Launching a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea is Likely to Backfire

by Mark Haichin

Throughout the past few weeks, there’s been considerable speculation that the Trump administration is considering a preventive military strike against North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program. Presumably, this strike would target some aspect of the weapons program, like a nuclear facility or launch site, to signal to Kim Jong-Un and his regime that they need to act less aggressively or face a larger-scale attack in the future. The logic here is that a “rational” government would be expected to weigh the costs of backing down versus the costs of fighting against a nuclear superpower and choose the former, since the latter would almost certainly result in losing power or being outright annihilated. This would seem to be pretty consistent with basic deterrence theory so far, since a limited attack could be considered a signal of American willingness to retaliate against a North Korean attack (just ignore the Trump administration’s statements that North Korea can’t be deterred).

The problem is that trying to get North Korea to back down by “bloodying its nose” is a a fundamentally flawed plan. If anything, the evidence seems to suggest that launching this kind of attack against North Korea is, at best, likely to be totally ineffective at getting Kim Jong-Un’s government to back down on its aggression. The worst-case scenario, going from both my own research and the work of mostcommentators observing the current crisis, is that this could actually provoke North Korea into attacking the US or South Korea – i.e. the very thing that the attack is meant to prevent. So why is it that a limited strike against North Korea is such a bad idea?

To begin with, it assumes that the North Korean government has the same sensitivity to the costs of war as the US. There’s a large body of research, however, that argues that this is not the case. Rather, nondemocratic states like North Korea are expected to be less sensitive to the costs of war to their population than a democracy because their governments draw power from a few elite supporters instead of a large base of voters. As a result, they’re not worried about being voted out of office because of an unpopular and costly war; instead, they need to keep their backers (usually political elites and top military officers) rewarded to keep their support. My own PhD research suggests that these governments will be fine with fighting other states if their supporters don’t suffer as a result. Moreover, an actual attack against them will put these regimes in a position where they need to retaliate in some way to avoid looking weak, since that can get them removed from office (sometimes in a very permanent manner).

In the North Korean context, this means that launching a limited attack to try and scare the regime with the potential costs of war is unlikely to work. Historically, the Kims have repeatedly shown that they are willing to let their citizens suffer extraordinary costs to retain power, including causing famines by redirecting resources to their supporters. Furthermore, North Korea has also repeatedly antagonized the US and South Korea, including capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968and repeatedly attempting to assassinate South Korean presidents. The North Korean government has continued to act aggressively despite becoming diplomatically isolated and repeatedly sanctioned for its actions, since its supporters mitigate the costs by taking resources from the population instead. A preventive attack against North Korea would fail to deter it from further aggression simply because its government is insensitive to costs that don’t directly impact the leadership.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Sejong_the_Great_%28DDG_991%29%2C_Yang_Manchun_%28DDH_973%29%2C_USS_Wayne_E._Meyer_%28DDG_108%29%2C_USS_Michael_Murphy_%28DDG_112%29%2C_USS_Stethem_%28DDG_63%29%2C_USS_Lake_Champlain_%28CG_57%29_and_Nimitz-class_aircraft_carrier_USS_Carl_Vinson_%28CVN_70%29_%2834389374276%29.jpg
The USS Carl Vinson and several South Korean Navy ships conducting a joint exercise in South Korean waters in May 2017

What the “bloody nose” strike is likely to accomplish is provoke North Korea into attacking either South Korea or the US in retaliation. Given the numerous threats made by President Trump throughout 2017 and the buildup of US forces nearby, it would be easy for Kim to assume that even a limited attack is the prelude to a larger war. If this was the case, he would likely respond with force to deter the US from escalating further, which would mean his removal from power and, in all likelihood, his death. This would likely mean attacking Seoul with the thousands of artillery pieces placed near the border, as well as launching conventional and nuclear missiles at American military targets, which even conservative estimates suggest would lead to hundreds of thousands being killed. Even if the limited strike is recognized for what it is, Kim would likely still launch some kind of limited reprisal as a show of strength and to avoid a potential coup. Overall, proposals to deter North Korea with a limited attack are more than likely to lead to disaster instead of deterrence.

 

Mark Haichin is a PhD candidate with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.

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Benefiting from the Conflict in the Korean Peninsula: How China Came Out on Top

By 

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

The basis of international affairs surrounding North Korea is the Korean War 1953 armistice. A permanent peace agreement was never enacted, and therefore, all interactions with North Korea continue to be conducted under the auspice of war-time conditions.  Awkwardly, North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, and would later agree (1994) to phase out its nuclear capabilities in exchange for international support in development of a civilian nuclear power program.  This dynamic has created conditions for international access to North Korean nuclear programming.

US authorities determined, in 2002, that North Korea maintained a secret nuclear weapons production program and in 2005, an energy crisis in North Korea resulted in the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China agreeing to provide energy aid and ‘economic cooperation’ (i.e. a transfer payment) to North Korea in exchange for the North’s pledge to dismantle all nuclear weapons and facilities.  North Korea accepted the terms of the agreement and promptly violated them by conducting separate ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.  This commenced a pattern which can be observed from 2006-2016:  North Korean leaders agree to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for payment; after a period of time an advancement in ballistic missile or nuclear weapons is revealed; additional payment is demanded; and the process starts over.

As of 2017, North Korea claims to have successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb and appears to have advanced long-range missile technology to a point where their weapons may be capable of reaching North America.  Only very recently has China increased pressure on North Korea with a view to nuclear disarmament.  One possible explanation for the late arrival of China in this role is the usefulness of a rogue North Korea vis-à-vis China’s regional military interests.  For example, committing the US Navy to force project against North Korea reduces US capacity to offset expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  As such, this dynamic creates a three-way security dilemma worth assessing.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

Before we launch into the explanation as to why actors are behaving the way they have over the last few months, it is important to identify the objectives of each state. So, what does each player want?

