The United States is now being confronted by a serious nuclear crisis, this time with North Korea, in some ways more dangerous than those it had faced with the Soviet Union in 1962 and 1983 under the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. To make this judgment about current Washington difficulties, with a nation that in no way possesses the colossal military threat posed by Moscow for these two leaders of the Free World, may seem an exaggeration, but for one very significant difference between then and now: the present absence of adequate channels of communication between Washington and Pyongyang.
For purposes of intelligent discussion about how this deficiency can be overcome, it may be useful to take a brief look back to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the collapse of the medium-range missile negotiations for Europe in Geneva during 1983, and then return to the present crisis and its dangers.
Since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, between the United States and Soviet Union in the Kennedy administration, a good deal of attention among nuclear powers has been devoted to the role of “back channels” within the broader field of crisis management. Although a preference in such planning has centered on so-called “rational man” models, where conscious policies of “deterrence” dominate assumptions and actions involved in “thinking the unthinkable”, it has been the case since the earliest introduction of atomic weapons into military planning that for various reasons—both rational and irrational—an even remote chance of actual nuclear war, driven by deliberate calculation or fear, can bring failure to even the most cautious of decision-making. This proved true in the Cuban case where actual photographs of Soviet missiles on Cuban territory brought the highest defense officials in Washington to an almost certain retaliation by American nuclear forces against these targets before they could be used by the enemy.
What saved the United States and Soviet Union from such a nuclear exchange in 1962 was a so-called “channel”, in this case official, between President Kennedy’s brother and a ranking KGB officer in the Soviet Union’s Washington embassy, that allowed the president and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, to communicate quickly about a compromise withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for a similar move by the United States in Turkey. After this close call of nuclear disaster, the president chastised his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, for not being better prepared to head off such a disaster and that he hoped Rusk’s department would be better prepared in the future. It would seem that, in the nuclear age, normal diplomatic relations and protocols must be supplemented by additional channels for contingencies that go beyond the best laid plans.
Despite the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis, it can be the case that there will be repetitions of situations where “thinking the unthinkable” will again challenge national security planning. Such was the case when, during the first Reagan administration, the extremely important and sensitive negotiations in Geneva during 1983 on control of medium-range nuclear weapons stationed in Europe by both sides—American and Soviets—collapsed in July. President Ronald Reagan, hardly a sympathizer of Moscow’s designs in world politics, nonetheless recognized the danger to both sides in a Cold War of failure in Geneva—and also the embarrassment to himself, personally, as he sought a second term in the White House, raised the issue of resuming the negotiations with his secretary of state, George Shultz, according to the president’s hand-written diary of 8 November 1983 published in 2007. He noted that he had a “talk” with Shultz about "setting up a little in-house group of experts on the Soviet Union to help us in setting up some channels” with Moscow to calm what he saw as a Soviet tendency to be “so paranoid about being attacked”. There is no evidence in the secretary’s 1993 memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, that this was taken much further by Shultz, but Reagan’s wishes may well have been pursued by others working for his administration.
By late September 1994, the president and his wife were greeting Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, in the White House “in terms of protocol more appropriate to a head of government”, in the words of Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoliy Dobrynin. The following January, the missile talks in Geneva reopened and even agreed that there would be serious discussions about Reagan’s “SDI” (Strategic Defense Initiative), much criticized by the Soviets. Again, as in the Cuban missile case, multiple channels seemed to be at work in this crisis.
A third nuclear crisis is now facing the United States, this time with North Korea (a nation produced in the Cold War), a country now apparently seeing itself as taking the place of the Soviet Union as a major competitor to Washington in matters of nuclear warfare. Indeed, as of late September 2017, it now considers itself in a state of war with the Americans. Although the United States has cautioned that its president’s warnings to North Korea do not connote that its position in this controversy is that of a formal declaration of war, as the North Koreans insist it is, the current relationship ranks as a “nuclear crisis”, every bit as dangerous as those of 1963 and 1983 with the Soviet Union. Perhaps more so. In one very significant respect, it is more ominous for world peace than those faced by presidents Kennedy and Reagan: the absence of adequate channels of communication between Washington and Pyongyang.
As far back as 1994, the agreement between North Korea and the United States, in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the development of nuclear weapons, was similar to that now existing with Iran, but this proved to be short-lived as Washington changed administrations four times and Pyongyang moved its leadership from father to son. Today, there is nothing on paper binding either nation and any early resumption of authentic nuclear arms control seems improbable. The best that can be hoped is that channels between the two countries may exist—or perhaps be hastily constructed—but this will take a vision and ingenuity that neither side seemingly possesses. What we are left with as 2017 draws to a close is a realistic judgment from a recent, and highly informative, article by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker of September 18 2017, “On the Brink” (Letter from Pyongyang), an assessment by Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations: “We can’t identify an internal or external channel of information flow that is effective in communicating the risks of the course he [Kim Jong Um] is on”.
Effective nuclear crisis management absolutely depends on reliable channels of communication between adversaries, apparently almost impossible when dealing with the young autocratic leader of North Korea. However, for the sake of the future of our planet, one should not despair. The Soviet leadership took pride in its seclusion in what used to be ominously called “the Kremlin”, and Ronald Reagan headed an administration that took no prisoners when it came to distrust of the “evil empire”. And yet, under threat of possible Armageddon, leaders on both sides were open for what is now termed “a better deal”, by using officially sanctioned channels of communication outside normal diplomatic patterns. Both North and South Korea may rest easier with such pragmatism when faced with the awful consequences of not doing so. Required also will be Americans—public and/or private—with the ingenuity that characterized nuclear decision-making in 1962 and l983.
DR. ROBERT J. PRANGER
Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
Advisor on National Security and Foreign Policy Issues