The North Korea Question; U.S. Strategy in the Korean Peninsula

For decades, the United States’ foreign policies toward North Korea have centered on non-proliferation, with the objective of preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. Unfortunately, these policies have failed. Considering that change, it is time to transition into a new era of policies focused on another goal; preventing catastrophic war between the United States and North Korea. The United States has two options; the first, to use the U.S. military to either bring about regime change in North Korea, or to conduct surgical strikes on North Korean missile test sites or storage facilities; or the second, to de-escalate tensions and to adopt a policy of deterrence. The military option is no option—It likely would lead to retaliation by North Korea against the United States, or U.S. allies, and even then it might not succeed, which leaves only the second option. Sadly, both the United States and North Korea have adopted a policy of brinkmanship and threats, which does not de-escalate tension. Neither country wants nuclear war to occur, but it is quite possible that the continuation of these policies of brinkmanship will cause the U.S. or North Korea to bumble into a war with unimaginable consequences. This needs to be avoided at all costs. If the United States is going to have to learn to live with a nuclearized North Korea, which they are going to have to whether they like it or not, is necessary that a policy of de-escalation is pursued immediately.

A Slow Moving Cuban Missile Crisis?

Robert Litwak, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, has described the current standoff between the United States and North Korean as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” However, one could argue that the current crisis between the United State and North Korea is actually more dangerous than the crisis President Kennedy handled so skillfully in October of 1962. For one, the Cuban missile crisis was not between the United States and newly emerging nuclear state. For another, the current standoff is between two leaders who do not have advisors who can effectively speak the truth if it differs from what their leader wants to hear. Kim Jong Un has had his own family members killed, and it has become clear during his presidency that Donald Trump does not suffer advisers who disagree with him, going as far as to call Lt. General McMaster a “pain” for correcting him in a meeting. This combination of factors means that the situation the U.S. and North Korea find themselves is even more dangerous than what the United States, the U.S.S.R, and Cuba were in in 1962.

The Military Option is No Option

When faced with options like the United States has with North Korea, it is easy to make the mistake of overestimating the United States’ chances of success, and underestimating the costs of an attack. Arguments for using preventative military options against North Korea severely overestimate the likelihood that the United States would succeed in their objectives. The history of attempted decapitation strikes by the United States is rife with failure, as is the history of surgical strikes. Given North Korea’s fears of U.S. infringement on their sovereignty, any sort of strike would need to have a 100 percent success rate. If the strikes were not completely successful in decapitating the Kim regime or in removing North Korea’s ability to retaliate, it is highly unlikely that North Korea would do nothing. If they retaliated, untold death and destruction would envelop the Korean peninsula, and potentially targets outside of the peninsula which are in range of attack.

If it were to retaliate, it is possible that North Korea would use a nuclear weapon. It is challenging to estimate the fatalities of a nuclear strike by the North Koreans, but all attempts to do so have indicate that the impact would be catastrophic. According to NUKEMAP, a modelling tool that allows users to estimate the impact of a nuclear weapon on a map, a 100 kiloton (the estimated explosive yield capability of North Korean nuclear weapons based on their tests) nuclear weapon detonated over Busan, South Korea, would kill 440,000 people immediately. A similar-sized bomb over Hagåtña, Guam would kill 14,360 people instantly, and in Tokyo around 191,820 would be killed in the first few minutes after the blast. These estimates only account for the impact of the initial blast, not the impact of the ensuing fallout, which would increase that number drastically. No matter their target, if North Korea were to detonate a nuclear weapon it would be catastrophic.

Even if the North Koreans chose not to use their nuclear weapons to retaliate and instead employed their conventional weapons, the results would also be catastrophic. The Nautilus Institute published a study in 2012 entitle “Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality,” in which they found that North Korea has thousands of pieces of artillery along the demilitarized zone which could inflict around 64,000 fatalities in Seoul alone on the first day of war. This study did not account for North Korea’s five thousand metric tons of chemical weapons, which would drastically increase the number of fatalities if they were employed against South Korea. Whether chemical weapons would be employed or not, even if the retaliation was to remain localized to the Korean peninsula, the results would be horrific. In such an event, the South Koreans would likely retaliate as well, completely enveloping the peninsula in destruction. The costs of not engaging in preventative military options are far smaller than the costs of engaging and triggering retaliation. Despite what has been said by the Trump administration and previous administrations, there is no military option.

