Will Nuclear History Repeat Itself in Korea?

WASHINGTON, DC – As Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first summit with US President Donald Trump takes place at Trump’s luxurious Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, at least part of the discussion will invariably focus on one of the world’s most impoverished places: North Korea. Despite more than two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is pushing the world toward a strategic watershed much like the one that the West faced 60 years ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off against each other in Europe.

The US and its allies successfully navigated the challenge of Europe in the twentieth century without war. But to achieve comparable success in East Asia today, Trump must persuade Xi to adopt a different policy toward North Korea.

When the US and the Soviet Union became rivals after World War II, each had a way of deterring the other from attacking. The Soviet Union had – or was widely believed to have – a large advantage in non-nuclear forces, which the Kremlin could use to conquer Western Europe. The US, with its monopoly on nuclear weapons, could launch a nuclear strike from Europe on the Soviet homeland.

Then, in 1957, the launch of Sputnik made it clear that the Soviet Union would soon be able to deliver a nuclear strike on the US mainland, calling into question the effectiveness of American deterrence. Was it credible that, in response to an attack on Western Europe, the US would make war on the Soviet Union, thus inviting a nuclear attack on its own territory? America and its allies had four possible solutions to this novel and dangerous problem: preemption, defense, proliferation, and deterrence.