Right Opinion

North Korea 2017, Cuba 1962

Bill Wagner · Aug. 16, 2017

There have been a number of articles and commentaries recently comparing the North Korean situation today with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Most have focused on areas like presidential rhetoric, public reactions, the posture of the military, or even media coverage. The conventional wisdom seems to be that we should tone down the rhetoric on military threats, do more to encourage China to play a leading role, strengthen our defenses, and stress diplomacy. I’m not sure exactly how diplomacy would work without some credible military threat, but there we are. What I haven’t seen from these missives is how to apply the negotiating lessons of 1962 to actually craft solutions to the current North Korea crisis, so let’s take a stab at that.

First some background. As a lifelong student and part-time teacher of negotiations, I credit the Cuban missile crisis for contributing a chapter to the negotiation 101 handbook. It basically says that if you are presented with two conflicting proposals from your counterpart, accept the one more favorable to you, and pretend the other one doesn’t exist. That formed the framework for a deal in 1962 when the Soviets accepted a proposal that traded their missiles in Cuba for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba, but later added a condition that the U.S. also remove its missiles from Turkey. The U.S. accepted the first deal and ignored the second. But when it looked like it was going to fail, we added a halfway house “private” assurance to remove the Turkey missiles at a later date. Backed by a credible U.S. threat of force and a time certain for a Soviet response, the Soviets bought it, and the world lived to tell about it.

Professional negotiations are all about preparation, research and steel-minded trade-off assessment. You start with a rigorous chat with yourself about what you want and what you are prepared to live with. You then try to determine as best you can the same of your counter-party, and finally design negotiating processes and tactics that can get you more of the former. Sure, rhetoric, emotional outbursts, or theatrical tactics at times have their place, but they are rarely the deciding factors. While there are many other audiences to the U.S./North Korea showdown that are part of the calculus (Iran, Russia, and our allies in the region and Europe come to mind), the key players are the U.S., North Korea and China. What does each want? All of us armchair quarterbacks, and most of the so-called experts, are handicapped by the lack of full inside info on the nature of the current talks, and the range of military options and their effects (conventional weapons, nukes, EMPs, overwhelming versus progressive ratchets, invasion, regime targeting, etc.) and the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) principle apply. But here goes.

The U.S. would love to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, unified under South Korean leadership, without a war. Since that most likely would need China support for North Korea regime change that is highly unlikely to materialize, the U.S. would probably settle for North Korea to stay in business without its nuke program, and might even support that economically. However, given the uncertainty of the North Korea leader’s mindset, the U.S. cannot live with a North Korea armed with nukes capable of hitting our allies or the U.S. mainland. Barack Obama/Susan Rice notwithstanding, when dealing with an uncertain North Korea regime, a mutually assured destruction protocol, even if it would take less than a fraction of one percent of our nuclear arsenal to destroy North Korea, is a galactically bad trade for losing New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

China has played a great game for decades. It has acknowledged that its little brother can act up at times and has promised to discipline him, but it has always stopped short of doing anything meaningful. It is perfectly delighted to see the U.S. bogged down in discussions with North Korea to prevent regional instability. China wants to keep the U.S. occupied and maintain a buffer between Western interests in the region, and North Korea has been the perfect tool for that as long as things don’t get too close to a war or other actions that might seriously impact China’s economy.

It’s generally thought that China wants to prevent a war involving North Korea because it is afraid of a refugee problem, but that’s a head fake. China wouldn’t think twice about preventing North Korean refugees from crossing the border by any means, and 100,000 armed guards at the border would take care of that. China is petrified about the economic impact of real conflict in the region because slowing growth in China is an existential threat to the ruling class, and the U.S. has China over a much bigger barrel here than the reverse.

The question of what North Korea wants is really a question about Kim Jung Un. Is he an egomaniac who simply wants to go down in history as the first guy to nuke the U.S.? Is he a concerned leader who truly fears an invasion by U.S. forces and sees nuclear weapons as the only real deterrent? Or is he a shrewd bargainer who knows it’s good to be king and has learned from decades of the U.S. kicking the can down the road that he can extort progressively greater goodies with progressively greater threats? The psych profile is critical to what we do. My guess is closer to it’s good to be king, but as long as there is the slightest chance that the first characterization is correct, then North Korea must, repeat must, not be permitted to attain a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. or its allies, no matter by what means.

It’s rather easy in retrospect to see how the Cuban missile crisis evolved. It’s hard to overstate the intensity of the mano-a-mano superpower rivalry that existed between the U.S. and the Soviets in the early ‘60s. Both parties were looking for any advantage, and the Soviets thought they had found the mother of all geopolitical game changers. You can imagine the Politburo meeting in which the chairman is telling the board members that he met with this kid John Kennedy and found him to be a lightweight who can be rolled. All we have to do is sneak a bunch of nukes into Cuba, make them operational, and Kennedy will fold and accept the fait accompli. True, we already have ballistic missile subs, but Cuban missiles will shorten the delivery time and diversify our platforms, so it will add some to our military edge. But the real value is geopolitical: The U.S. will look like an impotent nation, which will weaken alliances and give us the upper hand; Berlin, here we come. Groupthink ruled and no adult raised their hand to caution everyone about the inevitable war. Thankfully, we discovered the nukes in time because it’s a greater than zero chance no one would be here to read this if we hadn’t.

