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Frienemies: The North’s Nuclear Test Was Bad Enough, The South Shouldn’t Make It Worse

By
26 February 2013


With its most recent nuclear test, North Korea claims to have detonated a warhead small enough to arm its arsenal of ballistic missiles, including the Nodong. Some of my colleagues doubt the North Koreans, but I am inclined to take them at their word. The prospect that Pyongyang may deploy a small arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles naturally raises the question of whether this changes anything.

My sense is that yes, an operational North Korean nuclear arsenal may undermine stability by emboldening Pyongyang to conduct new conventional provocations. Provocations, such as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are bad enough in and of themselves; but what may be worse is how South Korea reacts. Washington may find crisis stability rather challenging on the Korean peninsula.

The press has often made joking references to the close relationship between US President Obama and outgoing ROK President Lee Myung-bak, referring to it as a man-crush or a bromance. With a change of leadership in Seoul and the unwelcome prospect of further nuclear advances in North Korea, it is time for some tough love. It is time to take a hard look at our interests in stability and crisis management in Korea.

Let us be clear about the nature of the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. No one is worried about Kim Jong Un waking up and jabbing his finger at the proverbial button. One can probably say plenty of unkind things about the Young General, but he hardly seems suicidal. Moreover, I don’t share the worry that North Korea would transfer an entire nuclear weapon. I suspect that the proliferation problem from North Korea will continue to be in technologies and materials, which is certainly bad enough.

The real problem that arises from a more credible North Korean deterrent is related to what academics call the stability/instability paradox—the notion that a stable nuclear balance makes life more violent under the nuclear overhang. I have never cared for the formulation first articulated by political scientist Glenn Snyder, largely because Snyder himself noted countries were nearly as likely to be deterred from conventional action by the risk of escalation as emboldened by strategic stability.

Snyder’s account of the “heavily qualified” stability/instability paradox does not touch on the possibility that nuclear-armed states might make different choices. But I suspect they might, based on literature related to seat belts.

Yes, seat belts. What?

Academics have long recognized security as a primary motivation for states like North Korea that acquire nuclear weapons. There are other models, but security remains the most common and resorted to, particularly downstream of academic thought in mere policy circles. A widely accepted, but largely unexamined corollary to the security model of proliferation has been the assumption that the new nuclear states would simply enjoy the added security afforded by nuclear weapons. China, for example, is often pointed to as a state that purportedly moderated its foreign policy goals after, and implicitly as a consequence of, acquiring nuclear weapons.

Apart from simple historical problems with the Chinese case, it would seem that enjoying the security from a nuclear arsenal is simply one option available a newly armed tyrant. There is another option, one that is quite rational—which brings me to seat belts. When automakers initially introduced seat belts in the 1960s, many statisticians were surprised that the number of auto fatalities did not immediately decrease. University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman argued that many drivers simply “spent” the additional safety afforded by the seat belt to drive more recklessly. He termed this effect “risk-substitution” although it is also known as the Peltzman effect. Although the academic literature on the specific case of seat belts appears more complicated than initially imagined—automobiles are vastly safer today but we don’t drive like the Italians—the Peltzman effect has been observed in a number of different settings. I happen to think it is an elegant explanation for the behavior of some new nuclear states. Perhaps, like the belted-in driver racing to the grocery store, Pyongyang will rationally substitute one risk for another.

New nuclear weapons states may simply to choose to spend that security conferred by nuclear weapons on other foreign policy goals, like sticking it to a neighbor.

There is an argument to be made that this is, more or less, how elements within the Pakistani leadership see their nuclear arsenal—as a shield that permits them to support the groups that launched terrorist attacks against India’s parliament in 2001 and in the city of Mumbai in 2008. Nuclear weapons in South Asia, as Vipin Narang has argued, have enabled Pakistan to adopt “the strategy of bleeding India by a ‘thousand cuts’”—a sly reference to a quotation attributed to Pakistan’s late dictator Zia al Haq. Saddam Hussein, one of Zia’s contemporaries, had a similar notion when discussing the impact an Iraqi nuclear weapon would have on Iraq’s foreign policy: “We are willing to refrain from using [a nuclear weapon], so that we can guarantee the long war that is destructive to our enemy, and take at our leisure each meter of land and drown the enemy with rivers of blood.”

