What China Can Teach America about the North Korea Threat

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claps with military officers at the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017.

Sanctions alone do not suffice the North Korean dilemma if those sanctions are independent of a broader strategy.

North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4. Less than a month later, it successfully tested a second ICBM, one with an extended range. In the same month, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that the Hermit Kingdom may have as many as sixty nuclear weapons, and that it has succeeded in producing a compact nuclear warhead for ICBM-class missile delivery. These developments demonstrate that North Korea, a member of the nuclear club since 2006, has the potential capability to strike the continental United States, in addition to Guam, Alaska, Hawaii and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, after the president reacted to the latest development of missile-ready weapons with the language of “fire and fury,” the North Koreans threatened to strike Guam.

Amid heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States, the possibility of military conflict has become increasingly likely. North Korea’s nuclear capability and repeated provocations rightly concern the United States and the global community, and the regime is a human-rights violator of an unimaginable magnitude. But our good options are few. To navigate the geopolitical terrain, we should apply lessons of history that may provide insight to our situation. One analogy is especially salient: China in the 1960s.

Analogical reasoning can be imperfect because it relies on superficial similarities to frame an environment and prescribe (or proscribe) action. Often, analogy selection is more a function of an analyst’s experiences than the objective strategic environment. But taken with caution, the parallels can be instructive.

China acquired nuclear capability in October 1964 under Mao, who was on the brink of starting the Cultural Revolution that claimed several million lives. Chinese acquisition initially surprised and frightened many American and Soviet defense analysts, but most recognized the need to consider the strategic implications of China’s nuclear capability.

In fact, in 1961, three years prior to Chinese acquisition, the Air Force had prepared three contingencies to deal with Chinese nuclear development. The Phase III contingency assumed Chinese capability to attack the United States. In this condition, the Air Force concluded that U.S. strategy “must apply the same sanction to [Chinese] aggression that now apply to Soviet aggression in Europe: any overt major aggression leads to general war.” In other words, deterrence should obtain, and it did.

During China’s 1963 development phase, General LeMay—chief of staff of the Air Force and the first commander of Strategic Air Command—suggested to the Defense Secretary the need for joint U.S.-Soviet measures to secure Chinese acquiesce. LeMay and his fellow chiefs apparently did not recognize the depth of the Soviet-Sino split, believing Moscow was better positioned than Washington to pressure Beijing. However, the joint chiefs did recognize it “unrealistic to use overt military force” to effect Chinese acquiescence. Most of their civilian colleagues agreed.

For example, in an April 1964 memorandum to President Johnson, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow described the implications of China’s potential nuclear capability:

“The U.S. will have the ability to destroy Communist China . . this great asymmetry in . . . capabilities and vulnerabilities makes Chinese Communist first-use of nuclear weapons highly unlikely except in the event of an attack,” Rostow wrote in the memorandum.

Despite Mao’s apparent madness (later, he allegedly boasted that China’s population could absorb nuclear bombing), Rostow believed that Mao would internalize the clarity of nuclear deterrence. Indeed, for Rostow the Chinese had demonstrated “prudence in the use of military force” in the Korean War.

However, some observers did not share this analysis. The U.S. ambassador to Taipei noted that American restraint could prompt a “crisis of confidence” among key allies. His Taiwanese contemporaries favored “strangling the baby in its crib,” just as President Abe currently favors bolstering Japan’s independent defense capability and bilateral security cooperation with the United States. Of course, close proximity can inflate a threat environment, as does an adversary’s reputation for provocation.