North Korea: The Flaws of Deterrence

North Korea: The Flaws of Deterrence
Flickr user Surian Soosay

Response to "The Case for Deterrence" by David Santoro: Moving but not persuasive

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David Santoro’s advocacy for deterrence over war is an essential contribution to the North Korea debate. In paraphrasing my argument for war, Santoro also adds important theoretical context, including the ‘stability-instability paradox’ and alliance ‘decoupling’ that underpins my analysis.

Santoro and I concur on some fundamental elements. We both accept that war with North Korea equals enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure, but that these costs will increase substantially once North Korea has an advanced nuclear arsenal and China achieves greater conventional parity with the United States. We also agree that North Korea may become more aggressive as its nuclear capabilities develop and that America’s failure to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program is increasing anxiety in allied capitals.

Santoro’s critique rests on four main arguments: 1) The United States will not back down in a crisis, even if the homeland is at stake; 2) Increasing North Korean nuclear capabilities mean that U.S. allies seek closer relations with Washington, rather than pursue an independent nuclear deterrent; 3) If countries such as South Korea do acquire nuclear weapons, it doesn’t follow that nuclear proliferation would cascade further; and 4) Even after North Korea develops a nuclear-tipped ICBM, other forms of pressure may still prove successful in curbing Pyongyang’s belligerence without war.

I will address these in reverse order.

First, the belief that North Korea may be brought back to the negotiating table without conflict must be placed in the ‘anything is possible’ category. After all, once North Korea secures a long-range nuclear deterrent, it is even less likely to respond to pressure than it is now. While it technically could happen, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it will and overwhelming evidence that it will not. It is not rational to formulate policy on a baseless hope, especially when merely following a long-established trajectory invites such alarming consequences.

To that end, it is worth reflecting on those policymakers grappling with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions during the 1990s. Imagine they knew then that by 2017 North Korea would have had conducted five nuclear tests and was close to being able to deliver an ICBM to the United States. None could reasonably reaffirm their original policy choices. Instead, they would have taken any steps necessary to prevent North Korea developing nuclear weapons, up to and including general war. It is illogical to think that North Korea will prove more cooperative in future when it can expand nuclear forces with less risk than they accepted when pursuing their initial break-out capability. Whatever our response to this threat, we must assume that North Korea will not change course in the foreseeable future, and craft our policy accordingly.

Santoro’s argument that weakening deterrence credibility will not lead to nuclear proliferation is even less compelling. It is true that Japan currently seeks closer ties with the United States, but this is because American nuclear assurances are being undermined, so allies want commitments to be more visibly concrete. Even with a so-called “nuclear allergy,” the emphasis on nuclear weapons has increased with each iteration of Japan’s Defense Guidelines, which now refers to nuclear deterrence as “a vital element” of national security. Indeed, none of America’s major allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Australia) participated in the recent negotiations on the new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. If these countries conclude that American nuclear assurances cannot be relied upon, then nuclear proliferation will be the result.

Moreover, accepting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will incentivize other actors hostile to the United States to seek their own nuclear deterrent. North Korea itself became wedded to the bomb after the interventions in Iraq and Libya. A belligerent North Korea that deters foreign intervention proves the rule that nuclear weapons equal absolute security against major powers. This is something that the United States can ill-afford.

Concerning the extent and timeframes of a wider nuclear cascade, I accept that this is largely guesswork. It certainly should not be the sole basis on whether we embark on a major war in Asia. Nevertheless, it is incontrovertible that North Korea’s nuclear expansion contributes to proliferation risk, while militarily disarming North Korea reduces it.

This brings me to Santoro’s headline argument, that America’s commitment to allies’ security is unshakeable, regardless of North Korea’s capacity to devastate the United States. Unfortunately, this rejects the logic of deterrence and the purpose of military force. After all, in 2010 Pyongyang sank a South Korean warship and shelled an island, killing civilians. Instead of punishing this naked act of war, America shirked escalation due to the costs and risks of doing so. America’s threshold to war on the peninsula is already high, but once North Korea perfects a long-range nuclear arsenal that threshold will effectively vanish. This means accepting substantially increased violence against America’s regional allies and all that comes with it – including alliance “decoupling,” increased Chinese aggression, and further diminution of America’s primacy in Asia.

However, let us assume for a moment that Santoro is correct and that major North Korean provocations will be met with overwhelming military force, regardless of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. If North Korean hostility increases while American thresholds to conflict remain constant, then a future war is inevitable. After suffering a nuclear attack that kills millions, Americans might fairly wonder why their government allowed North Korea to develop such an arsenal in the first place.

Apparently, Santoro is imagining that conventional deterrence can be maintained even as North Korea achieves a state of mutual vulnerability with the United States - essentially defeating the “stability-instability paradox.” This would be a breakthrough in international relations worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, and nothing in Santoro’s argument suggests it is possible here. Realistically, the only way is for America’s allies to develop their own nuclear arsenals so they can retaliate against lower levels of aggression themselves, without relying on the U.S. to match North Korea’s dominance of the escalation ladder. This is also one of many differences between North Korea today and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, where two European allies had their own nuclear deterrent.

This all brings me back to the future scenarios I put forward in my original case for war. If North Korea develops and expands an ICBM nuclear capability, there will be a series of unacceptable consequences, namely: increased North Korean provocation, nuclear proliferation, and/or a far more catastrophic future war.

Conversely, choosing war with North Korea now avoids these consequences and solves the fundamental problem. I am sobered by what war means and its many costs, but make no mistake, should North Korea continue its current path then war is the only viable choice.


Crispin Rovere is a member of the Australian Labor Party and previous convenor of the ACT ALP International Affairs Policy Committee. Formerly he was a Ph.D. candidate at the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) and previously worked in Secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and published on nuclear policy. Crispin is the author of The Trump Phenomenon: How One Man Conquered America.

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