Brinkmanship and Threats

When the United States’ goal was to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons, utilizing threats was a viable option. In the strategic environment that exists now, this strategy is ineffective and dangerous. Brinkmanship is a strategy employed by nuclear states when attempting to convince another nuclear state to do or not do something, in which one state exerts pressure on the other state by taking steps that raise the risk that events will spiral out of control. The United States and North Korea are both employing this strategy, North Korea by repeatedly testing missiles and making threats, such as the one directed at Guam, and the United States by repeatedly threating military action against North Korea. In situations in which brinkmanship is practiced, there is a real risk of events culminating in a catastrophic exchange. At each stage, a state is faced with the choice of acquiescing, or holding on a little longer—increasing the risk of a catastrophic event in hopes the other state will bow out. If no state backs down, the crisis continues to escalate until a state does out or events spiral out of control. In brinkmanship games, the state that has the higher resolve will prevail, unless a catastrophic event occurs in which case both states lose. According to a game theoretic model of brinkmanship designed by Robert Powell, in cases where a larger state is engaged in brinkmanship with a rogue state, the rogue state will usually prevail—the cost of an attack on the larger state is far worse than the consequences of not intervening in the rogue state. The United States will not prevail in a game of chicken with North Korea because North Korea the risk of their regime is at stake, their resolve is clearly higher than the United States’.

The Kim regime has made it clear since the outset of their nuclear program that the impetus behind the program is to prevent the United States and other states from infringing on their sovereignty. They theorize that the United States will not risk nuclear war by trying to bring about regime change in North Korea. The logic behind this has been confirmed by the actions of the United States in the past in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and the North Korean government knows that and has issued a number of statements in which they argue that if those states had had nuclear weapons, the United States would not have attacked them. North Korea will not follow in South Africa’s footsteps, they won’t voluntarily end their nuclear program, and they certainly won’t do so in the face of threats from the United States that just further qualify their fear of the United States. Actions by the United States to increase tensions between the United States and North Korea will not induce North Korea to give up their weapons, it will just increase the risk that a catastrophic event occurs.

De-escalation and Deterrence

The past three U.S. administrations have stressed that “all options are on the table.” This statement sounds less threating than the alternative threats of “fire and fury,” but it still increases tensions between the United States and North Korea in an irresponsible fashion. The longer these increased tensions exists, the more likely it is that some sort of catastrophic event will occur. To effectively navigate out of this crisis, the United States needs to convince the Kim regime that an attack on the U.S. or its allies will automatically lead to the to end of their regime, but the United States also needs to acknowledge that the United States is not interested starting a war. North Korea will not take these types of statements at face value, so it also will be necessary to stop offering a preventative strike as an option. In addition to its legally dubious status, a preventative attack on North Korea will all but guarantee the deaths of millions. The U.S. has serious qualms with North Korea, but as long as there is not an actionable threat by the North Koreans, the cost of failure is far higher than the cost of not interfering with the regime.

In 1947, George Kennan, already famous for the “Long Telegram,” published an article in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” in which he argued that a strategy of “patient but firm and vigilant containment,” would eventually lead to “the break up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Kennan’s argument was based upon the idea that if the U.S.S.R. could be contained and deterred, the structural issues within the country would eventually bring about its down fall. While there are immutable differences between the U.S.S.R. and North Korea, there are many similarities, the largest being the structural problems in both of their economies. Eventually, the ineffectiveness of the North Korean economy will lead to its downfall, just as it did for the U.S.S.R. Until that point, the United States just needs to ensure that nuclear war doesn’t occur.

“Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

This type of policy change runs contrary to much of the rhetoric espoused by past U.S. administrations, and it particularly runs contrary to President Trump’s “tough-talking” mantra. It also ignores the human rights abuses that are occurring within North Korea, which is a challenging pill to swallow for anyone who cares about humanitarian issues. Strategies for addressing North Korea are often referred to as the “least bad option,” and this instance is no different. The U.S. administrations don’t need to “love” the bomb, but they need to realize that the opportunity to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons has long past. It is time to move into a new era of policies that aren’t centered around threats of military action, and instead use other methods of addressing individual crises with North Korea. Even rational actors can make mistakes, and the longer the United States and North Korea embrace brinkmanship, the higher the likelihood of something terrible happening is. The impact of such an event is unimaginable, thus everything possible needs to be done to prevent it from occurring. The United States should strategize to play the long game.






Benjamin Shaver

About Benjamin Shaver

Benjamin Shaver is a 3rd year student in SIS and CAS studying International Relations and Statistics. He is a Foreign Policy and Global Security staff writer.