This post is authored by Patrick M. Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific security and security fellow at the Hudson Institute. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at firstname.lastname@example.org for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
Because interstate war between nuclear adversaries is a dismal means of achieving anything, and because opponents cannot be easily coerced into relinquishing their chief means of survival, the deterrence and containment of North Korea remain both feasible and less undesirable than the stark alternatives of war and appeasement.
First, in the admittedly brief history of the nuclear age, nuclear powers have competed and challenged in ways short of the use of major overt force. While historical precedents are no ironclad guarantee of future developments, there is scant evidence to suggest that rational leaders would risk an existential threat to their state by embarking on an open conflict that could escalate into a nuclear conflagration. Some seventy-five years after the testing of the first atomic bomb, there is a universal understanding of the dangers of nuclear war. Equally, there are alternative means of achieving one’s aims beyond outright war between nuclear powers.
Second, deterrence and containment of North Korea worked in the past, before Pyongyang acquired a robust nuclear capability. They worked even when North Korea was in its most critical phase of just acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivery—a period long thought to pose the greatest risk to strategic stability. The United States refrained from bombing the Yongbyon nuclear facility in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s. Despite the 2017 “fire and fury” rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump, a leader who likes to employ explosive and unpredictable language, the reality is that the United States sought to bring North Korea to the bargaining table. Trump quickly declared Chairman Kim Jong-un a friend, suggesting that even failed diplomacy would make it difficult for these two leaders to fight a major-scale war that could escalate to the nuclear level.
Third, although miscalculation could catalyze a conflict, the best way to avoid such a catastrophic misstep is by hewing to the basic tenets of deterrence: capability, credibility, and communication. The Cold War demonstrates that bitter enemies can be implacably opposed to one another and yet cooperate on nuclear stability and the avoidance of accidental war.
Fourth, it is not only a matter for North Korea and the United States, as well as South Korea, to determine whether war or stability will prevail in Northeast Asia. It is in the interest of other major powers, especially China and Russia, to ensure deterrence and stability. The idea of war with North Korea pales in comparison to the prospect of nuclear weapon use amid major-power war.
While deterrence and containment are feasible, they are not as desirable as a sustainable peace. But if Kim cannot be persuaded to embark on a comprehensive deal for peace and denuclearization, albeit one phased incrementally, there is no reasonable alternative to deterring Kim from using his weapons of mass destruction, either directly or as a form of blackmail. Furthermore, containing Kim from developing a prosperous country is an appropriate penalty to exact on the Kim family regime for flouting international law while repressing the very people it professes to protect.
Thus, North Korea fits the old saw about how policymaking often is reduced to choosing between the bad and the terrible. If peace cannot be negotiated, then it is incumbent on the democratic allies of South Korea, especially the United States but also Japan and others, to ensure stability and peace through deterrence and containment. We cannot compel Kim to denuclearize, and he cannot force us to help develop a lawless tyranny that enslaves its people and holds international law in contempt.
At the time of writing this essay, experimental diplomacy to ascertain the prospects for a rapprochement with North Korea continues. But if at the end of the day we have given Kim every chance, and he has shown that he is unwilling to sacrifice any serious element of his nuclear weapon capability to end sanctions against his regime, then we must not allow a phony peace to endure, especially if it erodes a strong alliance. We cannot conjure up peace, nor should we embark on a nuclear war to achieve it. Instead, we must recognize that sometimes stability, including through a policy founded on deterrence of war and containment (or other means that subtly set conditions for a more stable but sensible status quo), may be the best we can do to manage a wicked problem in a world of complex challenges.
The Hanoi Trump-Kim summit provides a clear warning: we have to be prepared to fall back on deterrence and containment. Seriously displeased that his maximalist demands failed in Vietnam, Kim has sought to regain the rhythm and speed of negotiations. He has effectively issued an ultimatum, claiming America must return with “the right attitude” and an acceptable methodology by the end of the year. This behavior—while perhaps just a ruse to get the best possible deal—exemplifies why a nuclear-armed tyranny should not be allowed to get rich and command the world as it wishes. We have worked with South Korea and Japan to create democratic, free-market nations that are among the world’s leading economies and polities, and we should continue to stand together against tyranny, proliferation, and blackmail.
There are no guarantees in security. In general, however, the deterrence of war with North Korea and the containment of a North Korean dictatorship determined to flout international law and build weapons of mass destruction is both feasible and less undesirable than some alternatives, including war and appeasement. Though there are other ways to contain North Korea without nuclear war, the best intermediary steps are engagement and the avoidance of accidental war within a framework of deterrence and containment.