The Buzz

The Case Against Attacking North Korea

Crispin Rovere and I discuss foreign policy all the time. Usually on Twitter. Virtually always on opposite ends of the argument. Not surprisingly, we again disagree over how the United States should respond to North Korea’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week.

In his latest piece, Crispin describes potential consequences of two fundamentally different futures: one where the Trump administration tolerates Pyongyang’s crossing of the ICBM threshold, bringing it a step closer to possessing a capability to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. homeland, and one where Washington acts militarily to destroy the North Korean nuclear arsenal. He concludes that the latter is the “least bad alternative,” stressing that, unlike the former, a military campaign would show the whole world that proliferators will suffer consequences, and would end the awful Kim regime, reunify the two Koreas, and maybe even bolster America’s long-term position in Asia, notably vis-à-vis China.

He is wrong. I have already explained here what I regard as the “least bad agenda” after North Korea’s ICBM test, but let me respond to Crispin’s points, which I fear may be gaining currency in some U.S. policy circles.

Point #1: With nuclear-tipped ICBMs putting the U.S. homeland at risk, North Korea will become more aggressive against its neighbors and deter U.S. intervention

There is a risk that North Korea becomes more aggressive against South Korea, Japan, and others if Pyongyang thinks that its ability to strike the United States with nuclear-capable missiles will deter Washington. Strategists call this the “stability-instability paradox,” when a sophisticated nuclear arsenal brings stability at the strategic level, but, paradoxically enough, instability at lower levels of conflict. There is also a risk that, in a crisis involving South Korea or Japan, North Korea feels that it can create a wedge between them and the United States by threatening Washington with a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland if it intervenes, or “decoupling.”

North Korea would be making serious miscalculations, however, because the United States will not be deterred from pushing back against Pyongyang, and it will not back down in an escalating crisis, even if its homeland is at stake. In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, Washington makes clear that it will not allow adversaries to “escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.” And over the past few years, Washington has worked relentlessly with Seoul, Tokyo, and others to build their military capabilities and to coordinate response options with and between them to Pyongyang’s provocations.

Pyongyang’s development of an ICBM capability does not alter that determination. The United States has a long history of successfully extending security guarantees to allies to protect them against competitors that can strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear-tipped missiles: first with the Soviet Union and, since the end of the Cold War, with Russia and China. Washington has learned that it can credibly and effectively deter and defend against such competitors even if it does not dominate them fully. North Korea will never match their nuclear and conventional forces and does not have their strategic depth. The United States can, therefore, manage North Korea.

This does not mean that North Korea’s ICBM development is not a new challenge to the United States and its allies. The latter must adapt deterrence and defense capabilities, concepts, and messages to deal with the evolving threat and strip away Pyongyang’s confidence that it can freely engage in greater military adventurism. But North Korea will not succeed in achieving a “stable deterrence relationship” with the United States or in “paralyzing” Washington in a crisis. This is fantasy.

Point #2: Failure to act against North Korea will cause U.S. regional allies to lose faith in the United States as a security guarantor and to develop independent nuclear arsenals

The failure to roll back and eliminate the North Korean nuclear arsenal has led to frustration and mounting fears in Seoul, Tokyo, and other allied capitals. At no point, however, have regional allies begun to lose faith in the United States, or distance themselves from Washington. On the contrary: they have all systematically sought stronger security guarantees from Washington and tighter alliance relationships. In recent years, the United States and its allies have deployed new military capabilities and established dialogue processes to discuss and strengthen deterrence and assurance. North Korea’s nascent ICBM capability will not reverse that trend. If anything, it will reinforce it. Significantly, in response to last week’s ICBM test, two U.S. bombers flew to the Korean Peninsula to join fighter jets from South Korea and Japan for a practice bombing run as part of a training mission described by U.S. military officials as a defensive show of force and unity from the three allies. Pyongyang’s actions do not pull allies apart. It brings them closer together.