The Duck of Minerva

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Deterrence isn’t a panacea for the North Korea problem

July 8, 2006

In today’s Washington Post Jon Wolfsthal writes that the key to stopping North Korea’s missile program is good old-fashioned deterrence. Wolfsthal writes:

“Over the long run, how can Americans be sure that some future “test” missile won’t be fitted with a nuclear weapon and targeted on a US city? The short answer is they can’t. But through a straightforward policy of deterrence we can eliminate any thought in North Korean minds that they can attack the United States and survive. President Bush should declare that any offensive missile fired at the United States or its allies in the region from North Korea would be an act of war requiring a swift and massive response. Such a clear, strong statement would reassure our allies and remove the incentive for North Korea to pursue its missile programs.”

While I agree with him that “deterrence is not a dirty word”, his piece (and therefore his argument) is incomplete. The North’s missile program has more to do with ensuring regime survival than it does with creating a compellent/offensive capacity towards the US.

Wolfsthal’s proposal echoes the logic of the Cold War, which emphasized the need for the United States to issue strong deterrent threats that promised severe punishment as a way of dissuading foes and reassuring allies. He even deploys the logic of reputation to critique the US approach to-date:

“While the United States has moved to support additional sanctions by Japan and urged South Korea to penalize North Korea in response to the missile tests, this falls far short of the severe consequences that had been threatened before the launch. U.S. allies and adversaries alike have to know that Washington will not stand by and let hostile nations threaten global security. To date, North Korea has succeeded in developing a significant nuclear arsenal and in advancing its missile programs with only a minimum of economical and political consequences. This only encourages more provocative behavior in the future.”

While the focus on deterrence and reputation is not wholly without merit (although it is far from conclusive that it matters), he ignores the fact that the DPRK’s missile program has just as much to do with ensuring regime survival as it does with aggression and profit.

The North may have aggressive intentions—re South Korea. However, it undoubtedly has a desire to survive. And this regime, whose leader views North Korea as a “guerilla state”, believes that great powers such as the United States are constantly looking for opportunities to attack and conquer the regime. Whether US policy analysts think the idea of a US revisionist invasion is ridiculous, it seems to be a reality to the DPRK (one could argue the DPRK has created a self-fulfilling prophecy by pursing a nuclear/missile program that gives the US a reason to invade, but that is for another time). By following a policy of strict deterrence without any accompanying reassurance we are unlikely to get Wolfstahl’s desired result—the discontinuation of the North’s missile program.

We don’t like to talk about reassurance, especially for states that we view as inherently aggressive since the fear is they will take such concessions as a signal of weakness, leading to greater demands. However, if the motivations behind nuclear and missile acquisition are multifaceted (which they undoutedly are) and we only address one or two of those motivations we cannot expect the North to cease and desist. A policy of deterrence and resolve is alluring because it is simple and intuitive, but that may not get the job done.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.