Alternatives To Military Deterrence In The Korean Peninsula

The United States and South Korea are attempting to deter North Korea from conducting further nuclear tests through increased military presence and a request to China to get involved.

“Until the regime in Pyongyang changes course, we will continue to keep the pressure [of sanctions] on,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press conference. Blinken also stated that the U.S. is willing to adjust its military posture and is “[committed] to talking about how we expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises for defensive and preparedness purposes, training on and around the Korean missile.”

The U.S. and South Korea recently performed a joint flyover of the Yellow Sea after North Korea tested short-range missiles: one example of the United States military’s increased surveillance and “enhanced readiness among our ballistic missile defense forces in the region,” according to C.N.N. This is an attempt to intimidate North Korea into agreeing to diplomatic talks, particularly about nuclearization, which the U.S. wants to deter and, to some extent, compel North Korea away from. The United States is attempting to threaten North Korea away from both increasing its nuclear capability and carrying out attacks against other countries. In addition, it intends to convince North Korea to remove its nuclear arsenal of its own volition through diplomatic negotiation.

The tension between North Korea and the United States has persisted since the Korean War, when the U.S. lent its assistance to South Korea against the Soviet-administered North Korea. One of the many proxy wars that took place during the Cold War, the Korean War symbolized the conflict between the capitalist United States and communist Soviet Republic. This tension remains between the U.S. and other communist countries to this day, including North Korea, which may see U.S. actions as continued attempts to contain the spread of communism. This leads to fears of invasion, which provoke these countries to take defensive actions to protect themselves.

Many governments throughout history have used their militaries as deterrence tactics. It has also been common for the countries directly impacted to seek out more powerful countries’ assistance, as South Korea has done with the U.S. and China, to increase the credibility of their deterrent threat and the military might behind it. We often see deterrence as something that only military power can back, believing that other threats will not be respected by those we are trying to deter. However, this deterrence strategy – demonstrating military might every time North Korea takes aggressive actions – fails to address the possibility that these actions stem from insecurity. Perhaps North Korea is building nuclear weapons because it believes the country needs to be protected from other nuclearized powers, which it may fear could invade. Showing our own military might could exacerbate these issues, ultimately increasing tensions.

According to Doug Bandow in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Pyongyang’s priority is regional, especially avoiding domination by another power.” Bandow also says that North Korea’s nuclear program helped the country preserve its independence from China, creating a strong belief that nuclear weapons will allow North Koreans to protect themselves from outside control. Increased military presence around the island nation only heightens fears that North Korea could be attacked or invaded, encouraging more actions that the U.S. sees as hostile.

The U.S. has also repeatedly failed to observe the terms of its own agreements. For example, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Iran nuclear deal initially gave all parties what they desired – a de-nuclearized Iran with relief from sanctions. However, change in administration caused the U.S. to pull out of the deal and, subsequently, convinced Iran to defy its terms as well. Failing to follow through with the agreement showed other countries that they do not need to adhere to international agreements either.

The U.S. has also failed to follow through with its own deterrent threats. For example, President Clinton stated that the United States “would overwhelmingly retaliate if [the North Koreans] were to ever use, to develop and use nuclear weapons.” However, we did not act on this when North Korea began developing weapons, which adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Duyeon Kim suggests was because we feared retaliation. This lack of follow-through caused us to lose credibility with North Korea and the world.

The ineffectiveness of our current deterrence procedures is clear. “The only response [to the American military presence] we’ve seen thus far has been this multiplicity of missile tests,” Blinken said. Rather than seeing U.S. military force as a reason to scale back its own or to join diplomatic talks, North Korea sees these displays as proof that it needs to build up its own military capacity, including nuclear and missile tests.

With each country’s interpretation of the other’s actions at odds, there is no way for U.S. military presence to work as deterrence or support more peaceful interactions in the area. Thus, other avenues must be explored.

“Our goal, simply put, is a peaceful and stable region and world,” Blinken stated in the press conference mentioned above. However, military deterrence is not the only way to achieve this goal. In fact, it is entirely contradictory: using increased military presence to threaten countries into behaving how we want them to would cause every country to fear other countries’ militaries and cause constant global tension. Instead, we should move toward a world in which our first reaction is diplomacy, economic sanctions and surveillance are used only when necessary, and bringing in the military is a last resort. This will allow for a more temperate global climate where we do not fear immediate violence from small actions.

The United States must also demonstrate that it is able to engage in fair diplomatic negotiation with countries who have less military might or global power. Showing that it is able to provide support to its allies, like South Korea, without influencing those countries to act in ways which benefit the U.S. despite their own desires, might diminish the fear of the U.S. seeking control over its enemy countries, like North Korea. This proof of impartial support could be demonstrated through its alliances, taking actions that would support those countries’ own interests even when those actions do not explicitly benefit the U.S. The U.S. could also work toward this by creating a multi-lateral group in which it does not have ultimate veto power, like it does in the U.N., or influence disproportionate to how the group’s decision will impact it. In this way, the United States can demonstrate its willingness to defend its allies while also demonstrating that it is no longer interested in spreading its own beliefs to other countries – something North Korea may remain fearful of.

Additionally, the United States must show that it is capable of adhering to the agreements that it makes with other states. This is true of deterrent threats that it makes toward countries acting against it as well as promises it makes to countries who acquiesce to American demands. This is easier stated than put into practice, but the United States must only enter into agreements to which it believes it can commit, and then it must follow through. This includes creating more consistency between presidential administrations. A new administration must not be able to decide on its own terms that it will no longer adhere to an agreement made by its predecessors. Ideally, the agreement would continue on its existing terms. However, if changes need to be made, they must be negotiated with all parties and created through a consensus.

Finally, those countries with the power to act against North Korea should focus less on de-nuclearization and more on emphasizing people’s rights in North Korea, as Human Rights Watch has suggested. Instead of devoting all of our attention toward something that is rather unlikely to have immediate human consequences, we can use our influence to work toward providing better lives for those who are suffering under an oppressive regime. While we must be cautious not to appear to intrude on North Korea’s ideology, they might be more receptive to working jointly to improve the lives of their own citizens than to removing what they see as their defenses. Through this, the two countries can also improve their relationship, potentially building toward one where de-nuclearization could be negotiated.


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