planners have been secretly assessing the feasibility of preemptive
strikes against North Korea’s nuclear complex for years. You don’t need
inside information to make that statement, because it is common
knowledge that the defense department maintains war plans for dealing
with a wide range of potential scenarios. U.S. nuclear forces could
quickly eliminate the North Korean threat, but such weapons would only
be used in response to unambiguous evidence that a North Korean nuclear
attack was imminent.
timely warning of
such aggression might not be available and U.S. use of nuclear weapons
would have momentous geopolitical consequences, the preferred option in a
preemptive strike would be to rely on conventional (non-nuclear)
weapons. The U.S. has a wide array of precision-guided missiles and
bombs deployed near North Korea, and Pyongyang’s primitive air defenses
might not detect their launch from submarines or stealthy aircraft until
the weapons hit intended targets. Some of those targets, such as
liquid-fueled rockets, are highly vulnerable.
we don’t call North Korea the hermit kingdom for no reason. So little
is known with certainty about its nuclear program that preemption using
weapons would have to be deemed a risky option. Attacking known
leadership sites would be even riskier, potentially provoking a general
war on the Korean Peninsula while leaving the North Korean chain of
command intact. Pyongyang’s extreme secrecy about everything bearing on
its security makes the quick success of any non-nuclear strike by U.S.
in addition to bolstering America’s active defenses against ballistic
missiles — the subject of my Forbes blog last week — U.S. leaders need
to think through what new steps might be taken to deter North Korean
aggression. Deterrence is the strategy of dissuading enemies from
undesirable behavior by threatening unacceptable consequences. I used to teach the subject atGeorgetown University, so I have devoted a fair amount of time to thinking through its requirements.
main problem in applying deterrence to North Korea is that it is
essentially a psychological strategy, so you need to understand how your
adversary thinks to influence his behavior. North Korea’s throwback
regime often seems to behave in nonrational ways — at least from the
viewpoint of outsiders — and that raises concerns about the limitations
of deterrence in a Korean context. Deterrence theory is thought to be especially weak when dealing with enemies who are irrational or accident-prone.
experts in the U.S. intelligence community think there is an underlying
logic to the behavior of North Korean leaders that reflects the
peculiar political culture of their country. These experts view
Pyongyang’s bellicose statements as the effort of a young and untested
leader to establish his credentials with key elites, especially the
military. They also think the statements are a reaction to economic
neighboring states imposed on the North after recent weapons tests —
probably with the goal of getting those states to rethink their actions.
the very least, we can assume that whatever Pyongyang says is in some
manner aimed at preserving the power of the present regime. Since it
opted for bellicosity over conciliation in its pronouncements, the
obvious response was for America and its allies to respond with their
own displays of resolve. But that brought such a harsh reaction from
the North Korean capital that the Obama Administration decided any
further ratcheting up of regional military power was probably
It’s easy to see why Washington might
be having second thoughts about responding in kind to Pyongyang’s
threats. After all, the South Korean capital of Seoul is within
artillery range of the North, and Pyongyang has a long track record of
backing up its bellicosity with aggressive actions. On the other hand,
North Korean leaders must understand that if they get into a shooting
war with America, they might lose everything — including their lives —
very quickly. So what we have here is a classic game of chicken, where
the North goes right up to the edge of war without
crossing that line.
It is important to reassure America’s allies in South Korea and Japan, but as the North’s launcher and warhead technology advances, U.S. actions must inevitably come to focus mainly on deterring and/or defeating an attack against America.
In that regard, any
indication that Washington is modifying its behavior in light of North
Korean threats simply encourages further bellicosity in the future.
That is not the way deterrence strategy is supposed to be played.
The British historian Edward Gibbon captured the essence of deterrence theory in the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(published
in 1776) when he observed that during their golden years, the Romans
“preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.”
George Washington liked that insight so much that he paraphrased it in a
presidential address to Congress. What he and Gibbon saw was that the
best way to prevent war is by convincing enemies they have nothing to
gain — and a lot to lose — by initiating hostilities.
that’s the message Washington should be sending to Pyongyang. The
greater their threats, the more likely North Korean leaders are to lose
everything. And if the North continues
pouring scarce resources into acquiring nuclear strike capabilities
against America, then its economy can only become more isolated.
Building up U.S. missile defenses reinforces this message of resolve by
making North Korean leaders doubt their weapons can reach
targets, but it is the threat of offensive action that focuses their
minds on the possibility of losing power.
wrangling in Congress about funding for the Pentagon may be
undercutting the message of resolve that America needs to be sending.
Whatever Washington’s fiscal concerns may be, it is crucial that
Pyongyang not think support for a strong military is waning in America
after a dozen years of war in Southwest Asia. Congressional leaders may
therefore wish to issue some sort of bipartisan statement emphasizing
their support for U.S. strategy in Northeast Asia, and then back that up
with concrete action on the fiscal 2014 budget.