North Korea: The Folly of War

North Korea: The Folly of War
South Korean Defense Ministry via AP
North Korea: The Folly of War
South Korean Defense Ministry via AP

Response to “The Flaws of Deterrence” by Crispin Rovere


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The debate is on! Crispin Rovere countered my response to his original piece arguing for war against North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang’s first test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) early last month.

That debate is not just an academic exercise. It has firmly entered the policy arena. Because Pyongyang continues to press on with nuclear and missile developments (it conducted a second ICBM test only three weeks after its first, and there are now reports that it may soon be able to develop a thermonuclear weapon), many in the US national security community are becoming nervous and, as a consequence, have begun to reflect on a range of response options, up to and including war. Significantly, US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently pointed out that the United States has “got to choose between homeland security and regional stability,” adding that “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself.” He then went on to explain that:

If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And [President Donald Trump] told me that to my face. That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.

Just this weekend, President Trump’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster also stated: “If they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. It’s intolerable from the President’s perspective. So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.”

Accordingly, debating the benefits, risks, and costs of options to address the North Korean nuclear problem cannot be more timely.

In his counter-response, Rovere defends his case for war, arguing that it is the least bad option because North Korea isn’t going to change its current trajectory (and had we known earlier how dangerous it would become, we would have acted already) and because deterrence isn’t going to work to prevent conflict from breaking out. As a result, waging war now, as he puts it, would avoid “a far more catastrophic future war.” He adds that war would help keep US regional allies non-nuclear and, more generally, that it would also contribute to strengthening the nonproliferation norm.

Let’s review his points one by one.

Point #1: North Korea is not going back to the negotiating table (and had we known earlier how dangerous it would become, we would have waged war already)

Rovere is right that the prospects for negotiations to denuclearize North Korea are dim. The ad hoc negotiation framework working toward this goal, the Six-Party Talks (which include China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States), has failed to produce results and its members have not met since 2008. Other attempts to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal (inducements, threats, and/or sanctions) have not been successful either. As India and Pakistan a few years ago, North Korea is on its way to becoming a nuclear-armed state, a status that Kim Jong-un has already enshrined in the country’s constitution.

That, however, does not mean that it is impossible to negotiate something with North Korea. Entering a dialogue with Pyongyang to negotiate limits or constraints on its nuclear and missile programs is within reach. Detractors, of course, will claim that doing so would “give North Koreans exactly what they want” in that asking for anything less than denuclearization would recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and legitimize that status, even though Pyongyang built its arsenal in overt defiance of the non-proliferation regime. Yet this is short-sighted because what would de facto be an arms control dialogue with North Korea does not have to mean approval or legitimization of its nuclear arsenal. Rather, such dialogue would just acquiesce to the reality of that arsenal and seek ways to reduce nuclear dangers now until disarmament becomes possible. Arms control is not — has never been — mutually exclusive with disarmament.

Striking an arms control deal with North Korea is far better (for everyone) than striking North Korea militarily and risking nuclear war. President Trump should ask himself if he wants his resume to say that during his presidency he managed to reopen negotiations with North Korea and initiate a process to reduce nuclear dangers or that he waged a war that destroyed a country, ravaged a region, and possibly led to World War III. For someone who prides himself as the ultimate dealmaker, the choice should be clear.

Finally, it is irrelevant to ask if policymakers grappling with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in the 1990s would have acted differently (and initiated war) if they had known that in 2017 North Korea would be close to nuclear-armed status. In the abstract, yes, they probably would have acted differently and may even have waged war. The point is they did not know, just as policymakers did not know that Myanmar, a country many still suspected of harboring nuclear dreams in 2010, would become a nonproliferation success story only in a few years. History is full of surprises, sometimes good surprises and war should therefore always be the last resort, especially when there are risks of escalation to the nuclear level.

