September 2017

North Korea and the Bomb

The Origins of the Current Crisis and What’s Next
Table of Contents

Much of the current brouhaha over North Korean weapons development is overdone. The geopolitical situation on the Korean Peninsula has been frozen in place for more than half a century and shows no signs of thawing soon. The regime in Pyongyang is what it has always been, an evil family business operating for generations in a tightly protected market. And for decades, that regime has been able to deter others from attacking it—just as it has been deterred from attacking others. Nobody knows how much this basic calculus will be altered by incremental advancements in nuclear and missile technology, but the answer is almost surely less than most newcomers to the issue assume.

So why is everybody so riled up?

Because history feels different to those living through it. Reflecting on the nuclear age in his final speech to Parliament in 1955, Winston Churchill expressed hope that “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” A few years later, however, the strategist Albert Wohlstetter warned that the balance of terror was not sturdy but actually delicate. “Deterrence . . . ,” he wrote, “will be neither inevitable nor impossible but the product of sustained intelligent effort, attainable only by continuing hard choice.”

Generations of strategists and policymakers have tried to follow Wohlstetter’s advice and stabilize matters as much as possible, and so far they have largely succeeded. Churchill now seems prophetic. But past performance is no guarantee of future results, as the saying goes, and only a fool would dismiss the pessimists’ concerns.

At Foreign Affairs, we’ve been tracking Korea since before the peninsula was divided, and we’ve collected these highlights from our coverage to put the current uproar over Pyongyang’s weapons program into proper context. A failure of deterrence would be devastating, so even small changes in the odds are worth watching closely. And new situations may call for new tactics to strengthen deterrence or seize opportunities for diplomatic progress. But as so often in the past when dealing with this problem, wise policymakers today would try to dampen tensions rather than escalate them. To understand why, read the book.

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