The Uses and Misuses of Historical Analogy for North Korea

Once you are convinced that it is August 1914 or October 1962 or September 1939, inevitable conclusions follow. But they may be the wrong ones.

The U.S. Destroyer, Barry, pulls alongside the Russian freighter, Anosov, to inspect cargo, in the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. Destroyer, Barry, pulls alongside the Russian freighter, Anosov, to inspect cargo, in the Atlantic Ocean, on November 10, 1962. (Pool / AP)

Amid a steady fusillade of ever more capable rockets from North Korea, and an escalating volley of threats and insults flying between Washington and Pyongyang, the crisis in Northeast Asia shows no sign of slackening. On the contrary, as North Korea’s drive for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile accelerates, Washington is racing to innovate creative new sanctions to strangle the Hermit Kingdom’s economy, and to develop unconventional military options that could stymie Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs without provoking a cataclysm.

But Pyongyang’s worsening provocations have also set off another kind of intellectual arms race among foreign-policy thinkers: the search for the perfect historical analogy that can pierce the fog surrounding the present crisis.

For Harvard professor Graham Allison, the North Korean affair represents a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Scholar Robert Litwak agrees—but also invokes 1914 Europe and the tinderbox that sparked a world war. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton argues that the right comparison for Kim’s behavior is to Nazi naval threats in 1941, while according to The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, Washington should look to Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev as a model for persuading Xi Jinping to help America against Pyongyang. Other observers have sought lessons about the North Korean crisis from Stalin and Mao’s development of nuclear weapons, while for still others the better analogue is the U.S. push under the Obama administration to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities—and the solution, an Iranian-style nuclear deal.

This is hardly the first time that a national-security crisis has provoked a proliferation of historical comparisons. In fact, the first (and so far only) time the United States waged general war on the Korean peninsula, the then-commander-in-chief justified American intervention by invoking the past. As Harry Truman recalled following North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950: “Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier. … If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on a second world war.” Americans, Truman said, had “learned from Munich that security cannot be bought by appeasement.” Sixty-seven years later, it is President Trump decrying, via Twitter, the dangers of appeasing Pyongyang.

In truth, when global events get tough, policymakers get historical. By comparing current challenges with past crises, they can recast unsettling risks and alarming uncertainties as part of a story whose script is reassuringly familiar. That is precisely why policymakers often argue for their preferred course by drawing such parallels. Once you are convinced that it is August 1914 or October 1962 or September 1939, you know exactly what needs to be done.

Historical analogies can also yield good decisions. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fixed military timetables that helped propel the European powers headlong into World War I were fresh in the mind of President Kennedy, who had read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August earlier that year. This deepened his sense of caution about the risks of kinetic action and helped the world avoid what would have been an even more apocalyptic war.

The problem is that, while the careful study of history can provide policymakers with powerful insights, incongruous comparisons can just as easily obscure as illuminate contemporary challenges. Those who cannot remember the past may be doomed to repeat it, but those who fixate on a particular shiny episode of history risk blinding themselves to the complexities of the present.

That danger is especially pronounced in the case of North Korea today, because it does not have any strong historical antecedents but its own. Despite all the attempts to draw assorted comparisons to explain the crisis, the best guide for it is to be found not through the close study of Khrushchev or the Kaiser, but of the Kim family.

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The limits of applying historical analogy to the current North Korea showdown become clear when one takes a deeper look at the leading candidates for comparison. Start with the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the standoff with Pyongyang has some superficial similarities to the Kennedy administration's historic “Thirteen Days” of white-knuckle diplomacy—insofar as both involve a kind of nuclear brinksmanship—the differences are ultimately more consequential.

The Soviet deployment of intermediate-range missiles to Cuba was the result of a reckless gamble by Nikita Khrushchev, who hoped for a breakthrough in the broader, multisided superpower contest of the Cold War. When it became clear that he had miscalculated, and that the U.S. regarded the extension of Soviet strategic power into the Western Hemisphere as an intolerable threat, Moscow could withdraw its weapons from Cuba without fear this would imperil either its own survival as a regime—or its prospects for eventual victory in its larger geopolitical and ideological struggle with the West. This extrication was further facilitated by discreet, direct talks between the two sides, as well as secret concessions by Washington.

By contrast, all evidence suggests North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are an existential question for Kim Jong Un. Rather than an impulsive move on Pyongyang’s part, the capabilities the regime is now showcasing are the culmination of a patient, decades-long drive to acquire them. For the North, the nuclear and missile combination represents not a clever chess move in a far-off corner of the world by a global power maneuvering for advantage, but the vital guarantee of survival at home by a pygmy, pariah regime surrounded by nuclear-armed great powers.

