Essay: Can the Korean missile crisis be defused?

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The escalation of rhetoric between North Korea and the United States may have consequences beyond Pyongyang and Washington. Can a strategy be developed to defuse this crisis?

U.S. President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un 김정은 have been engaged in a war of words not seen since the early days of the Cold War. To understand the current situation it is worth reflecting on the crisis of 1962, when the U.S. administration detected the installation in Cuba of Soviet missiles aimed at the United States.

North Korea has caused grave concern in South Korea and Japan by undertaking a series of test launches of intermediate and long-range missiles, and escalating its underground testing of nuclear weapons. In doing so, it has made itself the focus of U.S. military contingency planning while also jeopardizing the long-standing support of China and Russia for its dictatorship.

Most reports on the current situation dwell on the rhetorical competition between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, and the dread with which any escalation is viewed by the populations of South Korea and Japan. Commentators have also underlined the extremes that Kim Jong-un seems prepared to go to in order to maintain absolute power in his country.

However, in addition to these considerations, it is useful to analyse the 2017 missile crisis in geostrategic terms: is this a game-changer in Asia, and more widely in world affairs? Can a strategy be developed to defuse this crisis?

On 22 October 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that the USSR was attempting to install missiles in Cuba that would be aimed at the U.S. This was an escalation of the military competition which had been going on between the U.S. and the USSR for several years, with each side trying to achieve strategic superiority.

This competition had spilled over into various parts of the world. In the Caribbean, a failed U.S. coup against Castro antagonized Cuba, as well as many Latin American states, and was denounced by Moscow as ”American imperialism.” In Europe, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev wanted to wrench West Berlin away from the Western Allies.

In 1962, at the height of the crisis, the military advisors around President Kennedy proposed various responses to the U.S. being targeted from Cuba. He chose to blockade Cuba to prevent the siting of Soviet missiles there.

Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson shows aerial photos of Russian missiles in Cuba to the United Nations. Photo: U.S. Government/ Public domain

In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis revealed the inadequacy of contemporary crisis management tools. Senior advisers on both sides later revealed that the level of mutual distrust was such that merely engaging in consultations could be construed as a step towards surrender. No high-level channel of communication had really been tested before.

After the 1962 crisis, Washington and Moscow quietly set up mechanisms and procedures to avoid, for instance, the inadvertent launch of a missile carrying a nuclear warhead. From then, the risk of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) kept the leaders of the Western and Eastern blocs in a reasonable state of communication.

One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16, 1962. Photo: Public domain

The 2017 missile crisis, caused by the actions of North Korea, challenges a number of these long-standing assumptions. It was believed that, as long as a major nuclear power agreed to exercise military restraint, its client countries would not endanger the fragile edifice of mutual deterrence. It was assumed that Washington, Moscow and Beijing could control any upstart country within their respective spheres of influence by using an array of instruments such as scaling back technological cooperation, drying up investment, hindering trade, or applying sanctions across the board.

The 2017 missile crisis: geostrategic implications

Faced with the North Korean challenge today, Washington is not alone in its bewilderment. Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Moscow, recognize that their usual means of dealing with ‘rogue’ countries are simply not working as they used to.

So far, the most striking political consequence of North Korea’s enhancement of its missile and nuclear weapons capability is that Beijing’s consistent support for Pyongyang, a fixture since the Korean War (1950-53), is under review. The extent of their drifting apart was made clear when China joined the other permanent members of the UN Security Council in condemning North Korea and voting for wide-ranging sanctions against its regime. By their timing, the North Korean missile and nuclear weapon tests, a few weeks before the 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party, suggest that Pyongyang is not beholden to its powerful Chinese neighbour.

Because of North Korea’s location, China would be directly exposed to any atmospheric nuclear fallout in the region, whether it was due to Kim’s imprudent testing or to nuclear retaliation. Naturally, a nuclear attack or retaliation aimed at toppling Kim Jong-un would, first and foremost, harm a large part of North Korea’s population and its economic capacity, but the effects of fallout on health, water, agriculture, and livestock would spread over thousands of kilometers. Nuclear proliferation in that region would affect China to almost the same extent as South Korea or Japan. For Beijing, there might also be a strategic consequence: Pyongyang’s tests having come this far, China and the other signatories of the NPT might have no choice but to recognise, at least tacitly, that North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power along with India and Pakistan (and possibly Israel).

In such a situation, the longer-term challenge for Beijing may take many forms. The most obvious one is that abandoning Kim Jong-un’s single-party autocracy may, in the long run, present a serious threat to the absolute power of the Communist Party in China; in the present phase of China’s development, single-party rule relies on regional and national stability at least as much as steady economic growth. For Beijing, there is also a geostrategic factor: if its relationship with North Korea was undermined, China would find it difficult to befriend – or even find – like-minded leaders in the region. It would have no choice but to strengthen its ties with neighbours that have strong links to the U.S., such as Japan and South Korea.

