By Daniel DePetris
Earlier this month, the United States and North Korea stepped dangerously close to the brink of a military exchange. While that may sound like an exaggeration of the threat, the tit-for-tat and escalatory rhetoric between President Donald Trump and the Kim Jong-un regime were alarming enough for many leaders around the world to call for calm. Chinese, Russian, and European officials did not waste any time in issuing statements for Washington’s and Pyongyang’s benefit that an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be a catastrophic mess of immense proportions, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would agree.
Fortunately, the war of words thrown back and forth in Washington and Pyongyang have died down a bit—for now. But the incident several weeks ago is a reminder to the entire international community that even rational actors in the state system who view their nuclear weapons as deterrents to an invasion could still trip into some kind of violent confrontation. Miscalculation between nuclear weapons states and misinterpretation of one another’s public remarks could be an even greater vulnerability to security as the irrational despot that we tend to worry about.
While the “fire and fury” episode didn't reach Cuban missile crisis-like proportions, the back-and-forth between President Trump and Jong-un and the at times disheveled internal messaging of the administration should give us all pause. The U.S. and North Korea should seriously consider establishing a communications hotline—a direct link that the military and political officials of both countries could utilize if a situation or dispute quickly gets out of control.
A hotline proposal is a conventional but effective way to at least promote one another’s intentions in a forthright way.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a nuclear hotline less than a year after the Cuban missile crisis almost resulted the world’s first nuclear conflict. That agreement, which described a dialogue channel between the world’s two largest nuclear weapons states, spelled out procedures that could be used, “[F]or use in time of emergency.” The channel was tapped by both Washington and Moscow during some of the 20th century’s most pivotal moments, from the 1973 Arab-Iaraeli war to strategic arms buildup during the Reagan presidency. The idea behind the channel wasn't to solve these conflicts or promote a diplomatic rapprochement, but to simply convey to the other side why specific military actions were being undertaken and to assure one another that those actions are not a change in policy.
In the decades since, more nuclear weapons states have adopted the hotline as a useful way to diminish misunderstanding. France and the Soviets established a channel of their own in 1967, as did the U.K. and Moscow a year later. Russia and China formed communication channels on strategic issues in 1998. India and Pakistan, two giant nuclear powers with fast-growing nuclear arsenals, established a link in 2004 and indeed followed up the idea with a hotline on military clashes in Kashmir, which continues to be used today.
That the U.S. and North Korea, after all these years, still don't have a reliable link between them is beyond short-sighted—it could be calamitous. If Washington and Pyongyang can talk to one another through the United Nations, there is no good reason why both can't extend those conversations to the nuclear arena.
Some may oppose a hotline because it implies the U.S. now effectively recognizes North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, a development that would run up against three decades of U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula. But in real-life situations with nuclear weapons are involved, defending symbolism is a bad excuse to avoid what would be an obvious and constructive proposal.
North Korea most likely will not denuclearize, as the U.N. Security Council has long demanded. But if denuclearization is still an option, it won't happen until there is a substantive and durable negotiating process between the U.S. and North Korea—a fantasy that is at best far off into the future. In the interim, the least we can do is decrease the chances of hostile rhetoric blowing up into a regional war.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on August 30, 2017. Read more HERE.