Deterrence Calculations in North Korea

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?

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Update on Iran’s Missile Tests

Several people have, either in the comments on the original post or on Facebook, asked about the US’s response to the Iranian missile test on Sunday, January 29. On Friday, February 3, the Trump administration levied sanctions against 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s missile program. This was followed by a war of words, with President Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn warning Iran about further tests and telling Iran that they had it easy under President Obama, while Iran called out Trump as an “inexperienced person.” The sanctions are rather limited, as they do not touch Iran’s $16 billion deal with Boeing and aren’t significantly more punishing that the sanctions regime already in place.

So, what did Iran likely learn from these events? Given that they conducted a series of missile tests on Saturday, February 4, the day after the imposition of the new sanctions, it’s likely that they learned–rightly or wrongly–that the Trump administration is lots of bluster but is ultimately nothing to fear. True, the most recent missile launches were conducted entirely within Iranian sovereign airspace, making them less problematic for the international community. But the test should still be seen as an act of defiance.

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