We not only got through the Day of the Sun without a missile test, but the conversation has shifted—on a dime—to the prospects for talks. The opening North Korean bids are very high. The National Defense Commission statement seeks:
- An end to provocations, with the lifting of UN sanctions as a first good-will gesture. This is not going to happen in advance of talks, although it would obviously be incorporated into a final settlement.
- A security guarantee that the US will not stage “nuclear war drills to threaten or blackmail the DPRK.” This is the most interesting of the three demands, as it has been some time since we have seen any North Korean interest in security assurances.
- A “withdrawal of nuclear war means” from around the peninsula. This demand is at one level virtually impossible to meet given the dual nuclear and conventional capabilities of the US bomber and submarine fleets. But on the other hand, it is vague enough so that it could probably be finessed.
What we get in return is far from clear, but again, that is to be expected in any opening bid. However, the Foreign Ministry statement—playing the “good cop” role—suggests in a convoluted way that nuclear weapons could be on the table:
- “Genuine dialogue is possible only at the phase where the DPRK has acquired nuclear deterrent enough to defuse the U.S. threat of nuclear war unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy and nuclear threat and blackmail against the former.” The key unanswered question: dialogue on what? Is denuclearization on the agenda or is Pyongyang seeking a coming-out party as a nuclear power?
This latter statement raises a broader question that we will take up in this two part post: whether the Korean peninsula was stable during the tensions of the last two months. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear power, albeit with a very small arsenal and a limited stock of fissile material. The disagreements within the intelligence community notwithstanding, the country is clearly chasing the capacity mount a warhead on a missile of either inter-continental range or a Musudan that could reach a variety of targets in the Asia-Pacific (an LA Times interactive gives you the order-of-magnitude ranges). Does this new-found capability make a difference?
Some answers can be found by turning to deterrence theory, one of the crowning achievements of the social sciences. Richard Betts–always thoughtful–provides an overarching critique of American use and abuse of deterrence at Foreign Affairs, focusing largely on relations with Russia, China and Iran. In Northeast Asia, however, the challenges appear more immediate and it is almost de rigeur for Korea watchers to fret over the dilemmas of extended deterrence on the peninsula. But a review of what deterrence theory might predict about the stability of the peninsula offers up a much more mixed picture. Some simple Q and A’s.
Can the US deter a North Korean nuclear attack on the US homeland, South Korea or other military assets in the region? The answer is clearly “yes.” Some of the more breathy and sensationalist coverage of the crisis takes North Korean assessments at face value, suggesting that a war could come at any moment. But national leaders are typically not suicidal, and there is no reason to believe that Kim Jong Un is; to the contrary, his dynasty is made up of survivors. A bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack would spell the end of the regime, and the leadership knows it.
It is important to note that this assessment can be made without delving in great depth into North Korean nuclear strategy or capabilities, which only give additional reasons for confidence. Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce do us the favor of walking through this exercise in a piece from 2011 that remains fresh today. Not only is the North Korean arsenal limited, but delivery systems remain untested—note the decision to forego a risky test of the Musudan—and probably inaccurate. But again, this information is not necessary to rule out the likelihood of a nuclear first strike.
Are nuclear weapons required to deter a North Korean nuclear attack? The answer is “no,” and therein lies an important lesson. U.S. doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons was subtly revised in the 2010 Nuclear Posture review by explicitly limiting their use to deterring nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. But the NPR also included a backhanded threat that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The administration apparently wanted to introduce some uncertainty in Pyongyang and Tehran about the possibility of nuclear responses were a crisis to escalate. In March, the DoD drew attention to such US nuclear capabilities with the B52 and B2 overflights, even if they were routine and capable of dropping conventional as well as nuclear ordinance.
Clearly these moves got North Korea’s attention. The debate will now begin over whether these signals contributed to our difficulties or pushed the North Koreans to stand down—to the extent they have. US nuclear capabilities figure prominently in North Korean statements. But it is not clear that these nuclear threats are credible. Would we really undertake a counter-value nuclear response—destroying North Korean cities and killing civilians—in response to a North Korean attack? Would nuclear weapons—even tactical ones—provide advantages that would outweigh crossing the nuclear threshold, even in the face of attack? How would the use of tactical nuclear weapons affect the battle space where US and South Korean troops would ultimately have to operate? These are difficult questions, and the answers are not obvious. But the core of the deterrent is not necessarily in strategic or even tactical nuclear weapons; conventional forces continue to matter. If we are going to gradually draw down the nuclear arsenal, we will need to focus even more on the integrity of the conventional deterrent.
Can the US and the ROK deter a large-scale conventional attack on the South, and are nuclear weapons necessary for that purpose? The answers to this question are “yes” and “no” respectively. Mark Fitzpatrick at IISS reminded us of one low-probability scenario in which Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal as an offensive asset (see the IISS net assessment from 2011 here). Possession of nuclear weapons could allow Pyongyang to mount a conventional invasion of South Korea and then use its new-found capabilities to deter the US from intervening. They could do this, for example, by holding Japanese cities hostage. This strategy could only be effective if North Korean conventional forces could effectively exploit surprise and if the nuclear threat were sufficiently credible that the US and/or Japan were prevented from intervening quickly enough to halt the North Korean advance. In 2002, Victor Cha argued that this scenario could not be ruled out given the historical commitment to unification through violent conflict. (Victor Cha, “North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Badges, Shields or Swords?” Political Science Quarterly, 117, 2 (2002) pp. 223–6).
We respectfully disagree. The same arguments for the effectiveness of the deterrent against bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack hold for large-scale conventional attack as well. No one seriously believes that the North Korean military could prevail in a large-scale conventional conflict, and the North Koreans are no doubt aware of this fact as well (IISS again provides a useful overview of the balance of forces). Moreover, a large-scale attack would decisively shape US and ROK war objectives. At that point, we would not repeat the mistake of the first Gulf War and settle for limited war aims, short of large-scale Chinese intervention (which cannot be ruled out). Regime change would be the objective. Does Kim Jong Un want to go down that route?
In the next part, we tackle the hard part: what extended deterrence can’t do and the limits on our ability to compel the North Koreans to denuclearize.