The Korean Stand-Off

Can deterrence work with North Korea? In general I’m in agreement with the strategy with respect to North Korea that Daniel DePetris articulates in this piece at RealClearDefense:

A U.S.-led containment and deterrence strategy would look both similar and slightly different to the policy nine American presidents followed for seven decades followed during the Cold War.

First, a reliable line of communication would be established with Pyongyang to make it abundantly clear that any attempt to use its nuclear capability against the U.S., South Korea, or Japan would be the end of the Kim regime. If Kim Jong-un, for instance, attempts to initiate a conflict with Seoul—thinking that he can deter the U.S. military from coming to South Korea’s assistance—he will have sorely miscalculated the credibility of the U.S. alliance commitment.

Second, the Trump administration would initiate far more diplomacy with the North Koreans than they have been willing to offer in the past. Unlike in the past, dialogue would not be used to launch a comprehensive negotiation about denuclearization. Instead, it would be used for the express purposes of minimizing misunderstanding between both nations; ensuring that red lines are delivered and received clearly; and to maintain a line of communication between U.S. and North Korean military officials that could possibly be leveraged in the future for a discussion about political normalization or detente when the time is appropriate.

Third, the Pentagon will need to be certain that the U.S. Pacific Command possesses the naval and Air Force assets, anti-missile defenses, and proper alliance coordination necessary to quickly respond to a provocation in the event the North Koreans begin one. Intelligence community relationships in East Asia, including with China, will need to be more synchronized to monitor Pyongyang’s illicit export of military technology. Countries can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt on implementing U.N. Security Council resolutions, especially those seeking to combat the arms trafficking or dual-use technology exports Pyongyang will try to engage in as other revenue streams are foreclosed or reduced.

but I’m not sure that I’d characterize it as “deterrence”. IMO “strategic patience” is closer to the mark. Is he calling it deterrence as a face-saving measure?

I don’t believe that the North Koreans will be deterred by anything we do or say. They will do as they will do. We just need to be prepared for whatever they may do.

Let me ask this question. If the North Koreans aren’t convinced that an attack by them on us will end not just the Kim regime but their country, what is it that we can do short of ending the Kim regime and their country that would do it?

11 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker

    Maybe it’s just me, but from the news I see I believe the Chinese have been tightening the screws. Not because of US pressure but because of their own interests (including the danger of the test site so close to the Chinese border and possible environmental damage).

    The question is still out if Kim Jong Un is willing to incur the wrath of both the Chinese and the Americans.

  • I think you’re probably right, CuriousOnlooker. It’s the simplest explanation.

    My take is that although Kim Jong Un may see his survival against foreign threats relying on his possession of nuclear weapons capable of striking his putative enemies his domestic survival depends on his pursuing the goal of reunification with the South under the Kim regime. That puts defending himself against foreign threats and defending himself against domestic threats in direct opposition to each other. I do not think this is a formula for a secure future for any of us.

  • Bob Sykes

    Additional air and naval forcesa are good. However, any Korean war would be primarily a ground war. A real deterrent would be to increase our ground presence to something on the order of 100,000 to 200,000 troops. Although we couldn’t round up a force that size without a draft.

    The fact is that we are not going to force Kim to give up his nuclear deterrent. All our demands and threats merely prove to him that he really needs the deterrent because and attack on his regime is in the works.

    To repeat myself, we need to offer a peace treaty that guarantees the survival of Kim’s regime (hatefull as it is), and we need to offer him a Marshall Plan for the North in exchange for his nukes and missiles.

    It might be noted that Russia has offered to tie both the North and the South into the TransSibrian railroad network, giving them high speed access to European markets. This is the sort of bribery that would work.

  • Gray Shambler

    “To repeat myself, we need to offer a peace treaty that guarantees the survival of Kim’s regime (hatefull as it is), and we need to offer him a Marshall Plan for the North in exchange for his nukes and missiles.”

    Only my opinion, but this is intolerable, The Kim regime is intolerable. Millions of North Koreans held in slavery by one man. Strategic Patience, my ass, are you waiting for him to die? Japan, South korea, the United states itself, facing the real threat of nuclear holocaust.
    This situation needs to be resolved and I thank God that we have a President who can see through the BS to the nuts and bolts of what has to be done. MAGA!

  • We are not Batman. This is not Gotham City.

    We aren’t deterred by Kim’s nuclear weapons; we’re deterred by China’s. The Chinese leadership has made it very clear that if we attack North Korea, they’ll enter the conflict to defend it. They’ve made it equally clear that if North Korea attacks us, they’re on their own. Consequently, preventive war against North Korea would be not only illegal and immoral but suicidal. If North Korea attacks us or our allies, it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.

  • Gray shambler


  • Guarneri

    This is an open inquiry to anyone who cares to respond.

    1. Although history stretches, in the past 50 years what actions have been taken or reason given for NK to believe the US or SK have designs on their country. We hear how Kim wants to defend his regime. From what?

    2. What possibly could we want from NK? Natural resources? Industrial or technical capacity? Do we really want the land? And at what cost? War with China most assuredly. It’s absurd on its face.

    3. What is NK real motivation? It’s partially express. To reunite the country, and to use the US as the boogeyman to justify the regime with the people.

    4. And what has been the history? For 25 years if not longer we have been conducting a holding action, containment, to what avail? NK has marched steadily forward in pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile delivery. They appear to be on the cusp of ability to hit the US, broadly. Apparently containment is ineffective. We now find ourselves, having abdicated responsibilities for so long, with a horrific conundrum.

    5. We talk a lot here about pursuit only of pure American interests. Is it not the primary responsibility of the CIC to protect American citizens?

    In the calls for patience, or to be prepared in the case NK pushes the San Francisco missile button, or doesn’t Kim understand, it seems to me we make a grevious error. There is an asymmetrical motivation, as I point out in 1-3. And there is an asymmetrical risk profile. Why should any CIC trust Kim, and put Americans in jeopardy hoping Kim behaves. He never has. And what satisfaction is there in knowing you can incinerate all of NK if they dare incinerate just Seattle, LA and Denver. None, in my book.

    This isn’t a call for some preemptive strike. Rather, I’m in the same place I have been from the start. Much better to get China to control their client state, concerns about trade wars etc be damned. Better than a hot war. And if that includes arming Japan, something that will grab China’s attention, so be it. Dicking around hasn’t worked. It’s been legacy driven, not leadership driven. Further dicking around is only going to deliver us into disaster.

  • Gray Shambler

    I believe Kim has every reason to view himself as a God. On a mission to fulfill the dreams of his father and grandfather.
    Talk to him if you want, but all he hears is the barking of a dog.
    He doesn’t fear our military because he’s in an information bubble of his own making. Given his life, I suppose that’s inevitable. But here we are, with a stark choice.

  • IMO #3 is largely what’s going on. WRT #5 we protect far more Americans by not engaging in preventive war with North Korea than we would by attacking North Korea which would inevitably draw China into the conflict. To the best of my knowledge every war game of great power war has culminated with a nuclear exchange.

    Yes, it would be better to get China to deal with the situation. For one thing the problem would never have arisen at all without their cooperation if not collaboration. The problem there is that we’re not willing to wield the few levers we have with China, e.g. closing them off from the U. S. banking system.

    So we’re left with holding our water or starting World War III.

  • Andy


    #1 – Over the past 25 years the US has engaged in a number of military actions designed to overthrow despotic rulers. Concurrently with this, North Korea’s conventional military capabilities have atrophied significantly. Although insight into the regime’s thinking is limited, past US military actions appear to be a major factor in North Korean strategic thinking. Combined with conventional military weakness and the need for a nuclear deterrent becomes apparent. It also shows in the sacrifices North Korea is making to achieve these ends. Nuclear weapons are, for North Korea, a strategic imperative that trump just about everything else in the country. As former Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto put it, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” With North Korea their people are actually going hungry and eating grass.

    #2 What did we want with Libya? Or Iraq? We got nothing but pain and deficits from those actions yet we did them anyway. From the perspective of third-world dictators, the US is a country that could come kick down their door at any moment.

    #3 North Korea’s motivation has changed over time. Under the old guard the goal was to guarantee the North Korean state and reunite the peninsula under North Korean rule. Now that the kim family are dynastic rulers their priorities have shifted exclusively to protecting the regime. Additionally, as mentioned, the North Korean military is now incapable of reuniting the country by force. The North Koreans have invested almost nothing in conventional military capabilities for the last couple of decades. The last major weapon system they acquired were a handful of Mig-29’s – the last was delivered in 1992. China has not helped them improve their conventional forces and the North Koreans do not have the ability to buy new weapons from other countries.

    #4 The holding action is because we don’t have good options.

    #5 What policy would better serve American interests?

    “This isn’t a call for some preemptive strike. Rather, I’m in the same place I have been from the start. Much better to get China to control their client state, concerns about trade wars etc be damned. ”

    Getting another nation to do what we want is easier said than done. Also consider your point #5 – we’d need a political class that is willing to damage our economy today (by playing tough with the Chinese and absorbing the inevitable quid pro quo/blowback) in order to (possibly) prevent or delay the North Korean acquisition of nuclear deterrent. This all assumes that China is actually willing and able to do what we want for any price. No US politician is going to take that gamble.

  • Guarneri

    Thank you to those who responded. A couple points:

    Dave – I think you and I would be on the exact same page except for one significant different point of view. You rest your position on the premise that we don’t have the will to engage in a “banking” or “trade” war, and therefore must accept the risk of a nuclear NK that can incinerate San Francisco while hoping that stasis persists. My view is that since a hot, nuclear exchange, war is such an awful result we have no choice but to engage in economic warfare – and put capabilities on the island of Japan. Say what you will about Trump, IMHO he obviously knows a hot war is to be avoided, and unlike his irresponsible 3-4 predecessors, has the will to take the economic path because its the only one available.

    Andy – Thanks as well.

    It seems your citation of despots like in Libya or Iraq does not acknowledge their relative two bit status. Obama and H Clinton may have been idiots in Libya, Bush in Iraq. But that wasn’t escalating to nuclear exchange. We attack NK and we have the Chinese to deal with; perhaps the Russians. Its a nice excuse for Kim to say he’s fearful. I say he’s just playing the issue to his advantage.

    From what I’ve read NK’s motivations have not changed to regime preservation. It is still squarely on reunification.

    There are often no good options. But IMO the holding action has failed and will continue to do so. I envision a reevaluation of options as NK moves on the south and dares us to do anything, with missiles aimed at 6 US cities. But then its too late, and there are no options. I’ve never believed in waiting for others to dictate to you. Will the political class react? Have the will? I think anyone here knows I think government is largely littered with self serving clowns. So I don’t know. But there was a lot of handwringing at the beginning of Trump’s term about his destroying our allies trust in us. How much will we be trusted if we sell the SK’s or Japan down the river?

    I guess we will see. But my interpretation of the tone of communications coming from Trump and Xi is that with respect to economic actions, no words were left unspoken.

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