It has become popular to describe the current situation on the Korean Peninsula as a “slow motion Cuban Missile Crisis”. The temptation to do so is understandable since there are significant similarities between the two. For instance, both occurred because the militarily weaker power made a strategic move to even the balance. In 1962, the Soviets tried to sneak missiles into range of the United States to offset their lack of reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Today, North Korea is undertaking an accelerated ICBM and associated nuclear warhead programme to deter the overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority of the US.
Yet, there are critical differences that make the North Korean situation more intractable.
To begin with, this is the first foreign policy crisis of the seven-month old Trump Administration. By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy Administration had endured the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a shaky meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and the erection of the Berlin Wall. President John F Kennedy had learned which individuals and agencies could be trusted and relied on. He had set up the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the National Security Council to manage crises.
The Trump Administration shows no such coherence at this point. Over a critical period of a few days, US policymakers announced a number of conflicting policies, seemingly hashing out whether regime change was an option, denuclearisation was a prerequisite to negotiations, and even if negotiations were possible, all in public. The press event on August 10, designed to show that everyone was on the same page would have been more convincing if strategist Steve Bannon (who has since been removed from the White House) and his nationalist wing of the White House were present.
A second major difference is that the Cuban crisis was handled largely in private save for the naval “embargo”. Most leaks appeared to be intentional. By contrast, the North Korean crisis has been handled mostly in public with (often-contradictory) statements by administration officials and (often unscripted) comments and tweets by President Trump that seem to be aimed directly at Kim Jung-un. Privately conveyed positions can be modified or even abandoned. Public positions are harder to climb down from.
It is essential that the Trump Administration get its act together, fill key empty positions and establish a working national security team structure.
Perhaps it is only in hindsight that the resolution of the Cuban crisis seems so obvious. It was clear from the beginning that Kennedy could not and would not allow the Russian missiles to stay in Cuba. And it was clear the “embargo” could prevent further deliveries while air strikes would likely destroy those already there. The genius was finding a set of actions that would satisfy Khrushchev. A pledge not to invade Cuba somewhat mollified Castro, and a secret pledge to withdraw the US intermediate range ballistic missiles deployed in Turkey seemed enough for the Russian military and other Kremlin hardliners.
It took fierce internal argument and tough negotiations and no small amount of sleight of hand to get there, but at the end, it was a neat package.
There is no such neat package apparent in Korea. Yes, there are some things both sides may want, such as a Peace Treaty to finally end the Korean War and even normalisation of diplomatic relations, and North Korea will insist on US agreement not to seek regime change. But then what?
The US and South Korea are not giving up joint military exercises until, at a minimum, tensions have been dramatically reduced. Kim is unlikely to pause his weapon’s development for a pledge of no regime change so long as US forces remain on the Korean Peninsula. And then there is the true elephant in the room. Kim says he will never give up his nuclear weapons and indeed this is a requirement in the North Korean constitution. President Trump and his three predecessors have insisted he do so. Even if this could be kicked down the road, it is unlikely that the US would agree to begin negotiations while missile and nuclear tests continue. So the question may come down to this: Can a combination of sanctions and Chinese and US pressure get Kim to halt testing and start negotiations? If not, the impasse will remain, and the danger of war will not abate.
In the meantime, it is essential that the Trump Administration get its act together, fill key empty positions and establish a working national security team structure.
Col. Richard Klass, USAF (ret.) is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the National War College, a Rhodes Scholar and a combat veteran. He is a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.