Point #2: Deterrence will not work to prevent war from breaking out

Rovere rightly points out that deterrence was seriously tested in 2010, when Pyongyang sank the Cheonan, a South Korea Corvette, and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. Yet he wrongly concludes that America’s decision not to respond then suggests that it is less likely to respond now, given that North Korea has a more sophisticated arsenal today. Similarly, he assumes â?? again, wrongly â?? Washington would be even less likely to respond in the future if Pyongyang is able to perfect its arsenal to strike the US homeland effectively.

Unfortunately, Rovere’s logic ignores the considerable amount of work that the United States has, since 2010, conducted with its regional allies to shore up deterrence. As I mentioned in my first response, Washington has worked relentlessly with Seoul, Tokyo, and others to build military capabilities, develop new concepts, and coordinate response options with them to address North Korean provocations, notably at the low and medium ends of the conflict spectrum, where Pyongyang is more likely to strike. Moreover, Washington has made clear that it will not allow adversaries to “escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression,” i.e., that it would respond even at higher ends of the spectrum if needed.

That means the United States and its allies have not remained passive as the North Korean threat has risen. On the contrary: they have adapted and significantly strengthened their capabilities, postures, and policies not only to keep deterrence effective but also to prepare themselves to fight back against Pyongyang if, lo and behold, it failed.

Strangely, Rovere’s case for war seems to be grounded in the belief that deterrence is bound to fail as Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal improves. Yet he doesn’t explain why he expects deterrence failure with North Korea more so than with Russia or China. Taken in the aggregate, the record shows that deterrence works — and has worked — with North Korea, as has been the case with Russia and China. Of course, it can always fail, but to the extent that it recently needed to be improved, the work initiated in 2010 has made important steps in the right direction.

Point #3: War will help keep US regional allies non-nuclear and will also strengthen the nonproliferation norm

While recognizing that Seoul and Tokyo seek closer ties with the United States more than independent nuclear weapons, Rovere argues that this is only because American nuclear assurances are being undermined, adding that if allies conclude that these assurances cannot be relied upon, then nuclear proliferation will follow. He is right on the diagnosis but wrong on the (implied) cure.

In no way would war on North Korea now help increase assurance of regional allies and reduce proliferation pressures. To be sure, Seoul and Tokyo want a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem, but they do not want a war, let alone nuclear war (!) unless it is in response to an incident. Even after a serious incident, track-1.5 table-top exercises suggest that voices in both capitals would call for US action, but also US restraint. Launching disarming strikes on North Korea now, out of the blue, would therefore not reassure Seoul or Tokyo. Worse, if they concluded that the United States only decided to act before its homeland becomes threatened by North Korean missiles (and that this is evidence that it does not truly care about shorter-range missiles), this could even drive them to develop their nuclear weapons.

More generally, the idea that waging war on North Korea would contribute to strengthening the nonproliferation norm is hypothetical at best. True, war could discourage states to develop nuclear weapons if the lesson were that such weapons do not bring absolute security against major powers. However, the opposite effect could also happen. In a post-war chaos that included nuclear use, a proliferated world could emerge if states concluded that these weapons are the true currency of power that they must get and perfect as quickly as possible.

There is another problem with Rovere’s war proposal: he recommends strengthening a norm (nonproliferation) by breaking another (sovereignty). This is ill-advised, as it could have ripple effects that spread through the fabric of the entire international system.

Fortunately, there are many options short of war to show that the nonproliferation norm is important. One such option is sanctions. Granted, they may not be enough to roll back a proliferator’s program, but sanctions do send a clear message to proliferator wannabes: if you go down that route, the international community will squeeze you so hard that you will not be able to integrate into the world economy and reap its benefits. This is the message of the toughened sanctions that the UN Security Council (unanimously) imposed on North Korea this weekend.

All in all, it is hard to see how Rovere’s case for war is the least bad option. The better way forward is more deterrence, more sanctions, and engagement efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. Whether we like it or not, there is no quick fix to deal with North Korea.

David Santoro ( is director and senior fellow for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidSantoro1

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