A semi-vanquished enemy is rising zombielike from the crypt of America's dimly remembered wars. North Korea is gleefully shooting missiles over Japan and splashing them into the Pacific Ocean. With astounding technical felicity, it is building a weapons system that may soon be able to hoist hydrogen bombs into Los Angeles, Chicago or even Manhattan.
Meanwhile, two neophyte leaders with strange hair and thin skins are insulting each other in bizarre ways. President Donald Trump calls Kim Jong Un "Rocket Man" and threatens to "totally destroy North Korea." Kim calls Trump "a mentally deranged U.S. dotard" and threatens to "definitely tame" him with "fire."
One of them, at least, should know better.
With a quiver of nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles, the North Korean leader seems to have a good shot at doing what his father and grandfather did — living despotically to a ripe old age and dying from natural causes. Yet deep in his dictatorial DNA, Kim Jong Un surely knows the risk of provoking a full-scale war with the United States. It did not go well for his family the last time around. During the Korean War (1950-53), his grandfather — Great Leader Kim Il Sung — cowered in bunkers as American bombs flattened his cities and legions of his people died.
What this should teach American policy makers — especially our history-challenged president and his blood-and-soil backers — is that a North Korean offensive strike is unlikely. That is, unless the Kim regime is provoked, perhaps by a particularly warmongering early-morning tweet, into believing that its existence really is at risk. The Trump administration needs to keep Kim family history in mind. It is a criminal enterprise focused on long-term survival, far more adept at enslaving its people than fighting big-boy wars.
Sadly, the United States has largely forgotten the lessons of the Korean War, even though that conflict cost the lives of more than 33,000 American combatants. The causes of this collective amnesia are varied: The Korean War ended in an inglorious tie that was impossible to celebrate. It produced no Greatest Generation myths and few memorable movies. Then came Vietnam — the first war to be truly televised, a war that is still being parsed on public television. Vietnam seared itself into our literary and cinematic culture, blotting out Korea, the Forgotten War.
As global anxiety mounts, remedial history is in order. In the summer of 1950, when North Korea started the Korean War with Soviet backing, Kim Il Sung was just 38 years old — a willful, pugnacious, wet-behind-the-ears dictator, not unlike his grandson today. In secret meetings with Joseph Stalin before the invasion, Kim delivered wildly enthusiastic and laughably wrongheaded analyses of how the war would unfold when his army stormed into South Korea.
He predicted that a formidable pro-Communist guerrilla force would spontaneously rise up in the South to fight with the North Korean military. It did not. He promised that the South Korean people would rally round his leadership. They did not. To top off his dubious claims, Kim assured Stalin that a North Korean victory would come in three days and the Americans would not intervene. The war has never ended; Americans still patrol the DMZ.
At his dacha outside Moscow, Stalin didn't completely buy what Kim was trying to sell. He warned his eager Korean acolyte, "If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger." But the old Soviet boss wanted to torment the United States. So, he approved and supplied the invasion, while ordering Kim Il Sung to make it look as if South Korea had started the war.
The United States, of course, did fight back. President Harry S. Truman, Congress and the public were outraged by the invasion, interpreting it as a challenge to America's character. In less than a week, Truman approved the use of ground forces.
After a halting and discouraging start that cost the lives of thousands of G.I.s, the American war machine became a murderous, unstoppable force. Using bombs and napalm, the United States Air Force blew up and burned down virtually every population center in North Korea. Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, estimated that "over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population." That's about 1.9 million people.
American troops — fighting with South Korean and United Nations forces — shredded North Korea's invading army, occupied Pyongyang, and marched north to the Chinese border, effectively erasing North Korea. Mao Zedong then stepped in, unwilling to tolerate American soldiers on his doorstep. Mao's top general, Peng Dehuai, quickly sized up Kim Il Sung as a battlefield nincompoop. Calling his leadership "extremely childish," Peng elbowed Kim out of the chain of command and made him a helpless spectator to his own war. Vast numbers of Chinese troops died to save North Korea from Kim's bloody mistake; they kept his regime from becoming a footnote in Asian history.
Propagandists in Pyongyang have always lied to the North Korean people about this well-documented history, claiming South Korea and the United States stealthily started the war and the Great Leader brilliantly won it. His descendants and their military planners know better.
For all its Orwellian blather, the Kim family dictatorship has survived this long by being coldly rational, even as it projects wild-eyed belligerence.
If war were to come again, the regime must reckon that it is much less likely to get significant support from the countries that were the Communist mother ships of the mid-20th century. Vladimir Putin's Russia is a gangster shadow of Stalin's Soviet Union. China's political stability depends on vibrant trade with the West. What's more, Kim Jong Un — with the timing of his nuclear tests and missile-launching antics — has gone out of his way to antagonize the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. North Korea, as a result, is more isolated than ever — even as it becomes a global nuclear threat.
The United States has to accept the obvious: Kim Jong Un is never going to give up his missiles. But he knows that if he uses them, he's going to die or live in a bunker like Granddad. His nuclear hardware is most valuable on the shelf.
Trump should holster his "fire and fury" and cease uttering what Kim Jong Un accurately describes as "unprecedented rude nonsense." Instead, Washington needs to settle in for an extended cold war with the Kims: strong military preparedness, energetic spying, flexible sanctions, quiet negotiations with China and Russia, and openness to conversations at whatever level is possible with North Koreans. It would help if Washington made unilateral gestures. Accept a North Korean ambassador in Washington. If possible, send an ambassador to Pyongyang. Acknowledge the heinous bombing of cities in the Korean War. Try to help the North Korean people feel as if the world is not against them.
War could still come and the United States would be lax if it wasn't ready. The maturity of Kim Jong Un is questionable. Dazzled by the beauty of his weapons, he could try to use them to take control of the entire Korean Peninsula. But his family's shattering history of wartime overreach suggests he knows better.
This essay is adapted from "King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster in Korea" by Blaine Harden, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. The book is available at http://bit.ly/2xVBZT6. © 2017 by Blaine Harden