Prof. Abraham Ben-Tzi
During the Cold War era, particularly during severe crises, the United States and the Soviet Union still managed to conduct the tense and charged conflicts between them in a fairly controlled and balanced manner. They did this by making an effort to establish new and reliable communication channels and patterns between them, even before the establishment of the Moscow-Washington hotline, also known as the “red telephone,” in 1963.
These efforts enabled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, to draw the red lines that, if crossed, would bring the entire international community to the brink. This demarcation helped neutralize the possibility that a distorted perception or misunderstanding would set things off.
But unlike the clear lines drawn in a world with two superpowers, the current crisis with North Korea faces the world’s only superpower with a new, unchartered challenge. The challenge stems from the fact that the motivation behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s decision to test-fire intercontinental ballistic missiles, in flagrant disregard of clear American warnings, remains unclear. Is this nothing more than saber-rattling — Kim’s rational effort to terrorize the international arena by projecting an image of an irrational leader — or is it a reflection of delusions of grandeur and a dangerous predilection for unexpected moves?
It seems that the rules that enabled the international community to survive the Cold War era, anchored in the shared desire of the White House and the Kremlin to avoid mutual destruction, are now invalid, faced with the brazen challenge by the tyrant of North Korea. Moreover, the Trump administration’s working assumption — that the key to restraining North Korea is China — has not yet proved itself. This is not only because China is categorically opposed to a policy of brinkmanship or conducting economic warfare against North Korea, but also because it is unclear if it really has the ability to force Kim (despite his great dependence on trade with China) onto a less provocative path.
And so Kim continues to be defiant. The latest example could be heard in his threatening remarks last weekend: In response to a recent aerial show of power by the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan, which held war games not far from the North Korean border, the leader warned against “playing with fire,” which would increase the chances of a nuclear war. Indeed, in light of the difficulty in enlisting Chinese (and Russian) support for expanded sanctions against North Korea, the range of non-violent options available to U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be shrinking.
The problem is that even the most surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities is likely to have the opposite of the desired effect, exacerbating an already tense situation on the Korean peninsula even further. North Korea has significant conventional military power, and it could easily shed South Korean blood within range of its murderous artillery and missile barrages in immediate response to any military move by the U.S.
In summary, the current crisis proves the inherent difficulty in deterring rivals who behave like pyromaniacs at a gas station displaying an insatiable urge to light a fire, regardless of the consequences. In recent days, a new, complex challenge has cropped up right before the eyes of the American administration and the question is how willing Trump will be to incorporate aspects of former President Bill Clinton’s plan from 20 years ago into his own efforts to curb these nuclear aspirations.
But the Clinton policy, based on the carrot and stick method — humanitarian aid and sanctions — ultimately failed in the face of North Korea’s strategy of deception. At this time, it would be unwise to rule out a resumption of aggressive diplomacy that also incorporates incentives and rewards. After all, even a policy of economic strangulation may not topple the merciless North Korean tyrant, because his people, hungry and helpless, don’t factor into his considerations in any way.