As North Korea prepares for what many people believe will be its sixth nuclear test, and in the aftermath of recent ballistic missile tests, tensions between the US and North Korea are rising. US military officials have stated that the US is “assessing military options” while North Korea, in its typically hyperbolic manner, has threatened “nuclear thunderbolts” and to destroy US military bases in South Korea as well as the presidential palace in Seoul if the US uses force. President Trump has sent the carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the region and warned that the US will act if China can’t or won’t use its leverage to restrain North Korea, while China in turn is urging both countries to walk back their rhetoric or risk seeing the situation spin out of control.
Both sides are attempting to deter the other. The US seeks to deter North Korea from testing a nuclear device and ballistic missiles; North Korea seeks to deter the US from using force to destroy its weapons capabilities or as punishment. Can either side succeed in deterring the other? Will North Korea conduct its test? Is the use of force by one side or the other likely?
To a large degree, who “wins” this standoff depends on whose deterrent threat is the most credible. Deterrence–using threats of violence if an actor takes a particular action in order to prevent the particular action from being taken in the first place; in essence, altering the cost-benefit calculation that accompanies the decision making process–depends on “the 3 Cs”: capability, communication, and credibility. Capability is pretty straightforward: Does the deterring state have the ability to carry out its deterrent threat? In this case, both sides clearly have the capability. The US has robust and accurate bombs and long-range strike weapons while North Korea has the artillery capability to devastate South Korea. Communication–the deterring state needs to inform the actor being deterred what it must not do and what will happen if it does; you can’t be deterred if you don’t know you’re being deterred (see: Doctor Strangelove)–is a little less clear; North Korea routinely threatens to turn South Korea into a lake of fire and, in this case, has warned that it will preemptively strike if it feels sufficiently threatened. The US’s threats are a bit more ambiguous and nuanced, warning that the US “may” act if North Korea appears ready to test. In any case, both sides know what action is undesirable and have a sense of what will or might happen if the action is taken.
Credibility–whether the party being deterred believes that the deterrer will actually carry out the threatened use of force (note that it doesn’t matter whether the deterrer will indeed do what it has threatened, only whether the deterred believes that it will)–is always the most difficult part of successful deterrence. And in the case, given the stakes and the potential involvement of nuclear war and numerous other parties, including China, credibility is hard to come by. But whose threat is, at the end of the day, most credible will probably come out on top. So let’s consider the credibility of the threats.
The US is issuing the first threat: to use force to prevent North Korea from testing a nuclear device. The US’s threat is undermined a bit by the vagueness and lack of specificity in the wording that the US “may” act; on the other hand, the recent use of Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria, as well as the use of the MOAB against ISIS fighters holed up in a tunnel system (the North Korean nuclear test site is underground, but it’s more likely that the US would use the MOP; but the MOAB was more appropriate in the specific situation and would still enhance the general credibility of the threat) likely enhances the credibility of the general deterrent threat against the use of WMD. Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been a primary concern of US foreign policy for decades.
However, if the US strikes North Korea, North Korea clearly has the capability to devastate South Korea. Would the US risk the destruction of Seoul to prevent North Korea from doing something it has already done in the past?
But, if North Korea does attack South Korea, it will kill US soldiers stationed there. The presence of American troops in South Korea serves as a “tripwire” to enhance the credibility of the US security commitment to South Korea. If US soldiers are killed, it is more likely that the US will act to defend South Korea. Any North Korean attack is likely to bring the US into a wider conflict with North Korea and there is no question how such a war would end: with the end of the North Korean regime. Yes, South Korea would suffer horrific damage, but there is no conceivable way that North Korea could either destroy the South Korean regime or that its own government could survive in a war against the US.
But, does the North Korean leadership understand this? Are the decision makers rational? And does the US believe that if the survival of the regime is in doubt North Korea would unleash a spasm of destruction, either a last ditch attempt to cling to power or as a final gesture of spite? I happen to believe that North Korea is, as all states are, a rational actor and there is little to no evidence to the contrary. But rationality is no guarantee of sound decision making. Does Kim Jong-Un understand the true capability of the US military? Have his generals told him that his military, though large, relies on obsolete weapons, suffers from shortages of fuel and spare parts, and probably hasn’t been properly trained (authoritarian regimes tend not to train the soldiers to think and act independently or autonomously, which greatly undermines their operational capacity). Does Kim Jong-Un’s hold on power depend on his ability to defy the US and advance his country’s nuclear program? There is no regime less understood than North Korea and the US has little insight into its decision making. Thus, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict how North Korea would respond to the initial use of force, how it calculates its national interest, or how it understands costs.
While the US “wins” the deterrent competition on paper, given its ability to destroy the North Korean regime, I think North Korea wins in the real world of international security. The stakes simply aren’t high enough for the US to risk the possibility of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South Korean casualties to prevent a North Korean nuclear test.
Despite all of the bluster from both sides, I don’t expect anything to turn out differently than in the past. North Korea will conduct a nuclear test, which will likely produce underwhelming results, and the US will decry the test, seek even stronger sanctions, and continue to push China towards even stronger actions to isolate and punish North Korea. But the risks are simply too great for too little payoff to justify the use of force.