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.

Recommended: We Went Aboard the Most Powerful Aircraft Carrier Ever Built .

Recommended: This Is How China Would Invade Taiwan (And How to Stop It) .

Recommended: The Story of the F-52 Fighter .


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.