become again the mother of invention?

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Thinking the Unthinkable With North Korea.” The New York Times, May 30, 2017.