The Atlantic

Can North Korea Drag the U.S. and China Into War?

History offers clues about the likely course of a dangerous dynamic in east Asia.
Source: Saul Loeb / Reuters

Amid the exchange of threats between North Korea and the United States, ongoing North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and U.S. talk of “all options,” there is growing concern about the real possibility of war with North Korea. What many have not yet reckoned with is an even darker specter. Could events now cascading on the Korean Peninsula drag the U.S. and China into a great-power war?

The good news is that no one in a position of responsibility in either the U.S. or Chinese government wants a military conflict. Everyone knows that war between the world’s two largest economies would be catastrophic. This leads many observers to conclude that war between the U.S. and China is inconceivable.

But when we say that something is inconceivable, we should remind ourselves that this is a claim about what we can conceive—not about what is possible in the world. To stretch our imaginations, we need look no further than history.

While history never repeats itself, as Mark Twain observed, it does sometimes rhyme. So we should ask:

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