Settling with North Korea

October 22, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is correct that only a negotiated settlement can end the threat of war with North Korea.

Nuclear deterrence as an unwritten law on war crimes was first established by President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Crisis with Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union in a standoff over nuclear missile withdrawals from Cuba in October 1962. In return for Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. withdrew nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Deterrence since Kennedy has become a mutual consent amid nuclear powers, which agree not to commit war crimes by wiping out whole populations or commit mutual suicide of leadership. India and Pakistan, who are nuclear powers, have observed this. The use of nuclear weapons has been studied by many scholars and even documented under international law, although there is no formal agreement.

The United Nations has a policy against nuclear war as unacceptable, but its Security Council is governed by five veto powers. Nevertheless, an agreement exists with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with 190 members and could be extended to prohibit nuclear war as a war crime.

Deterrence appears to be working between the U.S. and North Korea, though the heads of state on both sides are irrational bullies and appear to contradict their negotiating diplomats. However, the precedent of mutual deterrence has restrained them. Their advisers’ strongest motive may be to avoid their own suicide. We are all vulnerable when North Korea is able to reach California with a hydrogen warhead and should act now to support deterrence and a diplomatic settlement.

George W. Shepherd is professor emeritus, Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He lives in Santa Fe.