The long-simmering confrontation between the United States and North Korea has reached a moment of unprecedented tension. The risk that unintended war will break out due to misjudgment is high. Indeed, as others have observed, East Asia is witnessing a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.”
According to Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, it is now time “to examine previously unthinkable options” on the Korean Peninsula—such as scaling back joint US-South Korean military exercises in exchange for a freeze on North Korean tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Considering these “unthinkable” options, Allison writes, would follow in a tradition established during the Cuban Missile Crisis by John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, who both “blinked,” and whose behavior ultimately amounted to cooperative crisis management. One of the most unthinkable options for the Korean Peninsula—but perhaps the most promising—is for the United States and China to finally pursue a formal end to the Korean War.
Two main stakeholders. The situation on the Korean Peninsula today is fraught, to say the least. North Korea remains in diplomatic isolation. It has continued testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, resulting in further escalation of tensions. The United States and South Korea have exhibited increasing hawkishness, stepping up joint military exercises that center on striking key facilities in North Korea as well as the country’s leadership (“decapitation”). Washington and Seoul’s combined forces have enhanced their preemptive strike capability—but if US-South Korean forces attacked the North in the name of counterproliferation or regime change, the result would inevitably be all-out war and region-wide catastrophe.
Arguably, the US-North Korea confrontation has reached the level of mutually assured destruction. The two sides’ military capabilities are not rigorously balanced, as Washington and Moscow’s nuclear second-strike capabilities were balanced during the Cold War. But a military confrontation would cause intolerable damage to both sides and catastrophe for the whole region. Seoul would become an inferno. In Japan, nuclear power plants and US military bases would be targeted with missiles. North Korea’s special forces might resort to guerrilla or terrorist tactics involving weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps even Yanbian, a Chinese region near the North Korean border with a large population of ethnic Koreans, would be destabilized. The use of force is therefore not an option. The only viable solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is cooperative crisis management. Previously unthinkable options simply must be explored.
But the stakeholders who can end the nuclear crisis are not the United States and North Korea. Instead, as Allison has correctly suggested, they are the United States and China. This is not merely because the United States, as the region’s predominant military power, is exerting military pressure on North Korea, or that Beijing provides Pyongyang an economic lifeline (making China the gatekeeper for international economic sanctions against the North). Rather, Washington and Beijing hold the key to ending the crisis because they are the key signatories of the Korean War Armistice Agreement—which brought Korean War hostilities to an end but left the war itself in a state of suspended animation.
To this day, despite rhetorical frictions between Beijing and Pyongyang, China and North Korea share a “blood alliance” forged during the Korean War. The latest research on the war—based on declassified North Korean military documents that US and UN forces seized during the war, as well as on archival materials from Russia and China—reveals that Mao Zedong played a more active role in initiating the war than previously understood. China is usually portrayed as entering the war in October 1950, after UN forces, pursuing a counterattack against North Korea, reached the neighborhood of the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. But well before then—indeed, well before the outbreak of war in June 1950—Mao had made a strategic decision to support Kim Il-sung’s invasion of the South. Kim badly needed a larger army if he was to invade the South, and in the summer of 1949 Mao granted him approximately 30,000 ethnic Korean troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), fully equipped with modern arms left by the Soviet Red Army upon its departure from the country in 1948, and with additional supplies from the PLA. In the early stages of China’s civil war, the 166th Division—an elite PLA force comprised of ethnic Koreans—had formed the backbone of Communist forces fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces in Manchuria. Now these troops were transferred to Kim’s command, reappearing as the 6th Division of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). The 6th Division played a decisive role in the Korean War—launching an initial surprise attack against Kaesong on June 25, 1950, paving the way for the KPA’s 3rd Division to mount a lightning attack against Seoul on June 28, with the fighting then continuing south to Taejon. (Much of this only became clear with the 1993 publication of a study by Ryo Hagiwara known in English as The Korean War: A Conspiracy of Kim Il-sung and MacArthur.)
More than just a blood alliance, however, explains China’s behavior on the Korean Peninsula today. Just as Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba to strengthen the Soviet Union’s strategic position vis-à-vis the United States, China depends on heavily-armed North Korea to help neutralize US forces in East Asia. The only real difference is that Beijing is savvy enough to disguise its actions—to let the confrontation on the Peninsula be perceived as involving merely the United States and North Korea.
In fact, as Graham Allison has pointed out with considerable insight, the real animating force behind the North Korean nuclear crisis, and indeed behind tensions on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War, is strategic confrontation between the United States and China. It is therefore the responsibility of Beijing and Washington to reduce the tensions that could cause a catastrophic war. The two sides would do well to heed the lesson that Kennedy drew from the Cuban Missile Crisis—that “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
Now is the time. Among previously unthinkable measures to end the North Korean nuclear crisis, the most effective would be simply to formally end the abnormally protracted Korean War. After all, the root cause of the North Korean nuclear crisis is an ongoing Korean Cold War—contested between the United States and China (and at one time, discreetly, by the Soviet Union) but disguised as an ideological battle over Korean unification, with North and South contending for regime legitimacy. But the Korean Cold War has now reached the threshold of nuclear catastrophe, and it must end. Ending the war would reduce North Korea’s motivation to assert the legitimacy of its regime, or guard against “US nuclear blackmail,” by equipping itself with nuclear-armed missiles. And China, freed from concerns that war would break out on the peninsula or that the North Korean regime would collapse, would be able to implement more effective economic sanctions against North Korea and thereby contain nuclear proliferation.
If Washington and Beijing committed themselves to the project, negotiations toward a formal peace treaty would not have to be exceedingly complicated. The parties could agree to minimal preconditions: North Korea would stop its missile and nuclear tests while the United States and South Korea would agree to constrain their joint military exercises (an idea already proposed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi). Kim Jong-un, meanwhile, could be sidelined during the talks, just as Fidel Castro was left completely out of communications between Washington and Moscow at the critical moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the crisis, Castro and his regime survived for more than half a century, contending with economic sanctions and causing the rest of the world only modest problems.
When the Korean War is finally concluded, a new regional confidence-building framework, based on the erstwhile six-party talks, could be established—in much the same way that Washington and Moscow established a crisis hotline following the Cuban Missile Crisis. Formally ending the Korean War should be the beginning, not the end, of a years-long process of denuclearizing North Korea. It could even lead to the establishment of an East Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone. In any event, now is the time for Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping to cooperate, as Kennedy and Khrushchev cooperated before them, to prevent nuclear catastrophe and negotiate a peace agreement for the Korean Peninsula.