As President Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visits South Korea amid chaos in North Korea, history has a terrifying chance of repeating itself. A second Korean War could emerge, not from calculating minds of decision makers, but from misperceptions both could make. We know that the likelihood of this is high, because it has happened before in the same place.
Misperception Led to the First Korean War
To understand the mistakes that may happen, the best lessons we can employ come from political science professor Robert Jervis. While many of his colleagues sought to employ rational choice models to international conflict, Jervis argued that misperception often leads to international wars. Such misperception comes from believing one’s forces are stronger than they really are, or believing an opponent is weaker than he or she really is.
Examples of misperception that lead to that bloody war can be found in 1950. We now know that Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin strongly encouraged North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung to launch an attack, and the Russians gave them many pieces of artillery, tanks and planes. P.K. Rose of the CIA claims that Secretary of State Dean Acheson said he drew a defense perimeter that excluded South Korea, making communist forces confident that America wouldn’t intervene, thereby misperceiving our resolve. Acheson was actually trying to build support for South Korea, but was misinterpreted in his famous National Press Club Speech of January 12, 1950, according to James I. Matray, writing in the Journal of Conflict Studies.
South Korean forces may have been poorly equipped, but North Korea underestimated the tenacity with which the ROK forces would stubbornly resist the invasion. Kim Il-Sung misperceived General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant tactical move, the Inchon Landing, which led to the devastation of North Korea’s KPA forces and the loss of their capital. But MacArthur himself misperceived signals that China would attack U.S. forces in North Korea as well, writes Rose.
Chances for a Second Korean War
Misperception could lead to a second Korean War, in a similar fashion to the way the first emerged in the summer of 1950. We already know that North Korea has conducted 20 missile tests and two nuclear tests in the last year alone, which is in violation of international law. Their language has been equally, if not more so, defiant than Middle East terrorists.
But though North Korea is ruled by a brutal communist regime, the leadership is in utter chaos. Several high-level politicians have been assassinated in gruesome ways, including Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and second most powerful man in North Korea until the young leader ordered the purge. Last week, it was reported that State Security Minister Kim Won Hong took his turn among the many officials sacked. Such instability and erratic foreign policy could convince the West that North Korea is weak and would be unable to resist an aggressive military policy.
North Korea is hardly the only country in the equation that appears fragile. Late last year, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached over charges of corruption and mismanagement. Just the other day, investigators seeking information for a trial that could remove Park Geun-hye were thwarted by the acting leader, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, triggering a Constitutional crisis. Additionally, President Trump’s rocky transition in his first few days in office, coupled with America’s obsession with the Middle East, could tempt the Korean communist regime to launch another attack, like it did more than 60 years ago.
Preventing a Second Korean War
This is why Secretary of Defense Mattis went to South Korea and Japan. He’s trying to huddle with leaders to map out an effective American strategy for handling the Korean crisis. But what are his options?
Mattis already avoided making a statement that could be misperceived, showing a resolve to respond to any North Korean violence. “Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Mattis announced at a meeting with his South Korean counterpart. But can’t more be done?
Already, America is set to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, a fancy term for the missile defense system. That’s because North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities are growing stronger by the day.
“Once fully developed, a North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) could threaten the continental United States, which is about 9,000 km (5,500 miles) from North Korea,” writes Phil Stewart with Reuters. “ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500 km (3,400 miles), but some are designed to travel 10,000 km (6,200 miles) or more.”
At a recent lecture, Mark Tokola, VP of the Korean Economic Institute of America and former State Department official, said North Korea could hit South Korea, Japan or even Guam. He noted that their conventional weapons could inflict a lot of deaths in the event of another war.
But while options range from doing nothing to waiting for North Korea to implode and invade the country, another way is possible. As Leon D. Sigal writes in his book Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, “A strategy of diplomatic give-and-take that combines reassurance with conditional reciprocity, promising inducements on the condition that potential proliferators accept nuclear restraints, might just persuade them to give up their quest.”
Could President Trump be suited to make the improbable negotiations possible? Already, during the summer, he hinted that he would not be opposed to talking with Kim Jong-un. As they once said, only Nixon could go to China. Maybe history will replace that famous phrase with “Only Trump could go to North Korea.”
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.