Saturday, April 13, 2013

As North Korea Warhead Technology Advances, U.S. Signals Become Crucial

Turn The North Korean Problem Over To North Korea's Neighbors
Pentagon 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.
Since 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.
But 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 conventional 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. forces doubtful.
So 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.
The 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.
However, 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 sanctions that neighboring states imposed on the North after recent weapons tests — probably with the goal of getting those states to rethink their actions.
At 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 counter-productive.
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.
So 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.
Recent 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment