So far, the war between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over the latter’s nuclear programme has been fought only in words.
But each turn of the rhetorical screw deepens the risk that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “jaw-jaw” could turn into “war-war”.
Last month, following North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test of the summer, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to impose new and even stricter sanctions on the tiny country.
The response, reported in North Korean state-run media, was a pledge that “strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilisation of all [North Korea’s] national strength”.
The next day, Trump went off script, asserting that further threats from North Korea would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen before”.
North Korea immediately did just that, threatening to carry out an “enveloping” strike on the US territory of Guam. Trump shot back that the US military is “locked and loaded”.
And, indeed, as this exchange of rhetorical fire has unfolded, the US
has reportedly been preparing revised military options for striking North Korea.
More ominous, according to a confidential US intelligence report, North Korea has achieved the capability to miniaturise nuclear warheads, and may have as many as 60 bombs. The stakes are rising in Kim and Trump’s game of chicken.
It is unlikely that either North Korea or the US actually wants war. But, as the late English historian AJP Taylor concluded, after studying eight great wars since the late 18th century, wars have often “sprung more from apprehension than from a lust for war or for conquest”.
According to Taylor, many European wars “were started by a threatened power, which had nothing to gain by war and much to lose”.
If Taylor were alive to witness the current situation — characterised by fear-enhancing misperception, miscalculation, and overreaction — he would undoubtedly be feeling an alarming sense of déjà vu. The question now is: What can be done to avoid catastrophe?
For starters, both the US and North Korea will have to avoid cornering one another. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, US president John F Kennedy was firm in his stance that Soviet missiles would not be permitted in Cuba. But he knew better than to pursue a total American victory and a total Soviet defeat.
Instead, Kennedy offered a deal that would protect Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s reputation in the eyes of Kremlin hawks: The US would withdraw its missiles from Turkey (which were superfluous already), in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.
That pragmatic and courageous approach created the necessary space for the two leaders — neither of whom actually wanted a nuclear war — to retreat from the brink without losing face.
To bring today’s crisis to a peaceful conclusion, Kim will have to tone down his aggression. But, for that to happen, the Trump administration needs to demonstrate clearly that its goal is not regime change, but policy change — that is, denuclearisation — in North Korea.
Unfortunately, the signals coming out of the US are still mixed. While
secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s recent remarks on the crisis focused on diplomacy, CIA director Mike Pompeo has mentioned regime change, and national security advisor general HR McMaster has raised the possibility of a preventive war.
While it is important to put pressure on Kim to bring him to the negotiating table, such pressure must be more carefully calibrated. If the US appears to be seeking regime change or a preemptive war, a panicked Kim will be more likely to lash out. The goal should be relative, not absolute, security for both sides.
To this end, it is crucial to maintain rigorous civilian control of the military. The First World War broke out largely because of the militarisation of the political decision-making process.
By not taking national military-mobilisation processes off of autopilot, European political leaders allowed for an international chain reaction to occur. Once the march to war had begun, there was not much room left for diplomacy.
Yet, far from making space for diplomacy, Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka recently told the press: “The idea that secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.”
But why shouldn’t America’s top diplomat have significant influence over military matters? If this does not change soon, we may, as then British prime minister David Lloyd George wrote of the First World War, “[muddle] into war” yet again.
South Korean political leaders must also avoid being swept up by this intensifying war rhetoric.
After North Korea’s 2010 sinking of the Cheonan warship and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, the South Korean military toughened its rules of engagement.
Now, South Korean military leaders are warning that if North Korea attacks again, it will face retaliation not just against the proximate source of those attacks, but against the North’s command leadership.
Much like Trump’s threats, this policy is intended to deter North Korea, but it is more likely to fuel a rapid escalation of conflict.
China also has a key role to play.
On June 10, 1994, at the peak of the first North Korean nuclear crisis, China informed Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, that it would no longer veto UN sanctions on North Korea, driving the elder Kim to adopt a less antagonistic position.
China may be using a similar tactic today, as it declares publicly, via state media, that North Korea should not count on China’s support in a military conflict of its own making.
Neither Trump nor Kim seems to have sufficient political capital to spearhead a shift from military threats to diplomatic solutions. Given the far-reaching risks posed by this rapidly escalating crisis, it may well be up to other stakeholders to take the lead.
Will China act as the regional stabiliser it so often proclaims itself to be? President Xi Jinping is being tested in this crisis as much as Trump and Kim.