The First World War ranks as an even less helpful guide to the Korean crisis. Unlike in 1914, no one involved in policymaking in the relevant capitals—in this case Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, or Seoul—has evinced any illusions about the devastating consequences likely to attend a conflict. On the contrary, everyone anticipates that, should a war come to pass, it will be a bloodbath. Whereas statesmen a century ago failed to imagine the consequences of unleashing the mass industrialized armies they had constructed, leaders today have spent the past seven decades haunted by the specter of mushroom clouds—not to mention a previous war on the Korean Peninsula that resulted in millions of casualties and nearly went nuclear. Likewise, American policymakers are keenly aware of how the movement of U.S. forces towards the Yalu River dividing China from North Korea precipitated intervention by Beijing in October 1950—sensitizing them that any conflict on the Korean peninsula could quickly ensnare the North’s big, powerful neighbors.

Nor is the Kim regime akin to the Nazis. While the government ruling from Pyongyang is uniquely loathsome and evil—perpetrating crimes against humanity of a scope and scale arguably unparalleled anywhere else on earth—it has displayed none of the fanatical urgency of Hitler in his genocidal drive to conquer Europe. “Axis of evil” notwithstanding, Kim Jong Un enjoys no tripartite or Molotov-Ribbentrop pacts, and probably can’t rely even on China for help in a war Pyongyang is seen as initiating. While Kim continues to harbor his country’s decades-old aspiration to reunify the peninsula under its rule—and policymakers ought to be focused on how he might leverage a nuclear-armed ICBM to try to decouple Washington from its East Asian allies—he appears bent less on global domination and more on self-preservation, as well as on luxury goods and visits from Dennis Rodman.

The broader U.S. experience during the Cold War—particularly with respect to theories of nuclear deterrence and alliance management—offers a richer and more promising field for exploration. But even here, caution is in order. To cite just one example, the particular dynamics of America’s nuclear competition with Moscow convinced policymakers to trade away missile-defense systems as destabilizing, and instead deliberately leave both countries vulnerable to overwhelming attack by the other. The certainty of mutually assured destruction encouraged mutual military restraint—and eventually arms control—between Washington and Moscow, while channeling their competitive energies  away from direct conflict towards less dangerous proxy wars in secondary theaters.

In the North Korean case, by contrast, robust missile defenses are a smart and stabilizing investment for the U.S. to make—necessary to disabuse Pyongyang of any hope that it might use its nuclear arsenal as a shield behind which to conduct acts of conventional aggression against its neighbors. (Improvements in missile defense technology itself, and the still-comparatively small size of the North Korean arsenal, further bolster this case.) It is precisely preserving the non-mutual nature of the destruction that would be unleashed by a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea that offers the best prospect for preventing it from ever happening.

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Far more than these or other imperfect analogues, the history that ultimately provides the most useful template for thinking about the current crisis with North Korea is that of North Korea itself. The regime’s conduct this year has been largely consistent with how it has handled itself previously—methodically expanding its capabilities, synchronizing its provocations with important dates and anniversaries, engaging in firebrand rhetoric while carefully calibrating its conduct to avoid any kind of direct military clash with the United States, and dialing up tensions in the hope of extracting benefits in exchange for temporary de-escalation.

The past several decades suggest that, contrary to conventional characterization of Kim Jong Un as a madman, North Korean leaders are more predictable than not. They have an unbroken record of violating every arms-control deal to which they’ve agreed, and they evince no inclination to give up their nuclear arsenal in exchange for any carrot or under threat of any stick. They will not hesitate to conduct limited acts of aggression—particularly in areas where they possess asymmetric advantages and a measure of plausible deniability, such as in cyberspace—but will seek to calculate their actions to remain below the threshold of setting off a conventional war. Their desire to reunify the peninsula endures, but it is likely to remain aspirational, as it has for nearly seven decades, as long as the U.S. security commitment to its democratic ally in Seoul remains resolute and credible. They show a strong survival instinct, and have been savvy and ruthless in remaining in power as communist regimes have crumbled nearly everywhere else. And out of this desire to survive lies the potential foundation for a successful American strategy.

This history also suggests that there has been more continuity in U.S. policy than anyone might care to admit. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration has invested considerable effort into trying to persuade China to solve the North Korean problem for it. Like its predecessors, the White House is calling for the North’s full denuclearization and is pursuing economic coercion as a principal means of attaining it. And like his predecessors, President Trump routinely asserts that Pyongyang’s conduct and capabilities are unacceptable, even though—in the end—many suspect the U.S. will be forced to live with them.

When it comes to drawing analogies, the historian Lawrence Freedman once offered a useful admonishment. “History,” he said, “should alert you to factors of which to be aware, dangers that might be lurking unseen, possibilities that might be worth exploring, or questions to ask. It can provide suggestions but not rules to be followed.”

The truth is that America, and the world, have never faced a situation quite like the one that presently confronts us on the Korean peninsula. Rather than searching for an episode from the past that neatly tells us what to do now, the better approach is to acknowledge the uniqueness of today’s challenge and attempt to understand it on its own terms. In this respect, North Korea illustrates the distinction between analogy and analysis—and that the beginning of wisdom is the ability to tell them apart.