In our post from last Friday, we discussed central deterrence on the Korean peninsula: the ability of the United States and the ROK to deter both a first nuclear strike and a large-scale conventional attack. We raised questions about whether the use of strategic or even tactical nuclear weapons were even credible, and emphasized the continuing and even growing significance of the conventional deterrent as we draw down the strategic arsenal. Today we turn to the more difficult issues: areas where extended deterrence faces trouble.
Can the US and the ROK deter a lower-level conventional attack such as those we have seen along the Northern Limit Line? Surprisingly, the answer to this is also “yes,” although with somewhat greater uncertainty. Note that North Korea’s actual military provocations—as opposed to its over-the-top rhetoric—have been calibrated with extraordinary precision to avoid significant retaliation. What price, exactly, did North Korea pay for the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island?
In 2010, the US and the ROK formed an Extended Deterrence Policy Committee. The purpose of the committee was in part reassurance: to make sure that South Korea is not spooked by the Obama administration’s commitment to reduce the size of the US nuclear arsenal. But the committee subsequently explored the full range of possible North Korean actions—taking into account their nuclear capability—and including not only US nuclear forces but conventional cooperation as well. The allies signed a counter-provocation strategy last month. South Korean ministers of defense have been quite explicit about their capabilities, including the ability to decapitate the leadership. Do the North Koreans want to test American and South Korean resolve at this point?
As Roger Cavazos argues in another thoughtful contribution on the Nautilus website–“Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality”—this prediction of stable conventional deterrence holds not only for a large-scale cross-border conventional attack or smaller probes but for the often-cited “shelling of Seoul” scenario. Cavazos also shows that North Korean capability to conduct such an operation is more limited than is typically thought, and for a long list of reasons: the range of existing artillery, fire rates, dud rates, the effect of counter-battery fire, the weaknesses created by concentrating forces on Seoul and so on. The IISS dossier cited in our last post draws a similar conclusion.
Does North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons make it more prone to take risks? Although the answer to this question may appear contradictory to our last point, the answer is “yes.” Ceteris paribus, the possession of nuclear weapons probably makes the North Koreans more prone to risky behavior, and certainly more prone to inflammatory rhetoric.
The so-called stability-instability paradox has long been a staple of deterrence theory, and one that has been tested quantitatively (for those with access, see for example Robert Rauchhaus at the Journal of Conflict Resolution). When central deterrence is stable, the risk of general war falls and adversaries are anxious to avoid conflicts that might escalate. But strategic stability can actually free aggressors to probe at lower levels, and particularly with the kinds of asymmetric actions that are difficult to deter in the first place, such as cyberattacks or the closing of Kaesong.
Although these difficult-to-deter actions might continue, deterring conventional risk-taking requires explicit and credible signals to North Korea as to how the US and the South would respond. We don’t of course know if deterrence has succeeded. But despite the rhetoric, it is telling that throughout the whole “crisis” of the last two months, the North Koreans have not taken conventional risks that approach those of the NLL conflicts: the 1998 submarine incursion; the naval clashes of 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2009, the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong-do.
Does North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons make it more difficult to use military capabilities to compel—as opposed to deter—North Korea? North Korea’s nuclear weapons may have less effect in this regard than is commonly thought. Military capabilities on the peninsula have been asymmetric for some time. But the substantial power differential enjoyed by the US and the ROK have proven virtually useless in getting the North Koreans to do what we would like them to do. To the contrary, our flashes of pique and impatience have only hardened Pyongyang’s resolve to acquire nuclear weapons, the primary purposes of which are to deter the US and the South and to increase North Korean leverage in any negotiations that ensue. In a subsequent post, we will review the dozen or so statements that have come out of Pyongyang in the last month. There have been a few disturbing statements that suggest that the North might pre-empt at any moment. But the overwhelming thrust of these broadsides is that the North Koreans have acquired nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The over-the-top actions that they threaten would transpire only in the case of an attack from the US or the South, an attack which is not forthcoming.
Does North Korean possession of nuclear weapons make it more difficult for the United States and the ROK to invade North Korea? Clearly, “yes”; that is why they acquired them. The most likely use of nuclear weapons on the peninsula would be by the North Koreans seeking to slow a conventional attack by the US and the ROK through the main North-South attack corridors.
But this assumes the implausible: that the US and the ROK have chosen to initiate an attack on the North. The George W. Bush administration sought to outline a U.S. right to pre-emption with respect to proliferators, and the invasion of Iraq gave the doctrine some credibility. But North Korea is not Iraq in the speed with which it can inflict damage in the case of a pre-emptive move. Even if the U.S. and the ROK ultimately dominate the escalation ladder, there is enough uncertainty about how North Korea might respond under extreme duress to warrant caution; at that point, the battle would be for the defense of the country.
We therefore always wince when see arguments for pre-emption (most recently in the New York Times and the even more disappointing Carter and Perry op-ed from 2006; they definitely should have known better). Do we want to be the risk-takers? Indeed, if there is one thing on the peninsula that is truly destabilizing it is the hint that the U.S. might pre-empt. It is exactly when a weak power is in the domain of extreme losses—the cornered animal syndrome—that it is most likely to take the greatest risks. What is there to lose? And particularly for a regime that is immune to concerns about its population and seeking above all to save itself?
Put differently, as little as we may like it, the two sides on the Korean peninsula are mutually deterred, a point David Kang made convincingly in his point-counterpoint book with Victor Cha, Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. One of the largest sources of risk is not from North Korean pre-emption but from signals that the U.S. and the ROK might pre-empt.
What about accidental or inadvertent escalation that leads to full blow conflict? This is the toughest question, but we are more sanguine than others. Patrick Cronin takes a stab at this issue in a piece at Foreign Policy that begins by saying that “the Korean Peninsula is on a knife’s edge, one fateful step from war.” How does Cronin’s war start? The scenario he works up starts with the North’s decision to flight test its new mobile Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. The US detects the launch and an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer equipped with Aegis phased-array radars and SM-3 missiles takes it out. Note that this decision is by no means a foregone conclusion, and the Pentagon has been rightly cautious about the conditions under which it would take such action, namely if it posed any threat of breaking up over land (given what we have said above, we are dubious that the missile test would target land).
But then Cronin makes a tremendous leap: that the North Koreans respond to the shooting down of their missile by taking action along the NLL in the belief that the ROK and the US would not respond forcefully. But they do, the North retaliates by shelling Seoul and away we go. But we have sent pretty strong signals that an attack on the NLL would not be treated as it was in the past, and Cronin does not explain why North Korean escalation would be likely beyond vague references to saving face. But how do you “save face” by losing? Do the North Koreans want to climb the escalation ladder at this point? What is the endgame under which they prevail? The greater risks, again, are the asymmetric ones that are hard to deter: cyberattacks, GPS jamming, infiltration and low-level terrorist attacks, holding Kaesong hostage and so on.
The recent manufactured crisis on the peninsula is unsettling, and the slow news cycle has provided plenty of opportunity for hyperventilation. The North Koreans backed themselves into a corner; once committed to a nuclear and missile program that poses risks for others, they had to confront the probability—however small—that they would be targeted. They are behaving as small powers in such situations must: seeking to show resolve and the willingness to absorb costs. But as this review suggests, there may be a “sound and fury” quality to the recent crisis. A happy side effect is that the United States and the ROK have stronger incentives to cooperate at both the political and operational military level; we are hoping that Beijing gets the point. And it looks like the North Koreans have reached the conclusion that they have been taking more risks than they had bargained for. But our conclusion is that the Korean peninsula is and has been much more stable than it looks.