A tale of two crises

As the world steps back and watches the saber rattling taking place between North Korea and the United States, it is interesting to note the similarities and the differences between the current crisis and the last time there seemed to be an imminent threat of nuclear war.

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis began with the Soviet Union sending offensive ballistic missiles to the Castro government. Our U-2 spy planes spotted the unloading of the missiles and assembly of launchers.

For 13 fear-filled days, the world watched as the two biggest nuclear arsenals went to the brink of annihilation.

The only true similarity between that long-ago standoff and today’s threat is that two small nations — Cuba and North Korea — lay at the heart of the tensions. The Cubans, however, were merely stand-ins for the Soviets. The missiles and the nuclear warheads that were to be mounted on them were manufactured in the Soviet Union. And, in truth, on Cuban soil, the Soviets still managed them.

North Korea, on the other hand, embarked on its own nuclear program over two decades ago. The nuclear weapons they have are homegrown, the missiles they are testing are their own.

The differences between the two crises seem to offer both opportunities and challenges:

1. The main challenge is simply this — in 1962, the Soviets had enough control over Cuba and the deadly weapons that the U.S. had only to negotiate with them to diffuse the situation. The Soviets knew that a nuclear war meant mutually assured destruction. Today, North Korea is controlled by nobody other than a homicidal madman. China is its main trading partner and the U.S. is betting that dependence will be used to make the North back away.

2. The main opportunity today is a corollary of the challenge — the North can wreak havoc on the Korean peninsula and perhaps across the Sea of Japan. But it cannot destroy the U.S. It would perish and its main adversary would survive. There is no mutually assured destruction — the only certain destruction will be North Korea’s.

So, there are two hopes for a non-nuclear settlement. The first is that the madman ruling North Korea is simply homicidal and not suicidal. The second is that China can convince the North that better days can lie ahead without nuclear weapons — that expanded trade and peace with neighbors can improve its economy.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.