State actor Main objectives

 

United States ·         Avoid loss of critical economic partnerships with Japan and South Korea as regional actors move closer in terms of economic integration

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Chinese containment

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Russian containment

 

China ·         Control over the South China Sea and extending economic waters/zones

·         Maintain military buffer with the United States and avoid Russian-like NATO containment

·         Maintain centralized control of RMB to favour exports and ideally avoid US accusations of currency manipulation

 

North Korea ·         Development of sophisticated military deterrents to preserve the regime militarily

·         For domestic purposes, missile defense has become a cultural cornerstone and serves in preserving/legitimizing the status of the Kim dynasty

·         Status quo: return to the conditions of the armistice agreement, re-instate trade mainly with China and Russia and receive aid from the United States

Although Japan and South Korea are important players in this conflict, because they are not nuclear powers and have played a diminished role in the escalation of the conflict in recent months, they are excluded from this analysis.

MAKING SENSE OF THE CURRENT CONFLICT

In the defense literature, “Security trilemma” – whereby a state, in a complex web of deterrence relationships, may increase its security forces against a belligerent (or perceived as belligerent) state, simply to see a third state feel more insecure. This is the case of North Korea which has alienated its Chinese ally in an effort to develop its nuclear programme and, if its claims are true, reach miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for its long-range weapons. However strict and unfavourable the sanctions may be (and they most definitely are detrimental to the regime), the progression of the regime’s missile and nuclear capabilities seem to have succeeded in galvanizing the domestic population and pushing its military deterrence agenda forward. North Korea succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its objectives.

Although China fears escalation in the Korean conflict, its implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea have set aside previous Sino-American disagreements with regards to accusations of currency manipulation and expansion of territorial waters in the South China Sea. With China able to exert its influence through domestic monetary policy and its expansion in the South China Sea, mild escalations that avoid full fledged warfare have largely benefited the Chinese. Not only have events favoured Chinese foreign and domestic policy, but their alignment with US foreign policy has temporarily camouflaged or immunised them from the ire of Washington that was omnipresent during the last US administration. The recent rapprochement in Sino-American foreign policy may have favoured China, but may endanger longer term relations with North Korea that acts as an important buffer state against American containment. China wins all 3 of its main objectives.

For its part, the US has maintained its spheres of military and economic interests in the region, albeit at the cost of letting China grow its own military might in the South China Sea. Americans have containment directly adjacent to Chinese borders. The American approach is one of incremental pressure on the North Korean regime by forcing the regime to break under pressure. Whether this be an intra-state civil rupture or a North Korea ready to return to the bargaining table with one hand tied behind its back remains unclear. Thus far, the US has largely maintained its objectives in the region but coming short of exerting pressure on China in other matters. The US succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its main objectives.

WHO WINS AND HOW?

In light of the framework set forth, how would each state characterize a victory in this conflict?

China wins: Current conflict distracts from their other objectives elsewhere and avoid going back to the accusations of currency manipulation and influences in the South China Sea of the Obama administration.

US wins: Culmination of North Korean threats never occur dismantling image of nuclear capability and nuclear miniaturization. Possible implosion of the Kim regime under economic and diplomatic pressure.

NK wins: Go back to status quo with only mild tensions enough to justify military and nuclear fixation for the purposes of controlling the domestic population. Ideally, coerce some form of concession from the US whether it be the withdrawal of trade restrictions or a foreign aid payment.

Unfortunately, these “wins” are unlikely or at the very least short-lasting. No single actor will walk away from this conflict unscathed at the expense of other state actors. However, one thing remains certain: war would be catastrophic and detrimental to all, including other surrounding states such as South Korea, Japan and Russia. Compromise will have to be achieved, ideally through diplomatic channels. Although military options remain on the table, these unsavoury options leave much to be desired. With estimates in the millions of casualties within days, every other diplomatic solution should be exhausted before calling upon a forceful intervention. As for the diplomatic solution, time will tell whether the economic pressures on the North Korean regime are enough to bring it to the bargaining table. However, the North Koreans may force an impasse thinking that they could in turn force the Americans back to the bargaining table if nuclear miniaturization is achieved and successfully tested in the eyes of the world. Regardless of the state of the seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the US and North Korea, China’s recent rapprochement to US foreign policy has deflected attention away from previously contested areas in the South China Sea and has temporarily put an end to American accusations of currency manipulation.

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

Bryan Bereziuk is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution.  He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development.  His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers. 

Paper Tiger? Think Again.

On April 25, David Kang argued in Foreign Policy that the rest of Asia has not been matching China’s growth in their military capabilities, measured by the share of gross domestic product (GDP) dedicated to military spending.

Kang should be commended for making a serious effort at assessing the empirical reality in Asia, especially as rhetoric heats up on the Korean peninsula and claims about China’s military ambitions become common wisdom. Nevertheless, there are a few reasons to doubt Kang’s analysis. Using the same dataset as Kang (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure database), I suggest that the evidence that the rest of Asia (and certain countries in particular) are not matching China’s military spending is not as clear-cut as Kang suggests.

The first issue at hand is: does military expenditure as a share of GDP accurately reflect a government’s worries about external aggression? After all, military budgets are not set solely according to specific threats from other states. Geography, territory, and population matter too. Hypothetically, Vietnam would be able to control its coastline and exclusive economic zone with a 100-ship navy better than China would, since China’s coast is around 4.5 times longer than Vietnam’s. Armed forces also monitor borders and conduct disaster relief operations. For all these reasons (and more) we should expect China to spend more of its economy on its military.

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