As the United States and North Korea — both armed with incendiary rhetoric and nuclear weapons — taunt and challenge each other, the crisis in East Asia underlines an important, immutable but much-ignored law of international relations: Peripheral disputes have a dangerous tendency to grow into principal areas of conflict.
A century ago, few Americans gave even a fleeting thought to Korea. The nation came up a handful of times on the Senate floor in 1919, primarily over the question of Korean self-governance, but a resolution supporting an independent Korea failed to be reported out of the relevant committees of both the House and Senate, and the topic was swiftly forgotten. No one would have guessed that the United States, already on the rise as a world power, would face a nuclear-armed North Korea in a deadly standoff a century later.
The dispute between the United States and North Korea is one of several unlikely turns in diplomatic affairs, a reminder that the most improbable corners of the world can be the most fertile grounds for international strife. From the Congo crisis of the early 1960s and the Falklands War of 1982 to the French combat in Chad in 1983 and the brief American conflict on the Caribbean island of Grenada only months later, the major powers have often found themselves in difficulties in distant, remote lands.
It has happened for years. The British fought the Boer War at the opening of the 20th century, and the French and Germans nearly came to blows in the Agadir Crisis of 1911 in Morocco. Afghanistan, sometimes regarded as the graveyard of empires, has been fought over by the British three times and the Russians twice; it engaged Canada for about a dozen years and has ensnarled Americans for 15 — and counting.
American presidents have faced unlikely crises in unlikely places since Thomas Jefferson joined the Tripolitanian War in the Barbary States of North Africa in the first years of the 19th century. Some 175 years later, President Jimmy Carter found his administration convulsed in a crisis in Iran, where American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days by students and prison guards supporting Iranian theocrats.
The current crisis involving North Korean nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles — which by some estimates make a large portion of North America vulnerable to attack — is a classic example of this phenomenon, presenting President Donald J. Trump with a classic conundrum. But unlike the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Crimean War of 1853-1856, or the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763 (fought in part in North America, then a faraway outpost of the British Empire), this potential confrontation puts millions of people at risk.
"This is a serious crisis," said Bruce W. Bennett, senior international researcher at the RAND Corp., a think tank respected in diplomatic circles. "There are all these missiles being launched by what can generously be described as a 'third-world country.' This is a big test for Trump."
At the heart of this conflict is Kim Jong Un, who, like his predecessors Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, considers the Korean War still to be in progress. There was an armistice in 1953, to be sure, but North Korea maintains the conflict still rages, with the recent set of summertime provocations merely being an extension of a war that began two-thirds of a century ago, in 1950.
A mere 48 days before the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States formally — though not particularly visibly — agreed to provide military aid to France in its struggle in Indochina.
The Pentagon Papers, the internal American government study that 21 years later would be the subject of a major American constitutional dispute over its release, set out the context and implications of that agreement, which was supported by President Harry Truman. The language from the Pentagon Papers is stark:
"The decision was taken in spite of the U.S. desire to avoid direct involvement in a colonial war, and in spite of a sensing that France's political-military situation in Indochina was bad and was deteriorating. Moreover, predictions that U.S. aid would achieve a marked difference in the course of the Indochina War were heavily qualified."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson explained the situation for Truman, telling him, "The choice confronting the United States is to support the legal government in Indochina or to face the extension of communism over the remainder of the continental area of Southeast Asia and possibly westward."
Johnson was ousted six months later, but that fateful sentence controlled, and later summarized, American foreign policy in Vietnam for a generation.
"Prior to 1950, Vietnam wasn't important to American strategists at all," said Edward Miller, a Dartmouth College expert on the Vietnam War and a principal adviser on the war to Ken Burns, whose 10-part, 18-hour documentary series on Vietnam begins airing on PBS Sunday evening. "The United States had no natural ties with Indochina. No one from here traded with Vietnam and no one visited it. The idea that the United States would fight a huge war in Vietnam was unthinkable."
Now, of course, the word often applied to a war with North Korea involving powers possessing nuclear weapons is "unthinkable." It is a reminder that what was considered unthinkable in one decade -- in places regarded as peripheral -- can suddenly and chillingly seem plausible in another.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)