North Korea

All We Want for Christmas

If you read the blog regularly, you might have noticed a pattern recently: Cato’s foreign policy scholars weighing in to see if Santa might be able to improve U.S. foreign policy for us. After all, American leaders seem perpetually unwilling to do so, and the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy doesn’t seem to offer much more hope for a more realistic, sensible approach to foreign policy either.

All I Want for Christmas Is…Civilian Leadership of U.S. Foreign Policy

In their infinite wisdom, the Founding Fathers warned against the dangers of standing armies and determined that it should be civilians, not military leaders, who had final authority over the size, shape, and use of America’s armed forces. Their reasoning was simple. Without civilian control of the military there would be no bulwark against military coup or dictatorship. 

But civilian control should not stop at simple control over the armed forces. Civilian officials must provide active leadership and management of the full spectrum of American foreign policy efforts, from intelligence gathering and alliance building to arms sales and crisis diplomacy and, most importantly, the decision to make war. The old chestnut that “War is too important to be left to the generals” is an old chestnut for a reason: It’s true.

Cynical Hawks Exploit North Korea Crisis to Torpedo Iran Agreement

Donald Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly underscored his intention to adopt highly confrontational policies toward both North Korea and Iran.  He threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in the event of war and re-emphasized Washington’s long-standing determination to compel Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

America versus North Korea: Which President Is More Dangerous?

I never expected to have trouble distinguishing the rhetoric of America’s president and North Korea’s leader. Nor did I ever imagine it would be unclear which official was more impulsive, emotional, blustering, and reckless. But these are not normal times.

For anyone contemplating the odds in a war between the U.S. and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a few numbers are instructive. Last year the U.S. had a GDP of almost $19 trillion, roughly 650 times the GDP of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The latter is equivalent to the economy of Portland, Maine or Anchorage, Alaska. America’s population is around 13 times as large as that of the DPRK.

The U.S. military spends upwards of 100 times as much as the North’s armed forces. With the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal and 1411 warheads (the peak was 31,255 50 years ago), Washington could incinerate the North in an instant. Pyongyang is thought to possess around 20 nukes, of uncertain status and deliverability.

Does the DPRK’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un recognize this reality? There’s plenty of evidence that he is ruthless and cruel. But none that he is blind or suicidal. Like his father and grandfather, who ruled before him, he most assuredly prefers his virgins in this world.

The North’s rhetoric is bombastic, splenetic, confrontational, and fantastic. But it always has been thus. Even before Pyongyang possessed deployable nukes and long-range missiles, it was promising to turn New York (as well as Seoul) into a “lake of fire.” The North Koreans even distributed a video showing precisely that result. If calm ever descends upon the Supreme Leader and his minions, then perhaps Americans should really worry.

The North’s rhetoric and behavior is determined at least in part by domestic considerations. Politics is all-consuming and militaristic images are everywhere. (I visited in June and put up a bunch of photos on Forbes. We are holding a CatoConnects session on Tuesday, August 15 to discuss my visit.) The regime seeks support by portraying itself as heroically defending—against overwhelming odds—a society under siege by imperialistic Americans and their South Korean puppets. The constant mantra, almost irrespective of subject, place, or person, I heard was “under the wise leadership of the Supreme Leader.” Whether the population believed it seemed secondary.

“Fire and Fury” Signifying Nothing: Comparing North Korean and American Deterrent Threats

Seventy-two years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the specter of nuclear war once again hangs over the world. In the span of a few hours, both the United States and North Korea made nuclear threats against one another. Donald Trump went first, saying “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Shortly after Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korea’s KCNA carried a statement from the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) that threatened the “air pirates” stationed at Guam with a nuclear strike. The KCNA statement closed with the warning, “[The United States] should immediately stop its reckless military provocation against the state of the DPRK so that the latter would not be forced to make an unavoidable military choice.” While KCNA did not reference Trump’s comments, the timing of its release creates the impression that the two countries had issued dueling nuclear threats.

At their core, both Trump’s “fire and fury” comment and the KCNA statement are deterrent threats, which seek to prevent a certain action by threatening a high cost in retaliation. If the target of the deterrent threat takes the action that the threat issuer deems unacceptable, then the former will suffer a worse fate. The credibility of deterrent threats depend on whether or not the targeted state believes that the issuer will follow through on its rhetoric.

