How will the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons end? Will Kim Jong Un buckle under pressure and roll back his nuclear program, or will he press forward in completing an arsenal that can threaten the whole world? Will Donald Trump make good on his threats to take military action against the North, or will he focus on deterring Kim from ever using his nukes?
It’s impossible to answer these questions with certainty. But it’s possible to find clues in the historical record. And history suggests that the current crisis is unlikely to devolve into fighting—that the more probable outcome is one or both leaders backing down and reaching a compromise.
Long before North Korea was antagonizing America with missile and nuclear tests, it was seizing American spy ships, downing American planes, and hacking American soldiers to death. In 2007, the Congressional Research Service catalogued well over 100 North Korean provocations against the United States and its allies over the previous 57 years, ranging in severity from the digging of a cross-border tunnel to the invasion of South Korea in 1950. That invasion sparked a three-year war that left millions dead. Since then, however—from the bombing of a South Korean airplane in 1987 to the more recent sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a South Korean island in the same year—no North Korean provocation has resulted in a major military conflict.
There is reason to believe this time could be different. History is not destiny. North Korea is nearing a truly new frontier: possessing the capability to target the United States with the world’s deadliest weapons. Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young, audacious leader, has exhibited a penchant for provocation and a distaste for negotiation, in just six years testing far more missiles than his father and grandfather combined. And Donald Trump is an exceptional president, who has said as much. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position,” Trump said regarding North Korea in his recent State of the Union address. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” Neither leader appears inclined to back down from a confrontation.
Yet there is also a reason why the history is what it is. While American and North Korean leaders have risen and fallen, while the Cold War has come and gone, while North Korea’s arms have expanded from artillery to chemical and biological weapons to nuclear weapons, certain realities have not changed. “Structural forces,” such as the “formidable military capabilities” of the United States and North Korea, and the geographic proximity of South Korea and China to North Korea, constrain the decision-making even of seemingly singular leaders such as Trump and Kim, the political scientists Michael Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders recently wrote. “And these factors reduce the likelihood of war.”
From the U.S. perspective, confronting North Korea has always been complicated by the North’s inscrutable leadership, ties to Russia and China, and capacity to lash out at Americans and America’s allies in one of the most vital and volatile regions on earth. As a result, the prospect of unleashing a second Korean war has repeatedly proved more daunting than the latest act of North Korean aggression. The United States has succeeded in avoiding a military conflagration, but often at the expense of signaling to the North Koreans that so long as the North doesn’t stage an unacceptably massive provocation, America will react with restraint—maybe even with concessions.
Below are the most prominent examples of these provocations and brief accounts of how each crisis played out. Since the pressing question at the moment is how the United States will respond to the direct threat of a long-range North Korean nuclear capability, the cases involve either North Korean attacks on the United States or demonstrations of military capabilities that pose grave dangers to the U.S. and its allies.
North Korean provocation: Thirty-one North Korean commandos snuck across the Korean Demilitarized Zone and attempted to kill South Korean President Park Chung Hee at his Blue House residence, sparking clashes that left numerous South Koreans and several American soldiers dead. Two days later, North Korean forces opened fire on a U.S. Navy spy ship called the USS Pueblo, seizing a literal boatload of U.S. intelligence secrets, killing one American sailor, and holding hostage 82 other crew members.
U.S. response: President Lyndon Johnson weighed a range of military responses to the seizure of the Pueblo, including snatching a North Korean vessel, implementing a naval blockade, launching air strikes, sending ground forces over the DMZ, and even using nuclear weapons in the event that the North invaded the South. And South Korean officials—including an incensed, nearly assassinated president—demanded that the United States take “punitive action” against North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and considered attacking the North themselves.
Johnson built up U.S. air and naval assets in the waters off the Korean peninsula. But he ultimately restrained American and South Korean hawks. Forceful U.S. retaliation would probably make it impossible to free the sailors, invite North Korean countermeasures, and “bring the Chinese and Soviets more directly into the situation”—risking military escalation that an America consumed by the Vietnam War had no interest in, U.S. officials reasoned.
The United States instead entered into protracted negotiations with the North Koreans, who released the crew 11 months after they were taken captive. The U.S. bizarrely issued an apology to North Korea that it simultaneously repudiated. The Pueblo itself was never returned, and is now a floating North Korean museum.
Resolution: The United States staged a display of military force but eventually chose diplomacy to free the sailors.
Who backed down first: The United States.
North Korean provocation: North Korean fighter jets shot down an American EC-121 plane on a routine reconnaissance mission over international waters, in the country’s most aggressive act against the United States since the Korean War. All 31 Americans on board were killed.
U.S. response: Facing its first international crisis, the Nixon administration half-heartedly considered many of the military responses that Johnson studied. But Richard Nixon, who had campaigned against Johnson’s “weak” handling of the Pueblo affair, settled on a symbolic show of force: dispatching a couple aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan and redeploying reconnaissance planes escorted by fighter jets to the region. “The weak can be rash,” Secretary of State William Rogers declared. “The powerful must be more restrained.”
Nevertheless, the administration subsequently elaborated dozens of contingency plans to respond to the next hostile act by North Korea—ranging from bombing North Korean airfields to limited or all-out nuclear attacks on North Korea’s military capabilities. Henry Kissinger, the national-security adviser at the time, captured the conundrum plaguing the exercise: The military options “that seemed safe were inadequate to the provocation, while those that seemed equal to the challenge appeared too risky.”
