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The Uses and Misuses of Historical Analogy for North Korea

Author:
Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk

Amid a steady fusillade of ever more capable rockets from North Korea, and an escalating volley of threats and insults flying between Washington and Pyongyang, the crisis in Northeast Asia shows no sign of slackening. On the contrary, as North Korea’s drive for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile accelerates, Washington is racing to innovate creative new sanctions to strangle the Hermit Kingdom’s economy, and to develop unconventional military options that could stymie Kim Jong Un’s weapons programs without provoking a cataclysm.

But Pyongyang’s worsening provocations have also set off another kind of intellectual arms race among foreign-policy thinkers: the search for the perfect historical analogy that can pierce the fog surrounding the present crisis.

For Harvard professor Graham Allison, the North Korean affair represents a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Scholar Robert Litwak agrees—but also invokes 1914 Europe and the tinderbox that sparked a world war. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton argues that the right comparison for Kim’s behavior is to Nazi naval threats in 1941, while according to The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, Washington should look to Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev as a model for persuading Xi Jinping to help America against Pyongyang.

 

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