History might be on the verge of repeating itself — and, as is so often the case, not in a good way.
With increased saber-rattling on both sides of the Pacific and ever-tightening economic sanctions against North Korea, I was reminded of a fascinating — and in the context of a possible U.S. military confrontation with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un, frightening — book I reviewed a decade ago: “Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor.”
In the book, the acclaimed World War II historian Edward S. Miller argues that before Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack, the “most devastating American action against Japan was the financial freeze” ordered by Franklin D. Roosevelt just five months earlier. The freeze, he says, tightened the noose on a bellicose regime dependent on dollar-denominated assets, prompting an attack that sank or ran aground 21 U.S. warships, destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft and claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
Most Americans know about the oil embargo enacted a week after the financial freeze, but until Miller’s book was published in 2007, the crippling effects of U.S. financial sanctions were lesser known. In the end, a U.S. policy “designed to bring Japan to its senses, not its knees” resulted in — or at least hastened — the deadly attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II.
Could President Trump’s September 21 executive order targeting individuals — banks and other firms that finance or facilitate trade with North Korea — combined with stricter United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang’s exports and imports, including oil and natural gas, prompt Kim to lash out militarily, as Japan did at Pearl Harbor?
There are alarming similarities between today’s North Korea and Imperial Japan.
I recently contacted Miller and asked him that very question. “Japan’s attack was semi-rational given its assumption the U.S. public would not sustain a long brutal war for distant, relatively unimportant objectives — as happened in Vietnam,” Miller explained. Yet the attack was also a “tactical mistake.” Pearl Harbor not only convinced isolationists that the U.S. must go to war, it “enraged the U.S. to demand total victory.”
Miller believes it would be “irrational” for North Korea to attack the U.S. or its allies. And using its nuclear arsenal against Japan, South Korea or the U.S. would, he said, be “suicidal.”
The economic and financial isolation of North Korea today is less severe than what Japan experienced in 1941. Even with China finally — at least on paper — on board with stricter U.N. sanctions, he said, “it will be tough to cut off Pyongyang’s relatively small needs.”
U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t known for his patience | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Yet there are alarming similarities between today’s North Korea and Imperial Japan.
As with Japan in 1941, North Korea is led by a fanatical, militaristic regime with little regard for the lives of its own people. North Koreans, like their pre-1945 Japanese counterparts, are taught to worship their young dictator like a deity. The U.S., they are told, is the “great evil” that led the world against them and China in the 1950-53 Korean War.
To them that war — which claimed some 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese lives, 415,000 South Korean lives, and more than 36,000 American lives — has never ended.
Unlike Imperial Japan, however, Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, and a delivery system that can certainly strike U.S. allies South Korea and Japan — if not Guam, Hawaii, or even California. As Miller explained, “Nukes make a formidable difference. Japan could not harm the U.S. mainland. North Korea can devastate South Korea and in time could punish the U.S. violently.”
Many have argued, convincingly, that FDR and his war secretary, Henry Stimson, knew the oil embargo and crippling financial sanctions would force Imperial Japan — which had invaded and “colonized” Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1910, Manchuria in 1931 and formed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940 — to attack the U.S. As Stimson wrote in his diary after a meeting of the War Cabinet on November 25, 1941: “The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”
Miller believes that FDR still hoped for a diplomatic solution with Japan rather than all-out war. “There are no written proofs or credible evidence either way,” Miller said. “Personally, I assume he believed Japan would negotiate in a few months as the freeze bit, not attack so suddenly. In any case, he would not have sacrificed his beloved fleet at Pearl Harbor had he known.”
Clearly, Kim has already crossed the nuclear threshold and, like India and Pakistan in the 1990s, believes the North’s very existence relies on a credible nuclear deterrent.
One would hope that the goal in Washington today, as in nearly all diplomacy, is to avoid war — especially one that might include a nuclear exchange. And brinkmanship, even the crude “fire and fury” form it has taken under Trump, has worked in the past — think JFK and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
But if Trump truly believes, as he recently tweeted, that his own secretary of state is “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with Kim, no matter how irrational the young dictator may be, how is a diplomatic solution possible?
Another important difference is that North Korea has a patron state, China, while Imperial Japan had virtually no allies in a region it had long brutalized, despite the fact it had joined the Axis Alliance. If, as Trump said in his U.N. speech last month, “denuclearization” is North Korea’s “only acceptable future,” the U.S. and China must allow a diplomatic path toward that future — no matter how unlikely it is that Kim’s regime will go down it.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves to army members in a stadium in Pyongchang | AFP via Getty Images
One would hope that denuclearization or war on the Korean Peninsula are not our only two options. Clearly, Kim has already crossed the nuclear threshold and, like India and Pakistan in the 1990s, believes the North’s very existence relies on a credible nuclear deterrent. As Michael Hayden, a former four-star general who has headed both the CIA and the National Security Agency, told the New Yorker in August, “any deal” with Pyongyang “will have to, in one way or another, concede North Korea’s nuclear status. No other deal is possible.”
So, what can the Trump administration learn from Pearl Harbor? Miller has a few suggestions: 1. Make the best use of intelligence as to Pyongyang’s intentions and possible reactions. 2. Be aware an enemy can act unpredictably, suddenly, even irrationally. 3. Bargaining to loosen sanctions gradually is often ineffective, only bold concessions tend to matter. And 4. Above all, be patient.
Alas, patience isn’t a virtue America’s 45th president seems to possess. For the sake of the U.S. and its allies — and for the millions who would suffer in Asia and elsewhere should war break out — let’s hope he acquires it soon.
Michael Judge, a former contributing editor at the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, is an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.