The evolution to this critical point with North Korea seems to have occurred much quicker than the experts believed possible, with the most recent revelations being that North Korea appears to be much further along with its miniaturization and rocket engine technology than expected and is thought to have as many as 60 functioning nukes. How can this be? There are only a few key ingredients to a nuke program — material, detonation technology, ability to miniaturize the weapons to fit them onto a missile that can get off the ground, and delivery capability. Supposedly, Obama told Trump in the transition that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy headache, but there don’t seem to be records of Obama informing Trump about the extent of the miniaturization program or the fact that a Ukrainian company was supplying North Korea with rocket engines capable of putting the U.S. in range. These only appeared recently through leaks.

Now you might give our intel guys a pass regarding the miniature warheads; those tests are conducted mostly in labs, and North Korea is pretty much a closed society with likely little in the way of eyes on intel gathering. But the Ukrainian engines are an entirely different matter. There are only a handful of companies capable of building these things, and if you were serious (which supposedly we were) about monitoring their movements, it’s not that hard to do. So either our intel guys are closer to Maxwell Smart than James Bond, or something else was going on. I doubt we are chock full of Maxwells at the CIA, so I’m opting for the latter. Perhaps Ukrainian technology is also finding its way to other countries, like, say, Iran, and if too much scrutiny landed on the North Korea connection, it might lead to Iran and a distinctly possible cratering of a legacy nuke deal. Could cause the prior administration to look the other way. Maybe it’s the black helicopters warming up, but how else do you explain losing something as big as rocket engines?

So where are we, and how do the two events compare? Regarding motivation, the Soviets were not madmen; they just miscalculated in trying to grab a geopolitical advantage. There was no way the U.S. could allow that big of a cave. Besides ceding a marginal military edge, it would have destroyed our credibility around the world. Because we are not sure who Kim Jong Un is, we are not sure exactly why he is doing what he is doing. But either way, it’s a distinction without a difference. At the end, both are nuclear blackmail that cannot be accepted.

Should the U.S. stop the threatening rhetoric? First, without the credible threat of military action, no North Korea diplomacy has a chance of getting to an acceptable solution, if you define acceptable as removing the nuclear blackmail, not just living with it, a la Obama/Rice. It was only because the Soviets believed we were going to attack Cuba that a way out was found. And as for rhetoric, articles seem to forget that it was Kennedy, not Trump, who issued one of the clearest and most blatant threats on record when he went on TV early in the crisis and told the Soviets that any missile launched from Cuba against any target in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded by the U.S. as an attack by the Soviet Union on the U.S., requiring a full retaliatory response. If you find a brighter red line than that, let me know.

Trump’s tweets, although at a much higher decibel level than the three prior decades of diplomatic niceties that got us into this mess, appear tame by comparison. Perhaps just what Kim Jong Un needed was to see the light, particularly when he woke up last week to an op-ed by Obama proxy Rice telling him that it was perfectly fine for him to have nukes because MAD was able to contain the Russians for a generation. It was the tweets in combination with UN actions, statements by James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, Trump actions on the ground in the region like expanding missile defense, questioning China trade agreements and probing intellectual property claims (all China’s worst nightmares), and behind-the-scenes diplomacy that have had the desired impact on North Korea and China.

The combination of actions have led North Korea to back down from its threat to launch missiles at Guam, but its nuke program itself remains intact at a sufficiently late stage to be unacceptable. Which brings us full circle back to how to apply negotiating lessons from 1962. There is no silver bullet, but the stage has been set.

We do not know for certain what is driving Kim Jong Un, but why not start by accepting his first explanation of why he says he needs nukes? It’s not for ego or a place in the history books but as a deterrent to a possible U.S.-supported invasion that would change the regime. While regime change would be fine with us, no one believes that we intend to invade North Korea or lead others in that regard, so why not offer that assurance as a way to get negotiations started? As in Cuba, we would pledge not to invade North Korea, codified by treaty or other binding agreement, in exchange for North Korea giving up the entirety of its nuke program in a way that was clearly verifiable, likely by a consortium of inspectors from the U.S., China and the UN. Such verification protocols have been tried before elsewhere and failed miserably, so this one would have to have absolute certainty of being effective to form the negotiating trade-off. A big leap for North Korea, but if it truly believes the military threat and sees China backing away from its traditional full support, taking yes for an answer might not be a bad alternative.

As in Cuba, include a time certain for the negotiations to be concluded, one way or the other, so the can isn’t kicked down the endless winding road. The end of this year has a good ring to it. Along the way, the sanctions would stay in place, and North Korea would have to freeze all nuke development and testing activity — again, hard to monitor, but necessary to include. If the negotiations fail, then we are no worse off than we are now, with all options remaining on the table. Further, even if not successful, the attempt itself would give both the U.S. and China political cover to ratchet up economic sanctions, show the rest of the world North Korea is not serious about resolving the crisis (a minor but important component since it would also send a signal regarding Iran, which is headed in the same direction), and give the U.S. more time to build international sanction support, solidify regional defenses and finalize military options.

North Korea is likely to reject the negotiating premise at first, but with continued pressure from China, fueled by our pushing China on the economic front, it may get everyone to the table. It worked in Cuba. At a minimum, it looks like it can’t hurt and/or might help in North Korea. The can has been kicked as far as it can go. Since we do not intend to invade North Korea anyway, offering an alternative that allows some North Korea face-saving and could get us to the right place is worth a shot.

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