The North Korean missile crisis
On 2 January, then president-elect Donald Trump, referring to North Korea’s effort to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US, assured his Twitter followers, “It won’t happen!” But it has.
On 4 July—Independence Day in the US—North Korea gave Americans an unwanted birthday present, successfully testing the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that analysts say has the capacity to reach Alaska. All that is left now is for the North to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to be deliverable by such an ICBM.
The North’s latest ICBM test has transformed the theatre of diplomacy and war in Asia, and possibly the world, as it implies a level of nuclear risk witnessed only once before, with the Soviet Union in 1962. Indeed, we are now witnessing a slow-motion repeat of the Cuban missile crisis. The question is whether today’s leaders will show the same level of strategic thinking that enabled US president John F. Kennedy to defuse the threat in Cuba.
The Cuban crisis began on 16 October 1962, when national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy presented to Kennedy photographs showing that the Soviet Union, then led by Nikita Khrushchev, had placed on the island—just 90 miles (145km) from Florida—ballistic missiles capable of launching nuclear weapons at major US cities. Suddenly, the world was on the precipice of a nuclear exchange that could lead to global annihilation.
Kennedy moved quickly to discuss his options with key advisers and experts. Those deliberations were secretly recorded (known only by Kennedy and maybe his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy). The transcripts, released 35 years later in the book The Kennedy Tapes, reveal applied game theory at its best.
To secure the immediate removal of the Soviet missiles, the US considered two main strategies: a naval blockade or an air strike. Applying a form of reasoning common to game theory, Kennedy recognized the need to put himself in his opponents’ shoes—and the likelihood that his opponent was doing the same. He also considered earlier advice on nuclear strategy, which he had sought from some of the finest game theorists of the time, including Thomas Schelling, who would later win the Nobel Prize. He was mindful of the moral consequences of his moves. And he understood that, sometimes, a compromise can be superior to trying for total victory.
To capitalize on their “first-mover advantage”—the Soviets did not yet know that a US reconnaissance plane had seen, much less photographed, the missiles—Kennedy and his advisers kept the threat to themselves for six days, revealing their discovery only when they were prepared to take action. On 22 October, Kennedy announced a naval blockade.
The Soviet Union, also recognizing the risks of continued escalation, responded by proposing a compromise. Ultimately, the US agreed to remove its own missiles from Turkey and Italy, in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Neither side achieved total victory, but neither risked total destruction, either.
The North Korea crisis requires similar strategic thinking. Whether North Korea’s opponents have developed bigger weapons is no longer the issue. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are sufficiently developed that threats of military action, or even an attack, will not bring about the desired outcome—namely, that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
This is partly because, unlike the Cuban missile crisis, the North Korean crisis is a three-player game (at least). Like the US, China has a major stake in the outcome.
Were the US and its allies to attack the North, China would probably jump to its north-eastern neighbours’ defence. And China has the ability to escalate the war beyond Asia.
On the diplomatic front, it has often been suggested that China should use its considerable leverage to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons voluntarily. But it is not clear that China has the ability—or even the will—to do so. China fears that if the North’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons led to eventual Korean reunification, US soldiers would arrive at its doorstep.
As for North Korea, its leaders know that giving up their nuclear weapons, without safeguards, would be tantamount to suicide. They have in mind the fate of countries like Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine. So, like in 1962, there is a need for a strategic solution. Unlike in 1962, however, that solution cannot take the form of a single trade-off, because North Korea already has extensive nuclear capabilities, which it would not be willing to abandon in one fell swoop.
Instead, as political scientist Rajan Menon and others have suggested, there is a need to pursue incremental action. The North would roll back its nuclear programme by a certain increment, while the US would withdraw a share of its forces from South Korea. Once both sides reached that milestone, they would begin to progress toward the next one, and so on. There may have to be guarantees that, even if the Korean Peninsula is eventually reunified, US troops will not be stationed in the North.
The North Korea crisis is not a classic “hawk-dove game”—or a game of chicken, which Bertrand Russell famously used to analyse nuclear strategy—in which the side that makes an uncompromising commitment to aggression wins. The players in the North Korean nuclear game must pursue gradual de-escalation, characterized by mutual concessions. The US may not like the idea of rolling back some of its military presence in such a pivotal region, but it should not forget what Kennedy knew: there is no victor in a nuclear war. Project Syndicate
Kaushik Basu is former chief economist of the World Bank and professor of economics at Cornell University.
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