‘Cold War-light’ policy toward North Korea not a sure-fire win

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Almost by default, inside-the-Beltway pundits are advocating a Cold War approach to North Korea’s accelerating nuclear-missile threat. Nothing seems to be working to halt it.

Sanctions and more sanctions, each stiffer than the ones before, have failed to rein in the rogue state’s nuclear and missile tests or to bring it around to America’s denuclearization demands.

{mosads}Nor has it been constrained by white-hot rhetoric from President Trump, such as he delivered at the United Nations on Tuesday when he pledged to “totally destroy North Korea” if the United States had to defend itself.


Preventive airstrikes on the North’s rocket launchers are judged as certain to provoke a war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Taking into account the exorbitant human and financial costs of a military conflict with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, even a conventional one, Beltway pundits have fallen back on the tried-and-tested deterrence and containment approach to hem in the erratic DPRK. Because it succeeded in keeping the peace among the major powers for over 40 years, it looks useful today.  

Yet, is the Cold War doctrine of deterring and containing the Soviet Union from aggression really suitable against a far different protagonist than Moscow? During the four-decade standoff, the Pentagon amassed a huge nuclear arsenal, which, in time, the Kremlin matched with a comparable nuclear force.

Washington and Moscow realized that a crisis could escalate to a nuclear exchange. They were, therefore, deterred from all-out war. Except for peripheral conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and five-alarm moments, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the two global powers scrupulously tried to avoid stumbling into an atomic Armageddon.

Why not apply a similar policy to North Korea, particularly as it races toward full membership in the nuclear-capable missile club? The concept of dissuading an over-mighty Soviet Russia after World War II from foreign adventurism was first set forth publicly by George Kennan in a magazine article.

As a government official, Kennan argued anonymously that the Soviet Union’s “expansive tendencies” must be confronted by “patient but firm and vigilant containment.”

He envisioned that the long-term “application of counter-force” but not open warfare would place stress on the Moscow’s party structure to bring about “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” The satisfying outcome has enshrined the containment policy in American geostrategic thinking ever since.

The premise of the Soviet-American nuclear confrontation was the tacit understanding that we deterred the Soviet Union. But just as important, the Soviet Union deterred the United States. It was not a one-way street. Some members of the punditocracy see the enviable stability and relative peace of the Cold War as an applicable approach toward the nuclear-arming North Korea.

There are several things wrong with the glib analogy that the Soviet-American rivalry lends itself to duplication toward the DPRK.

First, dynastic-ruled North Korea is profoundly different than the layered bureaucratic communist Soviet Union in the post-Stalin years when the politburo and general secretary of the communist party were elected by the Central Committee.

Superficially, the Workers’ Party of Korea is organized similarly to other communist parties. In reality, it’s party organs are less institutionalized and under the controlling influence of Kim Jong Un.

Kim’s heredity accession alone ensures that his rule differs from other leaders who climbed the Soviet party’s greasy pole with guile and competitiveness but without familial networks paving the way to power.

Moreover, Kim’s public persona, like his father and grandfather’s, has been transmogrified by the regime’s propaganda machine to the status of a cult figure, if not a demigod.

His standing is far different from that of Khrushchev, Brezhnev or Gorbachev, who excelled in the gray apparatchik universe of the Soviet hierarchy. In short, the North Korean party is more feudal than the Soviet party apparatus.

The behavior of the North Korean leader is also far different than former Soviet officials. Kim Jong Un adopted a ruling style from his father and grandfather that is much out of step with Soviet-era practices.

The three Kims presided over regimes that spewed — and still spew — bombastic and murderous threats of annihilation far removed from the Marxist-laden pronouncements from the Cold War Kremlin.

Pyongyang’s worldview betrays an edgy anxiety, whereas Moscow, up until the last, confidently predicted an inevitable communist triumph over the capitalist system. To retain power in the fraught North Korean atmosphere demands near-constant dangerous provocations against the United States and its allies to rally the populace to abject adulation of the reigning King Kim.      

Finally, advocates of copycat deterrence and containment ignore the numerous setbacks at the hands of the Kremlin. They tend to telescope Cold War events from its start to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with little regard to the instances when the West stood by helplessly while Moscow had its way during international incidents.

When Moscow marched in troops to restore puppet communist regimes in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the United States sat on the sidelines rather than risk a nuclear calamity in the Russian sphere of influence.

Washington also withheld bombing strikes on Soviet ships resupplying the North Vietnamese with arms during the Vietnam War. For its part, Moscow exercised caution in projecting a large naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, lest it unsettle Washington. 

The proponents of a hoped-for repetition of deterring and containing North Korea along the lines of the anti-Soviet model should recall the well-known observation that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce.

Depending on Chairman Kim to plod in Soviet footsteps could well invite tragedy. So, while deterrence and containment have much to recommend them; they are unlikely to be an exact template for American policymakers toward North Korea.  

The champions of a Cold War-light strategy with North Korea must be aware of the risky pitfalls that await any complex engagement with the unpredictable North Korea, which will not mimic Soviet restraint. 

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author most recently of, “Cycles in U.S. Foreign Policy since the Cold War” (Palgrave, 2017).

Tags Aftermath of World War II Cold War Containment George F. Kennan North Korea North Korea–Russia relations Nuclear proliferation Nuclear warfare Soviet Union–United States relations

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