While both Trump and KCNA issued deterrent threats, the quality of the threats are markedly different. Trump’s threat is incredibly vague both in terms of what the threat is trying to prevent and what costs the United States would inflict on North Korea in response. A lack of clarity about what Trump wants to deter could prevent North Korea from taking any escalatory actions, but given the high stakes involved for North Korea it is unlikely to view Trump’s threat as credible. Kim Jong Un will keep making nuclear threats because the vulnerability of the United States to nuclear attack deters America from attacking North Korea in the first place.

Ambiguous deterrent threats can work, but such threats are not usually issued by powerful countries. Meanwhile, the uncertainty created by Trump’s comment is not reassuring to the other parties involved in the North Korea issue. The “fire and fury” statement could complicate relationships with U.S. allies if they feel that Trump’s rhetoric increases the likelihood of escalating the crisis and putting their security at risk. Additionally, efforts to convince China to do more to help the United States solve the North Korea problem could suffer if Trump’s rhetoric is seen as an indication of unpredictable U.S. policy.

Will Public Aversion to Casualties Constrain Trump’s War-Making Instincts?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is doing everything in his power to ensure that he remains atop the United States’ enemies list. For months, his government has been test-launching missiles and issuing threats. This week the rhetoric got even hotter. President Trump pledged to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea. The North Koreans responded with a promise to attack the U.S. base at Guam.

Notwithstanding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statements last week and in April that the United States does not seek regime change in Pyongyang, other tin-pot dictators have heard similar assurances before. If KJU doesn’t want to go the way of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, he’ll hold onto his nukes.

Unsurprisingly, hawks in Washington – who don’t like being so deterred – are urging President Trump to launch a preventive war, and denude the latest Crazy Kim of his dangerous toys.

For example, John Bolton explained last week that, since diplomacy is unlikely to be successful, Trump has only three options: “pre-emptively strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic-missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases”; “wait until a missile is poised for launch toward America, and then destroy it”; or launch “airstrikes or [deploy] special forces to decapitate North Korea’s national command authority, sowing chaos, and then sweep in on the ground from South Korea to seize Pyongyang, nuclear assets, key military sites and other territory.”

To summarize: small war now, small war later, or big war now. And, of the middle option, Bolton warns that a preemptive strike would “provide more time but at the cost of increased risk” and that “Intelligence is never perfect” – so that leaves war now (or soon).

Bolton grudgingly admitted “All these scenarios pose dangers for South Korea, especially civilians in Seoul,” and that “The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.”  

Along similar lines, Lindsey Graham explained “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California, maybe other parts of America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un],” Graham continued, “it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.”

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Misread and Missed Signaling

Three days after North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers flew from Guam to South Korea and dropped guided bombs on a target range. This isn’t the first time the B-1B has “sent a message” to Kim Jong-Un, and it likely won’t be the last, but what message do these bomber flights actually send? Do the flights indicate that efforts to drive a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea alliance won’t work? Are they a demonstration of American capacity to destroy North Korea’s nuclear forces early in a conflict without relying on U.S. nuclear weapons? Something else? All or none of the above?

The number of messages that the bomber flights could be sending reflects the fact that signaling is hard. States use displays of military power as a tool to communicate their intentions or positions to friends and adversaries alike, but these messages can easily be misread or even completely missed by the target. A recent book on nuclear weapons and coercive diplomacy by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann contains multiple case studies of crises involving nuclear threats where signals were frequently misread or missed entirely.*

On North Korea, Diplomacy Is the Sensible Option

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development has been almost exclusively an emphasis on military confrontation. The latest eruption of escalatory actions and rhetoric is in keeping with the norm.

Following Pyongyang’s successful testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, Trump referenced “some pretty severe things that we are thinking about” in response. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korean, warned ominously that “it would be a grave mistake for anyone” to doubt our willingness to use military force in response to North Korean “provocation.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that we will use “our considerable military forces…if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” Finally, U.S. and South Korean forces “fired a barrage of guided-missiles into the ocean” off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force.

Many Americans believe the hardline approach to North Korea is wise because peaceful negotiations, in Eli Lake’s words, have been used by Pyongyang “to buy time and extract concessions from the West.” Diplomacy doesn’t work on the intransigent North Korea, we’re told.

But that conflicts with the historical record. According to Stanford University’s Siegfried S. Hecker, the record from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations shows that “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons” but “only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”

This is a crucial point. For decades, Washington’s general approach has involved economic sanctions, military encirclement, and regular threats of preventive war. In this environment, and without good faith overtures from Washington, North Korea is going to continue to insist on having the ability to deter invasion or attack by the United States or its allies.

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