As North Korea inches ever closer to having the ability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, President Donald Trump has warned Pyongyang’s leaders “not to try the United States.”[i] His speech before the South Korean parliament, combined with his previous threat to respond to North Korean provocations with “fire and fury,” created a frenzy among much of the foreign policy establishment. The Trump administration’s approach to this crisis has led to widespread speculation that the United States is preparing to conduct preemptive strikes against North Korea, with “devastating consequences.”[ii] But the costs of failing to preempt North Korean aggression could prove equally destructive.
Deterrence Requires Rational Behavior
Many defense leaders and foreign policy experts have warned that the United States “should not punch first in North Korea.”[iii] They fear any U.S. military action against Pyongyang will trigger a calamitous war on the peninsula and could set off a wider military confrontation with China. Instead, they maintain, Washington should continue to pursue a diplomatic solution centered on convincing China to restrain its longtime ally. Should that fail, the implication is that the only sensible alternative will be to rely on deterrence—as did the United States with the Soviet Union. These experts contend that the United States must simply learn to live under the shadow of a North Korean bomb.
Whether North Korea can be deterred is a pivotal unanswered question. The trouble is that many of the same experts who are calling for the United States to lean on diplomacy and deterrence also say that Kim Jong Un “is not rational.”[iv] These leaders either failed or have forgotten their basic political science courses on deterrence. Renowned Harvard Professor Graham Allison explains in his Essence of Decision (Little Brown, 1971) why deterrent strategies require rational decision makers to succeed. In practice, Allison’s theories have proven right time and again. The success or failure of the U.S. North Korean policy hinges almost completely on the rationality of the North Korean regime.
Those who call for diplomatic solutions and a posture to deter North Korean aggression while at the same time calling out Pyongyang’s conduct as irrational cannot have it both ways. Allison and others argue that Kim is rational, although erratic.[v] Allison goes on to claim that if confronted even with limited military strikes, the North Korean dictator would unleash a suicidal war on the peninsula. This is hardly a rational response to measured U.S. military action.
The truth is, nobody knows for sure whether Kim is a “crazy fat kid”[vi] or a rational actor cleverly playing to his regime elites’ notion of their nation’s best interest. The distinction, however, is critical. Since no one knows for sure, the only way to absolutely discern the true nature of North Korea’s provocative decisions may be to gauge the regime’s response to limited military action.
Break the Provocation Cycle
The North Korean conundrum has been made more difficult by decades of muted responses to Pyongyang’s persistent provocations. The U.S. failure to confront North Korea with anything more than diplomatic and economic sticks and carrots has emboldened the regime to become increasingly bellicose. Limited military action would serve the dual purpose of hampering North Korean nuclear progress and resetting the level of U.S. tolerance for Pyongyang’s belligerence.
Since the Armistice Agreement in 1953, North Korean provocations have followed a familiar cycle:
► A seemingly insincere gesture of goodwill by North Korea
► Rejection of the disingenuous gesture by the international community
► Intense, bellicose threats of action
► Limited acts of aggression
► International outrage followed by a cooling-down period (sometimes precipitated by international concessions) before starting the whole cycle over again
In recent times the frequency of this cycle has increased, and the provocative acts—such as the sinking of the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—have become much more belligerent. North Korea has come to rely on U.S. inaction following any level of provocation. The rational explanation for North Korea’s hyperbolic rhetoric followed by limited acts of aggression, ranging from shelling and missile launches to nuclear tests, is that the regime hopes to deter the United States from pursuing a preemptive attack while using these confrontations to fuel the anti-Americanism that underpins the regime’s internal legitimacy.
It is possible that Kim’s behavior, while bellicose, is not only rational but effective. By perpetuating the myth that any U.S. military response to Pyongyang’s provocations will trigger an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, the North Koreans have been able to deter the United States and buy decades of time to build up their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Rational or not, it is time for the United States to devise a strategy to break the North Korean provocation cycle. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it, “Pyongyang must not be left with the impression that it can trade time for procedure and envelop purpose in tactics as a way to stall and thus fulfill its long-held aspirations.”[vii]
Kissinger, like many others, would prefer a solution brokered by the Chinese. Unfortunately, China is either unwilling or unable to restrain Pyongyang. At the same time, there is little evidence that China will alter its perennial propensity to favor North Korea in its disputes with the United States. But that does not mean that China would risk war to retaliate against limited U.S. strikes on its neighbor.
