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

But the good news is the United States can deter—indeed, has deterred—North Korea from the worst the North might do. There’s a whole hierarchy of actions Washington would prefer Pyongyang not undertake: from launching a nuclear strike against the United States and/or U.S. allies down through starting a conventional conflict with South Korea or possibly Japan, selling or otherwise providing other states or even nonstate actors with nuclear know-how, further expanding its own nuclear arsenal, and continuing to test nuclear weapons and/or ballistic missiles. While the United States has not been able to deter North Korea from taking the actions towards the bottom of this list—and likely will continue to have trouble doing so—it has successfully deterred Pyongyang from taking the actions that would be most damaging to the United States or its interests. That, too, is unlikely to change. While we can’t deter even a rational North Korean regime from everything, we can deter it with respect to the most important things.  

Causal Fallacy #3: Deterrability Dictates Whether to Strike

While we may spend a lot of time talking about deterrence, that particular means can’t actually achieve the United States’ desired end vis-à-vis North Korea. Deterrence means using threats to convince others to maintain the status quo. But the status quo in North Korea—an implacably hostile regime armed with nuclear weapons and, likely, the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them against U.S. population centers—is one the United States finds intolerable.

Instead, U.S. policy is aimed at changing the status quo by “denuclearizing” North Korea. “Denuclearization” requires either forcibly destroying the country’s entire stockpile of nuclear warheads, their associated delivery systems, and the infrastructure required to regenerate them on the one hand or convincing the regime to do all that itself on the other. The former would be an extraordinarily large undertaking, likely requiring a ground invasion and subsequent occupation as well as the absorption of very high numbers of U.S. and allied casualties; the latter is much more attractive, but requires a North Korea that is subject to influence.

Interestingly, the military option that has been floated does assume a North Korea that’s open to convincing, just perhaps not right now. McMaster and his National Security Council staff developed the idea of a “bloody nose” strategy last summer, and it hasn’t gone away despite either White House denials that such a plan was ever floated or the recent drop-off in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. The idea would be to launch a limited strike with the purpose not of reducing North Korea’s ability to inflict damage on the United States and/or U.S. allies, but rather of persuading Pyongyang to rethink its strategy by illustrating “the high price the regime could pay for its behavior.”

The fact that we haven’t yet been able to convince the North to do what we want might indicate that the regime doesn’t currently find U.S. threats credible. After all, if Pyongyang perceives no real chance of Washington following through with military punishment if the North continues to defy U.S. demands, why bother complying? (Another, more likely, reason for the North’s continued behavior is the sheer value to the regime of keeping the country’s nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems. According to this argument, there’s little to nothing the United States could threaten in order to successfully convince the North Koreans to give it all up.)

A limited strike of the “bloody nose” variety could actually provide a way to make future U.S. threats credible if that is in fact the problem. In his work on coercive diplomacy, Alexander George lays out the idea of an “exemplary” use of the military instrument, which he describes as “just enough force of an appropriate kind to demonstrate resolution and to give credibility to the threat that greater force will be used if necessary.” According to this line of thinking, the North Koreans would realize that the United States was serious—as in, willing to apply military power to back up coercive threats—and would then finally concede to U.S. demands. Or, failing that, at least provide the administration cover should it wish to pursue still more aggressive U.S. measures.