Many fear a possible war between North Korea and the United States. Mutual threats and hostility — and boasts about button size! — create an extremely dangerous environment, a powder keg just waiting for a stray match to set it off.
But there are plenty of reasons not to panic. In a previous Monkey Cage post, Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth N. Saunders explain why structural factors like geography and military capabilities help encourage peace. Consider also the historical record, which suggests that preemptive wars rarely happen.
Other crises did not escalate into war
Though the powder keg image is powerful, in reality very few wars start this way. It’s rare to see a minor incident like a border clash escalating or a preemptive war break out because one side attacks out of fear that the other side is about to attack.
About 20 years ago, I wrote that since 1816, preemptive wars have almost never happened. Further, many dangerous international crises — like the Berlin Crisis in 1958-1961 or the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis — did not escalate into preemptive wars.
More recently, the 1994 scare over a second Iraqi invasion of Kuwait did not prompt U.S. preemption. Chinese missile tests off the coast of Taiwan in 1996 did not spark war. And Russia’s recent provocative aerial and naval actions against other nations have not frightened the targets of such actions into preemption.
Why don’t preemptive wars happen? Simply, preemptive wars just aren’t that tempting. Leaders usually subscribe to Otto von Bismarck’s observation that such wars amount to committing suicide out of fear of death. Why cause the very thing you hope to avoid?
Is a preemptive war over North Korea likely? Not really.
Strategic theory suggests that if you really think the adversary is about to attack, and you really think there is an advantage to attacking first, then preemptive war becomes more attractive. Happily, neither condition exists between the United States and North Korea. Most importantly, neither side is likely to preempt because neither side really thinks the other will attack first.
The U.S.-North Korean relationship is actually far more stable than most people think. Both sides understand that there is a very wide, bright line separating begrudgingly acceptable behavior from truly unacceptable behavior — the type of actions that might justify escalation to war:
Acceptable (if undesirable): North Korean missile and nuclear tests, U.S.-South Korean war games, espionage, minor military actions against South Korea, limited naval clashes, tourist abuse, cyberattacks, belligerent rhetoric and economic sanctions.
Unacceptable: U.S. airstrikes on or invasion of North Korea, or North Korean missile attacks on South Korea, Japan or any U.S. territory. Each side knows that as long as it stays on the acceptable side of the line, the other will be unmotivated to take the hugely costly step of launching a war.
One side might preempt if it thought the other side was about to take an unacceptable action. However, each side knows that the unacceptable options remain unappealing to the other side, reducing motives to preempt. For instance, the United States considered attacking nascent North Korean nuclear facilities in 1994, an unacceptable action, but concluded that such actions would be hugely costly. These options are far less attractive today, as North Korea likely has dozens of concealed nuclear weapons.
For North Korea, unacceptable actions like attacks on South Korea, Japan or America don’t offer much in the way of benefits. Those attacks won’t begin to scratch American military power, won’t allow them to conquer South Korea and of course would invite massive retaliation that would destroy the regime of Kim Jong Un.
The madness of Kim and Trump?
But some might counter that these rational calculations don’t apply to Supreme Leader Kim and President Trump. This line of argument sees North Korea as a rogue regime led by a man with an itchy trigger finger, easily panicked into attacking out of fear. Conversely, Trump may appear eager to seize an opportunity to demonstrate his dominance.
But what does the historical record suggest? North Korea is a harsh and well-armed regime. But it is predictable and rational, including under Kim Jong Un. North Korea certainly makes frightening threats, but its actions remain in the acceptable category. For 64 years, it has not attacked its neighbors, minor clashes aside.
And Trump, his bluster notwithstanding, does not act like a gunslinger. One year into his presidency the only major U.S. use of force was the one-off missile attack against Syria in April 2017.
North Korea, the United States and South Korea are actually pretty good at preventing miscalculation
Could low-level provocations escalate to war? The bad news is that potentially spiraling incidents happen frequently on the Korean Peninsula, such as the December 2017 defection of a North Korean soldier leading to gunfire across the demilitarized zone. The good news is that these events happen so often that both sides are very practiced at avoiding escalation.
A Congressional Research Service report listed 163 provocative actions North Korea took from 1958 to 2007, including sinking South Korean ships and assassination attempts on the South Korean president. None of these incidents escalated to a broader shooting war.
The escalation risk decreased further this month when North Korea reopened a hotline with South Korea designed to facilitate communication and prevent minor events from escalating. In October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that Washington has a number of direct channels of communication with Pyongyang.
Conversely, the United States routinely takes provocative actions against North Korea that do not spark war. War games in South Korea involving thousands of U.S. troops are routine. Twice last year, American bombers flew over North Korea itself.
So where does this leave us now?
Trump’s saber-rattling certainly hasn’t coaxed and won’t coax Kim into giving up his nuclear or missile programs. It can be harmful, possibly damaging U.S. relations with allies like South Korea and strengthening Kim’s grip on power.
But calm down. Neither side will be frightened into starting a war neither wants. Really.
Dan Reiter is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Political Science at Emory University. His most recent book is the edited volume The Sword’s Other Edge: Tradeoffs in the Pursuit of Military Effectiveness.