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Lessons on North Korea From the Cuban Missile Crisis

Photo by Jaume Escofet | CC BY 2.0

Nearly 55 years ago, in October 1962, I was a college student who’d just turned 20.

The Cuban Missile Crisis began the day after my birthday, and it seemed entirely possible that I (along with tens of millions of other people) might die in nuclear fire and fury before I got to 21. But Russia blinked first, and we survived — though we came closer to World War III than most of us realized.

But now I have to wonder, is there a chance I won’t make it to my 75th birthday this year because of a nuclear war?

Living on the West Coast, we’re said to be within range of North Korea’s missiles. But I’m more afraid of our own impulsive president than of the allegedly irrational Kim Jong-Un.

President Trump’s insistence on getting North Korea to de-nuclearize with threats, force, and sanctions can only lead to war. That’s because Kim Jong-Un is being entirely rational in his determination to keep his nuclear arsenal.

In recent years, the Kim dynasty has based its survival in a hostile world on the fact that North Korea is a nuclear state. Kim Jong-Un isn’t crazy to think the U.S. would have a go at “regime change,” as it did in Iraq and elsewhere, if he lacked nuclear arms.

Indeed, U.S. leaders openly discuss whether a “decapitation” strike is possible.

Kim no doubt also recalls that after the U.S. invaded Iraq (which lacked nuclear weapons), Saddam Hussein died on the gallows. And that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who eliminated Libya’s nuclear program under Western pressure, was later overthrown with U.S. help and tortured to death.

That’s as personal as it gets. Don’t think we’re going to sanction North Korea out of being a nuclear state.

But can’t we bomb Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear arsenal out of existence?

Not really. We can’t be confident a first strike would destroy all of North Korea’s nuclear bombs, because we don’t know where they all are. And any strike would unleash a gigantic war that might well go nuclear — and could kill millions even if it didn’t.

There’s also increased risk to our own cities: In the chaos of war, when it becomes every man for himself, a North Korea military officer might well decide it was time to get rich selling Kim’s nukes to a terrorist organization. Then the fire and fury could scorch Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles.

A showdown isn’t necessary. Our country and Russia have long had missiles and bombs sufficient to kill a hundred million of each other. But mutual deterrence held us back even in the tensest of times.

Deterrence applies to North Korea too. We want to deter them from attacking our country or anyone else with their nukes. They want to deter anyone from trying to change their government, kill their leaders, or obliterate their nation. A deal on this basis beats nuclear war.

Yet Trump prefers to rely on increasingly provocative threats. With both sides competing to raise the tension, a misunderstanding or accident could trigger a succession of tit-for-tat reactions that end in nuclear warfare.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Premier Khrushchev privately offered President Kennedy what proved to be wise advice for them both. Don’t “pull on the end of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war,” Khrushchev wrote, “because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.”

We need to tell the people in Washington that we don’t want the knot of war tightened any more. Our government must turn to negotiations.

Mitchell Zimmerman is an intellectual property lawyer who devotes much of his practice to pro bono work. 

Distributed by OtherWords.org

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