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Hotlines and Deterrence: The Korean Missile Crisis


North Korea will soon become a de facto nuclear power. The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins predicts that it will take only a few more tests of the Hwasong-15 ICBM to verify that the missile can deliver a warhead from North Korea to the continental United States. South Korea and Japan are strengthening their missile defense capabilities.  Many fear that the world is one miscalculation away from nuclear war.

Image courtesy of (stephan), © 2018

Twenty-six years ago, the Soviet Union formally dissolved, ending a nuclear rivalry between the world’s two superpowers. Since then, the United States has not had to actively deter another nuclear power, instead contending only with militarily inferior rivals and responding to terror attacks. When dealing with a rising nuclear North Korea, the United States must remember the lessons of the Cold War, specifically those imparted from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The crisis itself is remembered not only as a signature moment of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, but also one of the few times that the world came close to thermonuclear war. In October of 1962, the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had been stationing medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba. These missiles had the capacity to deliver a nuclear payload to most of the continental United States. Rather than order an invasion as recommended by many of his advisors, President Kennedy ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba. The world held its breath for nearly two weeks until a compromise was reached and the Soviet missiles were removed.

It was through negotiation and compromise, not offensive posturing, that the crisis was resolved. A “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin was established as a result of the crisis, with the hope that direct communication would allow the two superpowers to defuse future tensions and prevent thermonuclear war.

This approach, of direct communication and diplomacy, will keep the situation with North Korea from escalating into thermonuclear war. The circumstances certainly present obstacles. For example, currently the United States and North Korea currently do not have official diplomatic relations. Yet, the United States has long used other nations, in particular Sweden, as intermediaries. China, North Korea’s principle ally, shows the greatest promise to be a “hotline” between Washington and Pyongyang.

China came to North Korea’s aid during the Korean War and routinely assists the isolated state. Though Beijing has shown irritation with the recent activities of Kim Jong-un, China values having a stable North Korea as a neighbor because it forms a buffer between the Chinese border and the American military presence in South Korea. In the event of a collapse and a Korean unification, this buffer would no longer exist.

The Trump administration’s current show of bluster and posturing ignores the reality on the ground: North Korea will become a nuclear power because of, not in spite of, posturing from the United States. For this reason, U.S.-China cooperation is not only mutually beneficial, but essential, even if it requires considerable political effort from the United States to be established. A “hotline” is and will continue to be necessary as long as North Korea has a reason to pursue a nuclear deterrent.

North Korea’s rationale for pursuing a nuclear deterrent is simple: regime survival. Kim Jong-un has observed the fall of other dictators troublesome to the United States: in 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, in 2011 Libyan rebels aided by the Western powers killed Muammar Gaddafi, and since 2011 the United States has favored the opposition to Bashar al-Assad in the bloody Syrian conflict. In all of these cases, the deposed dictator did not have weapons of mass destruction to deter the United States. Kim Jong-un does not want to suffer this fate and sees a nuclear deterrent as the surest way to guarantee regime survival.

After the Cuban Revolution, the United States tried to overthrow the Castro regime in the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the aftermath, one of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s conditions for the withdrawal of his missiles from Cuba was a guarantee that the United States would not invade the island. This same agreement can be reached as part of a de-escalation of the North Korea situation, but the United States will need a clear line of communication to Pyongyang, the political will to talk to Kim Jong-un, and the understanding that North Korea will not give up its nuclear deterrent as long as Kim Jong-un fears invasion by the United States. This fear may never entirely dissipate given the United States’ track record, but diplomacy and deterrence will do more to prevent thermonuclear war than bluster and posturing. Ultimately, the United States must stop thinking of North Korea as a “tin-pot” dictatorship, but a nuclear power to be handled with care.

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