2 January 2018   Leave a comment

In a televised New Year’s Day address, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, indicated that his country was interested in sending athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in South Korea in February.  The move signaled a welcomed change in the behavior of North Korea, but it also was a deliberate attempt to divide South Korea from its ally, the US.  The Trump Administration suggested that the move indicated that its current policy of intense pressure on North Korea was working.  That possibility is real, but its consequence could be that North Korea believes that it can work out a better deal with South Korea and China without US participation.  Scott Snyder suggests that South Korea may be placed in an impossible situation given how much it has invested in hosting a successful Winter Olympics:

“And the gambit appeals directly to Moon’s goals, while trying to force a choice: a peaceful Olympics, or South Korea’s alliance with the United States. As part of his dialogue proposal, Kim explicitly criticized the Moon administration for ‘joining the United States in its reckless moves for a North-targeted nuclear war’ and requested the discontinuation of ‘joint nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces.’ (South Korea and the United States hold regular joint military drills, which North Korea consistently portrays as preparation for an invasion.) But it is Kim himself who wants to hold South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympics hostage to his demand for global acknowledgement that the North has (illegally) become a nuclear weapons state.”

There is little question that US allies in the region–South Korea and Japan–as well as the other major powers China and Russia would vastly prefer a solution to the crisis which avoids war, and all these parties may not be as attached the the US objective of the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula as is the US.  Such an outcome would be perceived as a major defeat by the Trump Administration because it clearly indicates that other parties are willing to accept North Korea’s status as a “nuclear power”.

Whether the US is prepared to accept North Korea as a nuclear power really depends on how much validity the US puts into the theory of deterrence.  Deterrence has always been difficult for the US to accept as a national strategy since so much of American history was “threat-free”.  After the War of 1812 with Canada and the War of 1846 with Spain/Mexico, the US has not really worried about the threat of invasion which is the reason why the attacks on the American homeland on 7 December 1941 and 11 September 2001 were so traumatic.  But while those attacks were incredibly tragic, neither really threatened the viability of the Republic.  A nuclear attack, however, is quite different.  In an instant, millions of Americans could die rendering the idea of a “victory” after such an attack moot.

But deterrence relies on the idea of mutual annihilation.  It accepts the notion that missions of citizens could die in a nuclear attack, but that the ability to threaten the deaths of millions of the other side’s citizens renders the usefulness of a nuclear attack nugatory.  No nuclear attack is rational under such circumstances.  But that truth is not the problem with deterrence for American strategists.  The problem comes from a corollary of that truth: if no nuclear attack is rational, then no threat of a nuclear attack is rational.   And it is the threat of a nuclear attack that the US wants to preserve.

The US wants North Korea to believe that the US can and will attack it.  That threat protects America’s ally, South Korea, from a North Korean attack.  That threat is credible as long as the only people who would be killed in such a war would be Korean.  But it becomes incredible if the US has to trade American lives to defend Korea.


Posted January 2, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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