Diplomacy can defuse the Korean crisis – just as it did the Cuban missile crisis during the cold war
Wenyuan Wu says lessons from the 1962 confrontation should teach leaders trying to wind down escalating tensions over North Korea’s latest missile test that a willingness to engage in open dialogue and make meaningful concessions is vital
Tensions are running high in northeast Asia after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversaw a successful intercontinental ballistic missile test launch as his Independence Day “gift” to the US. After assessing the precision and unprecedented range of the missile, which could reach Alaska, the US teamed up with South Korea to launch a volley of missiles in retaliation, showcasing their military capabilities and accord. Meanwhile, China aligned with Russia in a joint appeal for restraint and non-military resolutions to the issue.
Before Tuesday, new South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a progressive with deep roots in North Korea, was considered an unlikely candidate for a hardline approach against Kim, while his American counterpart, Donald Trump, had expressed hope that China would support his bid for tougher measures.
Tuesday’s reshuffling of the power bandwagon demonstrated the fluidity and unpredictability of international alliances. After all, realists can argue that alliances are merely temporary marriages of convenience.
But what is the way forward? Perhaps, we can draw some practical lessons from crisis management during the cold war, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is a prime example.
In a nutshell, the 1962 crisis represented the closest point the world had come to nuclear warfare after the second world war. In October 1962, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev entered an agreement with Cuba’s Fidel Castro to place nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island as a deterrence against America’s ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey earlier that year. After 13 days of tense negotiations between the two superpowers, the crisis dissipated with compromises from both parties. The Soviets agreed to dismantle all offensive weapons in Cuba while the Americans vowed to never invade the island again and secretly disassembled their missiles in Italy and Turkey.
The dissolution of the Cuban crisis contains important parallels for the present-day situation on the Korean peninsula.
Preceding both events was a series of shows of weaknesses and miscalculations by the US. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 paved the way for Castro to request Soviet military aid and emboldened the Russians. In early 2017, America’s patchy journey to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea has been hampered by consistent opposition from China and South Korea’s indecisiveness amid factional infighting.
In 1962, Khrushchev perceived the new US president John F. Kennedy as a weak intellectual with liberal ideals, incompetent when it came to tough decision-making. In 2017, Trump’s unconventional approach to international politics has sparked vehement criticism among his Western allies and handed China an edge on global leadership. China’s audacity is evidenced by Beijing’s persistent disregard for Trump’s wish to further restrict North Korea.
So, for would-be world leaders, neither charm nor crude exertion of force alone validates legitimacy or authority. Unilateralism might please a domestic audience but, ultimately, it damages one’s credibility and even exposes vulnerabilities. On the world stage, a swift negotiator is more valuable than a national hero.
The Cuban crisis teaches the important lesson that diplomacy is instrumental in resolving a crisis. The fast resolution of the 1962 confrontation was attributed to a willingness from both the American and Soviet leaderships to establish open dialogue and make meaningful concessions.
The two leaders faced a difficult trade-off between world peace and domestic political capital. Both chose the former. Indeed, Khrushchev lost power two years later partly because the Soviet politburo was “humiliated” by his concessions. Kennedy was criticised by the US Congress for failing to impose regime change in Cuba. But peace was preserved and a protocol of open communication was established in the form of the Moscow-Washington hotline. Until the end of the cold war, the hotline served its purpose of maintaining a direct dialogue between the two powers and sparing the world the fate of a third world war.
Admittedly, the world is much different today. The US clinging to hegemony, China’s rapid rise and the “irksome” relevance of Russia point to a multipolar global order interlaced with economic interdependence and uncertainty. On the other hand, North Korea is more politically isolated than Cuba in the 1960s, and its nuclear threat cannot be sufficiently established by Tuesday’s test launch. Nonetheless, the 1962 episode provides valid notes for learning.
This time, China is the fateful counterpart to the US. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and biggest provider of food and energy, China is Kim Jong-un’s lifeline to sustain his communist regime. Any sort of containment, military or economic, by the US is unlikely to lead to the desired result of denuclearising North Korea if China is not brought to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, Trump’s recent moves to sell weapons to Taiwan and sanctioning Chinese businesses with ties to North Korea have only achieved the opposite effect – of angering the Chinese.
With limited options, Trump’s best bet will be to work with China, on multilateral terms and exercising self-restraint. That means forgoing pre-emptive military threats.
Both China and the US must invoke a combination of diplomacy and economic rewards and sanctions in a collaborative manner.
Wenyuan Wu holds a PhD in international studies from the University of Miami. Her research covers governance and energy reform issues in China, the United States and Latin America