18 March 2019
The standoff on the Korean peninsula is simply without parallel in history. Photo: Reuters
The standoff on the Korean peninsula is simply without parallel in history. Photo: Reuters

North Korea standoff totally different from Cuban Missile Crisis

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stunned the world again on Sunday by ordering the detonation of a suspected hydrogen bomb.

US President Donald Trump has been talking tough and has even threatened military strikes, but Kim appears totally unintimidated and is stepping up his aggression fearlessly.

It could be that Kim thinks Trump is only bluffing and is highly unlikely to use force to settle the crisis. But why is he so confident about that?

Perhaps Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently fired chief strategist, just hit the nail on the head about this. Any US threat of using force against North Korea, he said, would only be empty if Washington didn’t have 100 percent capability to prevent Pyongyang from killing 10 million South Koreans in 30 minutes with its conventional weapons.

As the tensions on the Korean peninsula threaten to boil over, some political commentators have drawn a parallel between the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, hoping to draw some insights from the situation more than half a century ago into how to defuse the current crisis.

But I believe the standoff on the Korean peninsula is simply without parallel in history and one just can’t compare it to the Cuban missile crisis because the latter actually took place against a completely different historical and political backdrop.

Unlike North Korea, which is basically acting on its own without having to obey either China or Russia, Cuba actually had no say in the October 1962 crisis since the situation was completely orchestrated and manipulated by the Soviet Union.

Unlike Kim, who is only single-mindedly concerned about the survival of his regime, back then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had in mind a much bigger global strategic picture, as the United States and the Soviet Union were competing with each other in almost every corner of the world, with Cuba being only a sideshow.

Given that, as long as Washington was willing to compromise on something elsewhere, such as agreeing to withdraw its missiles in Turkey, there was absolutely no need for Moscow to inflict a nuclear apocalypse on itself over the tiny Cuba.

There was much bigger room for maneuver for both the US and the Soviet Union at the time.

Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union, which probably would only have launched counter-attacks of limited scale against some nearby US military targets such as its bases in Turkey if the US had actually invaded Cuba, North Korea would almost certainly retaliate by mounting an all-out military onslaught against South Korea or even starting a nuclear war once it was attacked by the US, because Pyongyang simply had nothing to lose.

With so much at stake, perhaps South Korea would turn out to be the staunchest opponent to any unilateral or reckless military action against the North by the US.

As we can see, since the ongoing standoff on the Korean peninsula and the Cuban Missile Crisis are so fundamentally different, the “game of chicken” tactic adopted by President John F. Kennedy against the Soviet Union in 1962 is hardly applicable to North Korea this time, given Pyongyang’s volatility and unpredictability.

Besides, North Korea actually has a lot more bargaining chips against the US than we think. For example, it could threaten to export nuclear technology to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, which would definitely be Washington’s worst nightmare if it really happened.

A theory proposed by international relations expert Kenneth Waltz, a realist, may provide some insights into how Washington could resolve the crisis peacefully.

According to Waltz, western powers can actually tame “rogue states” with nuclear capabilities and bring them into line by acknowledging their nuclear power status and then imposing international rules on them so as to turn them into responsible members of the nuclear club.

This approach worked for emerging nuclear powers such as China, India and Pakistan in the past. It may work for North Korea as well.

As such, perhaps it is time for President Trump to stop bluffing and blustering and start bringing Pyongyang to the negotiation table.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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