Allison and others warn that action against North Korea might cause the United States and China to slip into Thucydides’ trap: the idea that war is likely whenever a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one.[viii] This position misses the facts that China is cautious and that it understands it is not yet able to confront the U.S. military directly. Therefore, it is unlikely that Beijing would risk it all by overreacting to limited U.S. strikes on the northern peninsula.
China’s failure to taper North Korea’s belligerence and Pyongyang’s rapid drive toward nuclear armament and missile deployments suggest it is time to accept that diplomacy has run its course. Repeated failures to respond to North Korean provocations are only making the situation worse. The moment has come to launch measured preemptive strikes to roll back at least partially North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.
Escalate to Deescalate
Limited strikes should be targeted carefully and focused on North Korea’s specific provocation. A good start would be to take out the next North Korean intercontinental test missile on its launch pad. Before making such a preemptive strike, however, careful consultation with allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, would be essential. Controlling escalation would require the adept execution of sound tactical and strategic plans that had already been established.
In the wake of such strikes, Kim likely would feel compelled to act. If rational, he would respond in ways that would not promote a wider war. Especially because this is an unknown factor, it would be wise to prepare for cyber and maritime aggressions similar to his more serious provocations in 2010. Such planning would dovetail with the development of sound preplanned responses to increase the odds of U.S. military success at this “escalate to deescalate” strategy. The nature of North Korea’s reaction to military strikes—rational or irrational—would shape U.S. and its allies’ policies to protect their citizens.
Even those who contend that the United States should learn to live with the North Korean bomb should support limited strikes. If Kim can be deterred, as they suggest, he will react in a way that risks few lives and leaves him options to preserve his precious regime. But if a limited military move against North Korea prompts an irrational shelling of Seoul and a wider war on the peninsula, then it is better to find out sooner than later. The only thing worse than a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula today is a war against an irrationally behaving, nuclear-armed North Korea capable of demolishing Honolulu, Tokyo, and Tumon tomorrow.
[i] Kevin Liptak, “Trump Tell North Korea: ‘Do Not Try Us,’” CNN Politics, 8 November 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/11/07/politics/president-donald-trump-south-korean-address/index.html
[ii] Sara Malm, “NATO Warns of ‘Devastating Consequences’ if Trump Carries Out a Military Intervention in North Korea,” 13 October 2017, DailyMail, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4977850/NATO-warns-devastating-consequences-war-Korea.html
[iii] CDR George Capen, U.S. Navy (Ret.), “The United States Should Not Punch First in Korea,” Proceedings Today, 12 September 2017, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-09/united-states-should-not-punch-first-korea.
[iv] Sandy Fitzgerald, “Former Joint Chiefs Mullen: Trump Rhetoric Limiting Options,” NewsMax, 13 August 2017, www.newsmax.com/Politics/muellen-trump-rhetoric-limits/2017/08/13/id/807355/.
[v] Graham Allison, “Thinking the Unthinkable with North Korea,” The New York Times, 30 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/30/opinion/north-korea-nuclear-crisis-donald-trump.html.
[vi] Mallory Shelbourne, “McCain Calls North Korean Leader a ‘Crazy, Fat Kid,'” The Hill, 22 March 2017, thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/325338-mccain-calls-north-korean-leader-a-crazy-fat-kid.
[vii] Henry A. Kissinger, “How to Resolve North Korea,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-resolve-the-north-korea-crisis-1502489292.
[viii] Graham Allison, “Can North Korea Drag the U.S. and China into War?” The Atlantic, 11 September 2017, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/north-korea-us-china/539364/.
Captain Adams retired in September 2016. He commanded Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost, Afghanistan; USS Santa Fe (SSN-763); and USS Georgia (SSGN-729B). He also was Director, Commander’s Initiatives Group, U.S. Seventh Fleet, where he led a team to formulate solutions to some of the nation’s most difficult Pacific warfighting challenges.
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