What The Cuban Missile Crisis Should Teach Us About North Korea

Diplomatic proposals succeed only when they satisfy the vital interests of each party to a conflict.
Soviet ship 'Kasimov', 1962-1963, Cuba, Photograph U.S. Air Force.
Soviet ship 'Kasimov', 1962-1963, Cuba, Photograph U.S. Air Force.

A small Communist nation is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons capable of reaching American cities, even at the risk of triggering nuclear war with the United States.  As apocalyptic rhetoric from Washington heats up, everyone worries that the ensuing conflagration will plunge the entire world into catastrophic war. The crisis ends when the nuclear capability is peacefully taken away from the small nation in exchange for a pledge by the United States never to invade it. This scenario, from the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 (exactly 55 years ago) yields valuable clues about how American diplomacy – far more than any “fire and fury” rhetoric – could resolve the dangerous standoff with North Korea.

Like Cuba in 1962, North Korea is obsessed with the possibility that Washington might take advantage of its weakness to put its government out of business. Indeed, the United States has engaged in such regime-change operations in recent memory in far more powerful states such as Iraq and Libya. Careless rhetoric by CIA Director Mike Pompeo and various Washington pundits supporting regime change in Pyongyang has not been helpful.  Kim believes that only by having the capability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons he can dissuade Washington from any regime-change attempts. And here is where the Cuban Missile Crisis could show us the way out of the current cul-de-sac.

The Trump administration should offer North Korea a quid pro quo.  In exchange for a permanent, internationally verifiable closing of its nuclear weapons programs and a handover of all its ballistic missiles and warheads to a trusted third party such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States would guarantee it never would invade or attack North Korea.  In addition, all economic sanctions against North Korea would end. The U.S. pledge would be guaranteed by North Korea’s protector, China, which would commit formally to coming to North Korea’s aid if Washington ever reneged on its promise.

Diplomatic proposals succeed only when they satisfy the vital interests of each party to a conflict, and in this scenario every key player would achieve its vital objectives. North Korea would receive a Chinese-backed guarantee against any Washington attack or invasion, thereby insuring its regime’s survival into the indefinite future.  The United States also would achieve its foremost objective: getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.  A non-nuclear North Korea also would enhance the security of Japan and South Korea, strengthening their alliance with the United States.  And China would achieve its highest objective: the preservation of the status quo on the Korean peninsula, sharply reducing the prospects of a unified, pro-American Korea ever abutting its borders.

North Korea’s incentives to agree to this proposal are considerable.  Under the current trajectory, there is a high likelihood of Washington resorting to some military option.  Even the least aggressive of these – a preemptive attack on a DPRK missile about to launch – would be highly humiliating to Pyongyang and would force it to up the ante militarily, a high-risk gambit in which it would wreak massive damage on U.S. allies but in which it never could prevail, leaving it vulnerable to the very outcome it seeks to avoid, the overthrow and collapse of its government.  The second incentive has to do with ending the punishing sanctions currently in place, thereby relieving a great deal of pressure on Pyongyang.

The United States has nothing to lose and much to gain from pursuing this proposal.  Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons and shows no signs of giving them up.  U.S. military options would be extremely difficult and dangerous, and they carry the risk of unacceptably high levels of destruction to U.S. allies vulnerable to North Korea’s massive conventional firepower.  There is also the terrifying prospect, surprisingly ignored by most current discussions of the problem, of nuclear-armed China intervening in direct conflict against the United States, as it did in 1950, if it sees its wayward ally about to be decimated.  It is thus difficult to see how U.S. military options could lead to any kind of meaningful victory.  By offering a serious and reasonable diplomatic alternative, Washington could reverse today’s dangerous trajectory.  If North Korea were to reject it, it only would strengthen America’s hand as it seeks even tougher sanctions and a unified international consensus.

Purists might object that, by guaranteeing Kim Jong un’s survival through an explicit Chinese guarantee, the deal would enshrine the regime’s indefinite survival.  But we are much better off leaving the prospects of regime change to future trends and forces within North Korea itself, and focus instead on our single highest strategic interest, which is to get it to dispose of its nuclear weapons.  In strategy and policy, even great powers rarely have the luxury of getting everything they want.  But, occasionally, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, we can get the most important thing that we want if we are willing to allow our adversaries a similar opportunity to get what they most want.

Alberto R. Coll served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and Dean at the Naval War College.