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

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

While many public statements from the administration and its allies have suggested one rationale for war, digging into the logic underpinning the “bloody nose” idea suggests another.

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.

But these sorts of statements misunderstand the nature of both rationality and the North Korean regime. Rationality is determined by the mechanics of the decisionmaking process, not its outcome. That is, whether or not a leader’s decision or action should be deemed “rational” depends on how that leader arrived at that choice, not on what that choice ultimately was. A rational decisionmaking process involves setting objectives; weighing the costs, risks and benefits of the various ways of trying to advance those objectives; and choosing the option that appears to offer the best chance of doing so based on the information at hand. We tend, however, to confuse rationality and what might be called “reasonableness”—i.e., whether we like or agree with the actual choices others make. That’s a separate question, though; others’ choices may seem completely unreasonable to us and yet be perfectly rational nonetheless.


Put simply, just because most Americans find the policy decisions emanating from Pyongyang repugnant, that doesn’t make the regime irrational. Experts on North Korea seem unanimous in their assessment that the regime is in fact rational, and thus potentially responsive to incentives and disincentives. Even President Trump’s own outgoing CIA director and the agency’s senior officials have all conceded Kim’s fundamental rationality. Indeed, the administration’s own approach to the crisis to date—attempting to pressure the North into better behavior, whether through harsh rhetoric, economic sanctions or military exercises—assumes a calculating regime in Pyongyang weighing the pros and cons of different courses of action, and therefore subject to influence. And of course every day that the United States doesn’t attack the North would seem to be another day the administration has suggested a belief that the North can be convinced—has been convinced—not to attack us or our allies.

Causal Fallacy #2: Rationality Explains Deterrability

But President Trump’s public statements suggest that he views the North Korean leader as irrational and undeterrable. Speaking to the UN General Assembly, Trump said:

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

While the nickname Trump used for Kim Jong-un got most of the attention following this speech, the rest of that sentence is the more important portion from a deterrence perspective. Claiming that Kim “is on a suicide mission” implies he isn’t making decisions based on a weighing of the costs and benefits of various actions—i.e., it suggests that he’s irrational. Similarly, offering only the United States and the United Nations as ways to stop Kim reinforces the idea that the North Korean leader can’t be convinced to abort that mission—i.e., it suggests that he’s undeterrable. As John Delury recently summarized, “War becomes rational if Kim is not, since he might do something crazy, even suicidal, like start a thermonuclear war with the United States.”

Again, though, this perspective misunderstands both rationality and deterrence. A rational leader or regime will be deterred from taking some action if and only if they view the overall expected utility of taking the action as lower than that of not taking the action. Simply put, we can deter others from doing things we don’t want them to do only if we are able to make doing the unwanted thing look worse for them than not doing it. But there might be situations in which taking the action doesn’t look as bad from the actor’s perspective as sticking with the status quo, and therefore in which even a rational actor might decide to go ahead and do something the United States is trying to deter.

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.

But the “bloody nose” strategy assumes we can credibly communicate our limited aims to Kim. Only by doing so could we convince him to simply accept a U.S. strike rather than launch a large one of his own in retaliation. Unfortunately, the modern American way of war makes that all but impossible. At the start of any hostilities, U.S. forces would take a number of actions designed to reduce risks to U.S. and allied forces; those same actions would also have the inadvertent effect of suggesting to the adversary more extensive U.S. war aims than we might in fact hold. No foreign leader could risk waiting to find out for sure when the penalty for being wrong could include decapitation. So not only is the desired U.S. end-state in North Korea likely a “pipe dream,” but so is this particular way of trying to achieve it.

Trying (and Failing) to Square the Circle

While many public statements from the administration and its allies have suggested one rationale for war, digging into the logic underpinning the “bloody nose” idea suggests another. Such a strike would be a way of addressing not our inability to convince the North Koreans to maintain the status quo, but rather our ongoing failure to persuade them to change it. And the obstacle such a strike would enable us to overcome isn’t any brutality or irrationality or undeterrability on the North Koreans’ part, but rather a credibility problem on ours.

Unfortunately, there’s likely no way to convince Kim that any U.S. strike is in fact limited, and therefore there’s likely no way to avoid substantial North Korean retaliation or the attendant catastrophic results. We need to nip any second round of “bloody nose” advocacy in the bud—lest we be the ones to come off looking brutal, irrational and undeterrable.

T. Negeen Pegahi is an assistant professor of strategy and the director of the Mahan Scholars research program at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters