The NY Times writes:
What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has said repeatedly that “our policy of strategic patience has ended,” hardening the American position as Mr. Kim makes steady progress toward two primary goals: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb, with up to a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far.
While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise — for starters, President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century — one parallel shines through. When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.
It’s a very imperfect analogy, as the Times authors David E. Sanger and William J. Broad note. And when they add that the roots of the North Korean crisis go back a quarter-century (or more, I’d say), they also are implicitly although not explicitly acknowledging that it has challenged and stumped Trump’s predecessors from both parties.
There are other big differences between the Cuban crisis (which was really with the USSR) and the North Korean one, as well. The Soviet Union of the nuclear age may have been an evil empire, but it was headed by fairly rational actors regarding their weaponry. North Korea is headed by a person who might be a lot less stable than that (and his father before him was only marginally better than he).
The Soviets already didn’t just have the bomb, they possessed a fully functional arsenal of them, and the issue during the Cuban missile crisis was whether some of that arsenal would be stationed very near us. The North Koreans are trying to develop the capacity to reach our shores from across the Pacific, not to station bombs right off the US coast. And at the time of the Cuban crisis, the Soviets were a major power beholden to no one, whereas North Korea is dependent on a seemingly more rational actor than itself, China, which might be willing to discourage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Nevertheless, there is a game of chicken going on between the US and North Korea, and it’s been going on for many decades.
Sanger and Broad also give Trump some credit when they write: “So far, Mr. Trump has played his hand — militarily, at least — as cautiously as his predecessors.” They add:
Still, the current standoff has grown only more volatile. It pits a new president’s vow never to allow North Korea to put American cities at risk — “It won’t happen!” he said on Twitter on Jan. 2 — against a young, insecure North Korean leader who sees that capability as his only guarantee of survival.
Mr. Trump is clearly new to this kind of dynamic…
Trump is indeed new to this kind of dynamic applied to the enormously important and dangerous issues of nuclear weaponry and war. He’s not new to the dynamic itself, however: cajoling, threatening, pressuring, negotiating, backing off, pushing.
Obama was also new to negotiating about nuclear weaponry, and he was more naive about it, too (or, if you subscribe to certain other theories about Obama, less intent on protecting the US). And I’ll take Trump’s advisors over Obama’s advisors (Ben Rhodes, anyone?) any day. But the truth is that every president since at least Clinton has faced a terrible and exceptionally challenging dilemma in dealing with North Korea and its drive to become an effective nuclear power.