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Understanding the Case for a Strike on North Korea: Brutality, Rationality and Deterrence

War with North Korea became more likely with the recent appointments of hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as national security advisor and secretary of state. While the White House has confirmed that President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for talks “by May,” the two nonetheless hold widely divergent preferences. Assuming neither side is willing to give up on its long-held baseline requirements, the talks will fail—and when they do, we can expect another uptick in inside-the-Beltway talk of military options. The idea of a “bloody nose” strategy got a lot of press in the run-up to the Olympics Games in February, but the logic of such a strike has received far less attention and merits examination.

Statements from administration figures and their allies in Congress about the North Korean regime and its likely behavior suggest a multistep rationale for a preventive strike. According to this case for war, (1) a leader’s or regime’s behavior determines whether or not they’re rational; (2) their rationality explains whether or not they’re deterrable; and (3) their deterrability dictates whether or not a strike against them is merited. From this perspective, because the regime in Pyongyang is brutal, it’s irrational and thus undeterrable, thereby necessitating a strike. But neither the first nor the second link in that causal chain is accurate, and the third requires some serious unpacking.

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But when we move from public statements to the underlying logic of a “bloody nose” strike—the one military option that’s emerged from the Trump administration—a different line of thinking emerges. The U.S. goal vis-à-vis North Korea isn’t to maintain the status quo but to change it, and the perceived obstacle to achieving that goal isn’t the supposed brutality, irrationality and/or deterrability of the North but rather a credibility deficit on the U.S. side. Unfortunately, a “bloody nose” strike is highly unlikely to establish the credibility Washington needs without inviting a large-scale response from Pyongyang. We should therefore retire this poorly thought-out plan once and for all.

Causal Fallacy #1: Brutality Determines Rationality

Members of the administration seem to believe that behavior reveals rationality (or a lack thereof). From this perspective, people or regimes who engage in brutal actions must be irrational. Nikki Haley, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, claimed last May that Kim Jong-un “is not a rational person, who has not had rational acts.” H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s outgoing national security advisor, unpacked this position a bit more, arguing last August that “classical deterrence theory” doesn’t apply to the North Korean regime since it “engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people” and “imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose” it.

Lawmakers allied with the administration echo these sentiments. In December, Sen. Lindsey Graham called North Korea “the ultimate outlier in world order,” describing Kim Jong-un as “on a good day, unstable. Look what they did: He’s killed his own half-brother, blew his uncle up with an anti-aircraft gun.” And last month Sen. James Risch, next in line to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if Republicans keep control of the chamber, suggested that North Korea’s “maliciousness” means the country’s leaders are “entirely different than the civilized people we’re dealing with who are nuclear powers.”

The North Korean regime, in turn, has provided the administration and its congressional allies plenty of fodder for such concerns. According to one count, since Kim came to power in 2011, he has had at least 340 people executed. And these killings have often been carried out in particularly gruesome ways. So for observers who use a leader’s temperament as a proxy for whether or not that leader is rational, it’s understandable that Kim would come off as irrational—and deeply so.