Washington and Beijing are very aware of the risks of Pyongyang continuing unchecked down the road of proliferation. After defending North Korea’s regime for decades, the Chinese leadership has finally started weighing the risk of a desperate and heavily-armed neighbour. This new awareness is probably behind U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Chinese President Xi Jinping 习近平 in Beijing on 30 September 2017, after which Secretary Tillerson declared that lines of direct communication now existed between Washington and Pyongyang.

In South Korea, the fear of collateral damage from a military operation has become an everyday concern. On 15 September, President Moon Jae-in 문재인 of South Korea took a firm stand against the suggestion of deploying U.S. nuclear arms in his country precisely out of fear of collateral damage. On 23 September, South Korea was on full alert as U.S. B-1B strategic bombers and F-15C fighter escorts buzzed North Korea’s maritime border as a warning. To show that it was not intimidated, North Korea immediately declared its readiness to shoot down any such aircraft near its territory.

For North Koreans, the crisis had already had many consequences: food, fuel and other goods are in short supply as a result of diminished trade with China. Meanwhile, North Korean workers in the Middle East have had to pack up and go home.

Interaction between Pyongyang and Seoul seem at a standstill. In the De-Militarized zone (DMZ) between the 2 Koreas, the North Koreans also refuse to answer the hotline set up to communicate messages between neighbours. As a result, every day a soldier has to walk right up to the DMZ line and shout out a message. A North Korean soldier then comes down to video his Southern counterpart delivering the message, and then reports back to his hierarchy.

In Japan, concerns reached a critical level when North Korea fired several missiles aimed at the U.S. territory of Guam, which flew directly over Japan’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone, and even over Japanese territory (Hokkaido) before falling into international waters. On 15 September 2017, a pale and tense Onodera Itsunori 小野寺 五典, the Defense Minister of Japan, stated that the trajectory of that missile, as it flew over Japan, did indeed confirm its capacity to reach Guam. The Japanese population realized that, as in South Korea, it would suffer severe collateral damage in case of a conflict in the region, whether as a direct consequence of military action or from nuclear fallout.

What exit strategy?

At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) gathered around President Kennedy. Reportedly, they examined six options:

  1. No specific reaction, as U.S. vulnerability to Soviet missiles was already factored into U.S. strategy
  2. Diplomatic pressure on the USSR to withdraw its missile capability from Cuba
  3. Secretly approach Fidel Castro with a deal: a Cuba-Russia split or Cuba would be occupied militarily
  4. A full-force invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Castro
  5. U.S. air strikes on all the missile sites in Cuba
  6. A U.S. Navy blockade to prevent the delivery of missiles to Cuba.

Today’s context is quite different. The East-West ideological divide has given way, at least in part, to a multipolar world. Moscow, though still able to intervene in some conflict areas (Eastern oblasts of Ukraine; the civil war in Syria), is no longer the leader of a worldwide communist movement. Still a young state struggling to survive in the 1950s and 1960s, China has become the second biggest economy in the world, holds the largest reserve of foreign currencies, and is an important actor on the world stage. The U.S. remains the most powerful military force in the world, but it is losing influence in many other areas. The continuing danger of nuclear weapons has been the focus of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. In this context, an exit strategy for the 2017 missile crisis seems less clear than in the days of the East-West divide. However, two elements seem essential:

A) Avoid rhetorical and military escalation; engage in dialogue at the appropriate levels. After seeing the damage done by unedited tweets, it is time to return to classic diplomacy, with its discretion and restraint. This does not mean giving up on transparency and accountability, but it does mean aiming at results rather than advantageous posturing. If the reports of Secretary Tillerson’s recent visit to President Xi are accurate, this may be the start of serious consultations between Washington and Pyongyang. There will have to be some give-and-take on both sides. The prospect of President Trump’s first Asian tour (3-14 November 2017) is giving rise to the expectation of a real U.S. policy on North Korea, and not just an opportunity wasted.

B) Reinforce multilateral control and verification. Since the implosion of the USSR, the geopolitical scene has undergone radical changes, but the global stockpile of nuclear weapons remains a major threat to human survival. Some nuclear powers are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): U.S., Russia, France, United Kingdom, China. Others have not subscribed to the NPT: India, Pakistan, and now North Korea. In addition, one state is presumed to have nuclear weapons without having declared them (Israel). In order to defuse the 2017 missile crisis, it might be useful to establish an additional control and verification mechanism involving South Korea, North Korea, and Japan, along with the signatories of the NPT.

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