Van Jackson’s Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations



When President Obama failed to act on his own chemical weapons red line in Syria, he was lambasted for degrading US credibility and reputation for resolve in the region. Similar charges are now being raised with respect to “strategic patience,” particularly in the wake of the fifth test. Yet as Van Jackson points out in his new book Rival Reputations, the effects of reputation on crisis bargaining remains a surprisingly unsettled field of theory and research in international relations.

“Reputation pessimists” come in two stripes. First it is possible that protagonists do not primarily assess the past actions of their adversaries, but rather consider the current balance of forces and the stakes at play. Second, it is possible that enduring adversaries will consider each other’s’ threats credible regardless of past action, precisely because of the enduring nature of enmities. Both of these possibilities are clearly the case with respect to North Korea, and particularly the second.

Jackson sets out to test the effects of credibility by raising a number of questions about the US-North Korea relationship. Why has North Korea continually resorted to low-level provocations against the US and the South? Why has the US often failed to take these threats seriously? And why have these conflicts—at least to date—not escalated to wider war?

Jackson argues that reputation does in fact matter. The North Korean side of the puzzle is relatively easy. The US frequently dismisses North Korean threats because the signal-to-noise ratio is so low; it is hard to sort what Jackson calls the “nuggets of reason” from the “oceans of vitriol” when the latter are constant and hyperbolic. As a result, it is easy to be surprised. (Parenthetically, my favorite social science treatment of this point is Vito D'Orazio's piece at the Journal of East Asian Studies showing that US exercises actually have no measurable effect on the amplitude or hostility of North Korean rhetoric, precisely because threats are so constant).

The argument on the US side is a little more complicated, but Jackson argues that we have often had the worst of both worlds: that the US is surprisingly cautious in responding to provocations yet once an escalatory cycle passes, we do little to ameliorate the underlying problem and thus stoke the rivalry.

Jackson’s evidence comes in the form of absolutely first rate case studies—well-structured and drawing on an array of primary evidence—of three major episodes: the USS Pueblo (1968) and the EC-121 shoot down (1969)—where the US was too timid in responding and paid a subsequent price—and the Panmunjom ax murders when the US escalated and the North Koreans backed off. A particularly noteworthy feature of these studies is the granular way in which Jackson has reconstructed the US debates about retaliatory options and measured their consequences.

The story line gets a little murkier in a chapter dealing with the 1993-94 nuclear crisis and subsequent developments.  In the first phase of the first nuclear crisis (1993), the US wielded the threat of resuming Team Spirit exercises, the North took the threat seriously—in part because of the Gulf War—but escalated anyway because the stakes were so high. Jackson does not emphasize the vulnerability associated with the country’s fundamentally changed strategic situation and the emerging famine, but those factors no doubt increased the premium on appearing tough and the US moved in a conciliatory direction, reopening negotiations. Jackson argues that the much more dramatic escalation signaled during the second phase of the crisis in 1994 also was followed by North Korean brinksmanship, although this interpretation is not in fact a consensus; some believe that Kim Il Sung’s willingness to be reasonable with Jimmy Carter ultimately resulted from the military signals that the US was sending.

More controversially, Jackson argues that the pattern described has continued to some extent during the second nuclear crisis. Jackson’s summary of the argument is worth quoting directly:

“US officials took North Korean warnings of proceeding with nuclear and missile tests seriously for precisely the opposite reason [it dismissed lower-level threats]: North Korea had a track record of making good on non-violent threats relating to its nuclear and missile programs. US decision to pressure North Korea with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation served as a signal to North Korea of US hostile intentions. The current status quo on the peninsula for better or for worse, is in part the legacy of how the United States chose to respond (and not respond) to North Korean threats and challenges, perpetuating rivalry pattern by stoking hostility while dismissing North Korean threats and backing down from challenges.”

Is this right? One of the findings of the case studies of the earlier period is the array of conventional and proportional escalatory options the US had at its disposal (if it chose to use them). Jackson has a terse but convincing section on how South Korea responded to the Cheonan and Yeonypyeong shelling and how the shift from defense to a more active deterrent strategy probably affected North Korean behavior.

But how to respond to nuclear and missile tests that do not cross a border is much more difficult. Sanctions are not really the weapon of choice, but a kind of default in the absence of anything better. And we don’t need to replay the old saw of how military options are severely limited by the geography of the peninsula; American caution is a leitmotif of the volume.

If I read Jackson rightly, he is arguing for a very nuanced two-track approach in which the US is tougher in response to conventional provocations but more conciliatory toward nuclear and missile developments, holding open the prospects for negotiations. I couldn’t agree more, but getting there is not simply a matter of saying “let’s negotiate,” as we pointed out yesterday.

In any case, it is refreshing to see some serious qualitative IR work on the peninsula.

Other work on North Korea by Jackson

Foreign Affairs: Preventing a Nuclear War with North Korea

“Red Teaming the Rebalance: The Theory and Risks of US Asia Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies.

“Threat Consensus and Rapprochement Failure in US-North Korea Relations,” Foreign Policy Analysis, which makes the interesting argument that rapprochement is less likely when there is consensus that an adversary is a threat, thus explaining why rapprochement is harder vis-à-vis North Korea (and Iran) than Myanmar and Cuba.

The Diplomat: Preparing for Conventional War

The Diplomat: Memo for the Next President

The Diplomat: the Trouble with Bomber Overflights

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