Nobody thought North Korea would attack South Korea in a sudden and massive military strike on that sleepy, wet summer Sunday morning of June 25, 1950. But it did.
The North Koreans never figured the United States would land amphibious forces at Inchon
, behind their lines, in a brilliant counter-attack a few months later. But it did.
Nobody believed that China would send its troops into the fight to save North Korea. But it did.
Almost 60 years later, the United States and North Korea seem again headed into an armed confrontation. So, perhaps it's time to consider the role that miscalculation plays when it comes to dealing with the secretive, nuclear-armed
police state of North Korea.
U.S. intelligence officers
say North Korea "probably" wouldn't use its nuclear weapons in a crisis. But sober-minded analysts at the International Crisis Group
, a global think-tank, observe that "misperception, miscalculation, escalation or a change in military strategy could conceivably lead to their [nuclear weapons] deliberate, accidental or unauthorized use.''
"The risk of an accidental nuclear explosion cannot be ignored, given uncertainty about the sophistication of the North's technology and its known generally poor safety standards,'' the ICG said.
Even Sen. John McCain
, former naval officer and unsuccessful presidential candidate, who does not shy from eyeball-to-eyeball military confrontations, acknowledged that the situation is "very dangerous.''
In this latest effort to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the United Nations Security Council on June 12 reacted to a second North Korean nuclear test by imposing additional sanctions
and declaring that North Korean ships suspected of exporting weapons or nuclear material would be intercepted on the high seas and, if possible, inspected.
As if to answer, North Korea last week dispatched a ship known to have carried weapons in the past, and declared that any interference with its trade would be "an act of war'' and would be "met with decisive military action.''
"We will be continuing to do everything we can to really put pressure on their military capability,'' State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said about North Korea last week.
If there are miscalculations, they will be by the other side, he emphasized:
"I think that's why we are concerned about the North Korea provocations, that at some point they might, in fact, do something intentionally or unintentionally that sparks a larger crisis."
"That is why,'' he added, "we have repeatedly condemned the actions that they've taken as being irresponsible, provocative, but also dangerous.''
Needless to say, there is no hotline between Washington and Pyongyang, so this name-calling and bluster takes place indirectly.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had a hotline
to speak directly to each other in crises. The two superpowers also had an agreed set of rules for behavior at sea. Signed in 1972, the Incidents at Sea agreement
outlaws things like "simulated attacks by aiming guns, missile launchers, torpedo tubes and other weapons'' at each other. Warships spying on other ships "shall avoid executing maneuvers embarrassing or endangering ships under surveillance,'' the agreement says.
Of course, American and Russian skippers routinely harassed each other. But they also met regularly, in a forum mandated by the agreement, to hear complaints and to analyze near misses.
No such agreement exists between the U.S. and North Korea, even though it is exactly the kind of mechanism that might help out in the next few days as the USS John McCain tries to head off the Kang Nam, the North Korea freighter. (No such agreement exists between the U.S. and Iran, either, despite many incidents of harassment that might have escalated. Two congressmen, Democrat John Conyers of Michigan and Republican Geoff Davis of Kentucky, are pushing for one, but their measure
is stalled in committee.)
In his landmark book about the Korean War, "This Kind of War," T.R. Fehrenbach
wrote that the conflict "showed that the West had misjudged the ambition and intent of the Communist leadership ... it also proved that Communism [he meant North Korea and perhaps its patron, China] erred badly in assessing the response its aggression would call forth.''
Fehrenbach, who fought in that war as a young officer with the 2nd Infantry Division, wrote the book in 1963, a decade after the war ended.
But he could already see the risk of more miscalculation in the threats, counter-threats and brinksmanship that continued over Korea.
"The game,'' he wrote, "continues.''