Cold War Perspective on the North Korea Summit: Lessons from the Berlin Crisis

Cold War Perspective on the North Korea Summit: Lessons from the Berlin Crisis

Jenny Thompson and Sherry Thompson are the authors of The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn E Thompson, America's Man in Cold War Moscow, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

A summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, inconceivable a few months ago, now offers the tantalizing possibility of solving one of the world’s major diplomatic challenges. Harsh rhetoric seemed to be leading the U.S. and North Korea into a situation where one of the two would have to face humiliating retreat or put their missiles where their mouths were. But then a meeting between South Korea and North Korea opened a door to a roller coaster ride of an on again off again summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

A meeting between Trump and Kim would have pleased the old-school diplomat nicknamed the “Cold War Owl.” Llewellyn Thompson served six presidents over a distinguished four plus decade career, including serving as Special Advisor on Soviet Affairs to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was on hand for most of the Cold War crises and negotiations with the Soviet Union.

As in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, North Korean military power is in the hands of one man who is determined and ready to risk whatever it takes to insure that his political system endures.

After being divided by war, the permanent existence of East Germany, like that of North Korea, was neither confirmed by a peace treaty nor legitimated by agreed upon borders. West Germany, with its US military bases, posed an existential threat to East Germany in the same way that South Korea does to North Korea. To Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, correcting this abnormal situation was worth risking whatever it took to remove the capitalist cancer from the communist body. Berlin then, like Pyongyang now, was a nuclear accident waiting to happen.

Khrushchev began the 1958 Berlin crisis to force recognition of communist East Germany and thus shore up the cracks in the Soviet bloc.  Then US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Thompson explained that although Khrushchev’s bluster over Berlin was challenging and provocative, his motivation was defensive.  The uprisings in Hungary, Poland and East Germany in the mid-1950s helped convince Khrushchev that the iron curtain protecting the Soviet empire was in danger of falling away. Thompson asserted that it was important to leave Khrushchev an escape hatch from a crisis of his own making.

When President John F. Kennedy’s more hawkish advisors encouraged Kennedy to be aggressive with Khrushchev over his threatening attitude towards Berlin, Thompson, warned Kennedy that such a strategy would “probably lead to developments which had a 50-50 chance of the West having to make [an] ignominious retreat from its position, or face [nuclear] war.”

The danger, as Thompson saw it, was that both sides were convinced the other was bluffing. So if the rhetoric on both sides continued to escalate, at a certain point it would be virtually impossible for either to retreat without jeopardizing its credibility and therefore security. Both sides were relying heavily on a nuclear position, which made the situation all that much more dangerous. The same dynamics are evident today.

Years of Berlin task forces, endless meetings, and talks, between Thompson and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, between Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Gromyko and between Rusk and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, all gave Khrushchev cover to continuously postpone his ultimatums.

While it took more than a decade, continued talks provided the time needed for a new West German chancellor Willy Brandt to break with the unbending closed door policies of his predecessor Konrad Adenauer and open a door towards East Germany. This allowed the two Germanys to embark on a normalization of relations, culminating in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev removed the last obstacles for German reunification. We now know, thanks to the work of the National Security Archives at George Washington University, that he did this on the verbal promise that the West would not expand NATO to the East, which was the ultimate gesture of trust, one severely damaged when NATO did expand eastward.

Neither Saddam Hussein nor Muamar Gadhafi were able to protect their countries or themselves by agreeing to end their nuclear programs, and so Kim saw that the only way to secure his leadership in North Korea was to flex his nuclear muscles. And it worked. So, in order to denuclearize, Kim will need something else to guarantee his security. The question is where will he find it? With a United States that just abrogated its nuclear agreement with Iran? Or will Korea look to Russia or China?

Thompson kept his eye on the long game and he saw that opening dialogue  between leaders, and people in the form of cultural and scientific exchanges, could forestall the Soviet Union from moving away from its policy of “peaceful coexistence” and toward the more ideologically rigid and militant version being advocated by China at the time. Closing off dialog now could push America’s adversaries together, potentially creating a situation less hospitable to American interests and more combustible.

If war could be avoided over Berlin between two superpower adversaries with vast nuclear arsenals, then surely it's possible to lower tensions in Korea. The way to do it is to recognize the reality of the situation, keep talking, and let the two Koreas begin to normalize their relationship.

Jenny Thompson runs an English-language school in Estepona, Spain. Before she retired, Sherry Thompson was the director of a nonprofit foundation. The authors, daughters of Llewellyn E Thompson, spent eight years of their childhood in Moscow.