The United States could try to minimize the risk of North Korean retaliation by responding to another EC-121-like incident with a surprise strike on a single military target, officials reckoned. But the only way to eliminate that risk would be a massive campaign to destroy North Korea’s air power. Since there wouldn’t necessarily be a difference between the costs of a major or minor military operation, America might as well go big or do nothing at all. Nixon did the latter for the remainder of his presidency—despite telling Kissinger, after the EC-121 crisis petered out, that the North Koreans “got away with it this time, but they’ll never get away with it again.”
Resolution: The United States engaged in a show of military force but didn’t use actual force or extract any compensation from North Korea.
Who backed down first: The United States.
North Korean provocation: North Korean troops beat two American soldiers to death with axes and clubs in a shared truce area along the Demilitarized Zone, resulting in the first fatalities there since the end of the Korean War. The scuffle began when an American and South Korean crew attempted, over North Korean objections, to trim a poplar tree as a means of improving visibility at the border.
U.S. response: President Gerald Ford upgraded U.S. forces in Korea to the readiness level of DEFCON 3, moving nuclear and conventional weaponry to concrete bunkers and an aircraft carrier to Korean waters. North Korea, for its part, put the military on high alert, conducted civilian air-raid drills, and evacuated top North Korean officials to fortified tunnels. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was a Pacific Command intelligence official at the time, has said that war felt more imminent during the tree-trimming crisis than it does today.
Kissinger, now secretary of state, recommended striking the barracks of the North Korean soldiers involved in the tree attack. But Ford was wary of thrusting the United States back into combat after it had just withdrawn from Vietnam. Instead, he selected a modest but still risky option called Operation Paul Bunyan; the chief of staff of U.S. Forces Korea estimated that it “stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war.” Three days after the axe murders, a convoy of 300 American and South Korean soldiers (including, incidentally, current South Korean President Moon Jae In) returned unannounced to the DMZ to cut down the poplar tree while helicopter gunships, B-52 bombers, and fighter jets hovered overhead and nearby.
Within minutes, North Korean troops stood down and the poplar was reduced to a stump. Within hours, a spooked Kim Il Sung expressed regret for the incident; he soon agreed to remove guard posts from the southern side of the shared truce area. The United States hadn’t made so dramatic a demonstration of military power to the North since the Korean War. Nor has it since.
Resolution: The United States stopped just short of military action, avoiding North Korean retaliation and receiving minor concessions from the North.
Who backed down first: North Korea.
Year: 1994 — present day
North Korean provocation: In the late 1960s and 1970s, North Korea’s direct provocations against the United States consisted of hostile actions. Since the 1990s, they’ve taken the form of advances in developing weapons of mass destruction. In 1994, U.S. officials believed the Kim government was on the verge of reprocessing fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor for use in nuclear weapons, precipitating the first nuclear crisis with North Korea. Since 2006, North Korea has tested ever more powerful nuclear weapons and ever more sophisticated long-range missiles—to the point where, according to Trump’s CIA director, the North is now only months away from being able to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reliably strike the U.S. mainland. North Korea has for decades amassed chemical and biological weapons as well. But in 2017 it went much further: Agents of the North Korean government are suspected of assassinating Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in broad daylight in a bustling Malaysian airport using the chemical nerve agent VX.
U.S. response: Every presidential administration over the last couple of decades has explored military options for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, most seriously in 1994 when that program was still rudimentary and the Clinton administration drew up plans and mobilized forces to strike the Yongbyon reactor. But each administration has instead chosen a mix of engagement (diplomatic dialogue, economic assistance, security assurances) and pressure (diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, beefed-up military deterrence against North Korean aggression). The Trump administration is currently waging a campaign of “maximum pressure.”
“For whatever benefits we might accrue from the strike, and they might be substantial benefits, there is a very significant downside,” the Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry has noted in explaining why “coercive diplomacy” has again and again seemed more attractive than military action. “It could start as a relatively minor conflict, but it is all too likely to escalate into a bigger war and ultimately into a nuclear war.” The carrot-and-stick approach has at times succeeded in suspending or setting back North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, but so far the progress has unfailingly proved fleeting. Now, with negotiations nowhere in sight, North Korea is racing to complete its nuclear arsenal before the Trump administration’s pressure becomes too much to bear. Who wins the race, or whether it ends in some sort of draw, isn’t yet clear.
In killing off Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, North Korea showed that it was willing to use a sophisticated weapon of mass destruction outside its borders. But here too, the Trump administration responded not with a punitive military strike, as it did when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, but with increased pressure: redesignating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Resolution: To be determined.
Who backed down first: Sometimes the United States, sometimes North Korea.
Donald Trump has argued that episodes such as the Pueblo and EC-121 crises have led the Kim regime to interpret “America’s past restraint as weakness”—and that it “would be a fatal miscalculation” for Kim to draw the same conclusions this time around. But Trump nonetheless confronts the same conundrum that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton all confronted well before North Korea had nuclear weapons. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the least-risky military options are insufficient to meet the challenge from North Korea and the sufficient military options are very risky. And even if the military plans are limited, the planners must be prepared for unlimited war on the Korean peninsula. Since the horror of the Korean War, no U.S. leader has been willing to assume those risks. Not yet, at least.