What Kennedy Can Teach Trump on North Korean Crisis

A new president facing a young communist dictator hell bent on war with the US, backed by a superpower that is willing to use words to condemn him but avoids taking any actions to curtail his aggression. A looming war that nobody except the communist dictator and a small cadre of his enablers in the superpower want. 55 years ago the Cuban Missile Crisis played out and here we are facing another autumn with the threat of nuclear war and a slight chill hanging in the air.

Diplomacy has failed and we are out of all non-military options. Or are we?

To prevent war the US must stop viewing the situation as a problem with North Korea. Instead it should take a lesson learned 55 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then the Kennedy administration refused to deal directly with an unstable Fidel Castro, choosing to deal with his primary backer, the Soviet Union. While Fidel had little to lose and everything to gain with the placement of missiles on Cuban soil, the Kennedy administration ignored him and focused instead on an adversary with more to lose and little to gain from the situation.

Today that would mean ignoring Kim and focusing instead on China. One option that is being considered is banning trade with any country that does business in North Korea. That would bring some of the largest trade flows in the world to a screeching halt. No iPhones for Americans and no hard currency for the Chinese. It would be the most drastic non-military action between two countries the world has seen in the modern era, but given the danger of a nuclear war that would kill tens of thousands (the low estimates) to tends of millions, I think it should be considered.

Such a halt in trade would damage both countries, there is no doubt. But it would embolden the faction of Chinese who want China to prosper and see North Korea as a threat to Chinese prosperity. It would give them the leverage they needed to pull the plug on Kim without a single shot fired.

There are some within the Chinese military that view the US and its allies as enemies that must be confronted. They view the world in zero sum terms where any time the US loses the Chinese must be winning and vice versa. How powerful this clique is and how deep their influence is in the Chinese politburo are unknowns. But they would be forced to explain to their countrymen how their actions in support of the rogue regime is in China’s best interest which has been an article of faith for over 67 years.

Trump has suggested cutting off trade with any country that does business with North Korea. His critics immediately attacked him for suggesting it calling the policy, saying the policy weakens the US position. Yet these same critics fail to offer any alternative and by doing so strengthen the case for military intervention. Nor do they appreciate the lesson President Kennedy taught, and which thousands of political science students have learned ever since: Don’t deal with the hot-head. Deal with his patron.

The US doesn’t have a North Korea problem: It has a China problem. By threatening to cut trade between the world’s largest superpowers and then doing it China will lose trillions of dollars over a few billion with its ally. It worked for Cuba, it can work for North Korea.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Scott,
    Great article. I certainly think we could crash China’s economy. The renmimbi is backed up by nothing except China’s artificial valuing. That strategy isn’t without risk, however. There are lots of U.S> assets in China that could be seized. And history reminds us of what can happen when a world power with a significant military sees its economy being crushed by another world power. I’m reminded of Japan circa 1940 and our cut off of oil, scrap metals and other necessaries to them.

    Trump has one problem to consider JFK didn’t. Seoul, South Korea’s capitol is just over the 49th parallel border, and in range of conventional artillery as well as missiles.

    The population of Seoul’s metro area is over 25 million people.

    In order to prevent massive civilian casualties in South Korea, we would have to strike very quickly and effectively at the Norks conventional military as well as its nuclear sites.

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