Elephants in the Room
It’s Time to Reckon With What It Would Really Take to Deter North Korea
A policy of unification would perhaps forestall the irreversible nuclearization of Asia.
There is a new piece of conventional wisdom on North Korea in Washington: The idea that the United States should “recognize” North Korea as a nuclear state and move toward a policy of containment and deterrence. To be sure, this may be the only option left, but many who are advocating the policy don’t seem to be thinking through its military requirements and possible regional consequences.
There is a sort of thoughtless faux sophistication to all of this. The new realists tell us that North Korea will never give up its weapons voluntarily (many came to that conclusion after North Korea’s first test in 2006, or earlier) and that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can be deterred because he is rational (what does this actually mean?), as long as we deploy the proper missile defenses (too bad we cut missile defense spending so irresponsibly over the last nine years) and other defenses (also decimated during President Barack Obama’s tenure). In addition, we are told now that we need tougher sanctions, including the interdiction of North Korean cargo. (Why didn’t we start these sanctions years ago? Why was the Proliferation Security Initiative ever stopped?)
Even more dangerous is the implication that a contain and deter policy will be “just like the Cold War.” In some quarters, the thinking seems to be that if we just ramp up our forces, make sure our signaling is right and our allies are assured, that bingo, Kim will be deterred.
But let’s take a closer look at some of deterrence’s real requirements before we slide absentmindedly in that direction.
First, there is the matter of Kim’s rationality. In a sense, he is very rational — not in an American or Western context, but in a very North Korean, ideological one. He and his family have told us exactly what they have wanted to do, and they have done it. They said they would acquire the means to unify the Korean Peninsula, to fight and win a nuclear war, and kick out the Americans. They said they would use talks to extort money from the United States, China, and South Korea. Alas, nobody of consequence seemed to take seriously what North Korea actually wrote or said. We treated North Korea as we wanted it to be, not as a strategic actor in its own right, with its own strategy and its own logic.
How can we be confident that Kim’s supposed rationality translates to an understanding of U.S. deterrence signaling? There is no evidence that it does. To say that Kim is deterred because he hasn’t attacked the South is to say essentially nothing. The Kim family never before had an intercontinental ballistic missile that could carry nukes. We have entered a new phase that requires new intelligence and analysis that takes Kim’s own goals into account. The assumption that he is playing defense — he just wants to avoid becoming another Muammar al-Qaddafi — is faulty and a projection of how we, not the actual leaders of North Korea, think.
Second, one needs to take a great leap into Cold War revisionism to believe that deterrence is stable. The United States and the Soviet Union had many now-forgotten near misses, and fought a host of proxy wars at great cost. Allied crises of confidence were the norm, and we were willing to risk our soldiers and bases being nuked by the Soviets to prove to our allies that we were in it with them. Are we prepared to do the same now?
Then there is the matter of how well we understood the Soviets before we rejected preventive war or appeasement. We had been allies during World War II. Containment’s author, George Kennan, had lived in Moscow for years, during which time he assessed the Soviet way of thinking. Do we even have an equivalent when it comes to Kim? American strategists concluded that the Soviets were in the end cautious and therefore could be contained. No one can draw that conclusion when it comes to Kim.
Third, there is the issue of a bipartisan commitment to very high defense expenditures during the Cold War, a basic agreement on the utility of nuclear weapons, and on creative efforts to engage in political and ideological warfare against the Soviets. Today, some of the very people calling for containment were in power when our president and Congress decimated our military. Did they not think to advise the president, that with the growing North Korea threat, it might be a good idea for the commander-in-chief to use his considerable powers of persuasion to call for a military budget adequate to the challenge or to abandon the dream of a nuclear “global zero”?
The United States has no strategic political and information warfare capability, and Congress is certainly not debating these new functions as it reflects on the State Department’s new organization charts.
Fourth, there is the matter of the wages of containment. Here is just a snapshot of what deterrence and containment would require:
We would need to put Kim on the defensive all of the time to prevent his provocations. That would mean a significant change in posture for Japan, South Korea, and the United States, from defense to offense. The three countries would need tremendous intelligence resources, consistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, offensive striking power, and the ability to wage unconventional warfare, to put Kim on notice that he is not safe, so that he spends on defense. The United States would eventually have to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty so as to build more offensive striking power. The president would need the bipartisan support to punish countries benefitting from North Korean proliferation (President George W. Bush decided not to strike the nuclear reactor that North Korea built in Syria). Remarkably, some new realist deterrers are arguing for restrictions on presidential power. How can we deter and contain a dangerous, offensive-minded enemy with such restrictions?
A fulsome debate about these requirements is heretofore absent between the administration and Congress or on the op-ed pages of the major papers of record. For those who are calling for more missile defense, none is in the offing, and efforts to create the capability to hit intercontinental ballistic missiles in their boost phase were killed off long ago.
Fifth, there is the matter of nuclear weapons. The three countries would have to move to a NATO-like structure of nuclear deterrence with systematic, strategic talks, nuclear information posture, and three-way nuclear posture exercises. Most likely, the United States would eventually have to accept one or both countries acquiring nuclear weapons (remember the French during the Cold War). We might be able to reassure allies, but likely they would eventually want their own strategic autonomy.
The administration has not called for a reversal of the Budget Control Act or for a massive effort to establish the means of deterrence. But if it did, would Congress accede? Would the new realists use their influence to change the minds of reluctant members of Congress?
Even if all these military requirements were met, the United States would have to prepare for regime collapse and stability operations. While all services have suffered under Obama’s budgetary jackhammer, arguably none have withered more than the U.S. ground force. A cursory glance at a map of the Korea Peninsula should sober the new realists up about what is needed if their preferred policies work.
Finally, there is the matter of the North Koreans themselves, suffering under the most repressive and abusive regime known to man. North Korea is essentially a big concentration camp. Are we ready to recognize and deter, and leave them to the tender mercies of Kim? What would that say about our much-vaunted commitment to “upholding a rules-based order,” for which many of the new proponents of containment have argued?
If the United States ramped up its defense spending to meet the requirements of deterrence, perhaps the new deterrers would be more persuasive. Add to this the resurrection of the United States Information Agency and other organizations that could pressure Kim persistently, and maybe a strategy could be fashioned.
In my opinion, moving to a policy of unification would be better.
Though it would require a similar amount of new military funding and ideological and political warfare, it would perhaps forestall the irreversible nuclearization of Asia. And there would be real scope for diplomacy. The president or secretary of state would appoint a heavyweight special administrator for unification to argue the case and gain assurances of international money and support for a new Korea, under the South Korea. It would signal our intention to China and countries of conscience that we mean to end the calamity on the Korean Peninsula in a humane manner. It would deal with the human rights crisis as a matter of morality, but also as a pillar of strategy — improving the lot of North Koreans and covert outreach to possibly persuadable North Korean elites would be a necessary precondition of the approach. If that is too much for the traffic to bear, then let’s have a real debate about the costs and consequences of deterrence.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images