Clearly, these men are not safe drivers.

Which brings us to North Korea. In 2009, North Korea conducted a more successful nuclear test than 2006, reprocessed more plutonium, and did god knows what with its uranium enrichment program. The following year was a rough one—North Korea engaged in a pair of high-profile provocations in 2010, sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island. Discussion about North Korea’s aggression focused on leadership politics surrounding an ailing Kim Jong Il, which is almost certainly part of the story. But perhaps Kim had reason to feel more confident that the United States and South Korea would simply take our lumps.

North Korea, of course, has a long history of provoking South Korea and the United States. Although the number of provocations appears to have declined starting in the 1990s, for much of the Cold War the North Koreans were extraordinarily aggressive.

When North Korea shot down a US reconnaissance aircraft in 1969, the classified briefing paper for then-CIA Director Richard Helms included a chronology of recent incidents, which is a nice snapshot of what living with North Korea was like in the 1960s.

Chronology of North Korean Incidents

16 March 1969

Eight North Korean seaborne commandos attacked a South Korean police station on the east coast, 55 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone

3 Nov 1968

Some 120 seaborne North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea’s central east coast in the neighborhood of Ulchin, inflicting considerable civilian and military casualties before being neutralized.

23 Jan 1968

North Korean patrol ships seized the USS Pueblo in international waters off North Korea’s east coast.

22 Jan 1968

A thirty-one man North Korean guerrilla team infiltrated the Demilitarized Zone and attempted to attack the South Korean presidential residence and assassinate President Pak Chong-hui.

28 April 1965

North Korean fighter aircraft attacked, but failed to shoot down, a US RB–47 reconnaissance aircraft at a point some 50 nautical miles from the North Korean coast over the Sea of Japan.
Briefing for Director of Central Intelligence Helms for a National Security Council Meeting, Washington, April 16, 1969. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Files, Job 80–R01284A, K–3, Korea, January–December 1969. Top Secret; Codeword. Available at: http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v19p1/d11.

North Korea’s behavior did not improve with time. A few months after the April 1969 shootdown, the North Koreans killed six US soldiers and one South Korean in the DMZ. We can all name the major incidents that stretched through the 1970s and 1980s: The 1979 axe murder incident. The 1983 Rangoon bombing that wiped out most of the South Korean cabinet. The 1987 bombing of KAL 858. You sometimes see references to the fact that South Korea’s President-elect, Madame Park, was first lady during the final years of her father’s presidency in the 1970s. That’s because her mother was killed in a North Korean assassination attempt on Park in 1974.

As you might imagine, South Korean governments have tended to find such provocations upsetting. It is difficult for any government, let alone a democratic one, to live with a nuclear-armed neighbor that feels emboldened to mount terrorist attacks. Since the problem is the bad guy’s nuclear weapons prevent escalation, the obvious solution is to escalate the conflict such that the bad guy never gets a chance to launch. Although one might imagine hunting road-mobile missiles all over North Korea, the tempting solution is to target the central leadership—decapitation.

Indian strategists have discussed responding to or preventing Pakistan’s provocations with an approach called “Cold Start”—the notion that India could rapidly mobilize and strike Pakistan without suffering a nuclear retaliation. Cold Start is more an aspiration than a real doctrine backed by military capabilities, but it is important because it reveals the temptation to pursue decapitation as a response to intolerable provocations.

KBS News coverage of South Korean missile tests in 2012, including the Hyunmoo 2 & 3 cruise missiles. (via Youtube)

That is precisely what South Korea is doing now. When South Korean strategists talk about preventive strikes, they mean the ability to eliminate the North Korean command apparatus and immobilize North Korea’s military machine. Last year, South Korea tested new ballistic and cruise missiles (see footage). In case the North Korean’s missed the message, a South Korean official asserted that South Korea’s new cruise missile could “fly through Kim Jong Un’s window.”

North Korean leadership, by happenstance, makes a juicy target for decapitation. The entire group assembles for ceremonial events on what appears to be a weekly basis.  No senior figure skips these events or, like at our State of the Union Address, is held back. Everyone attends.  These events convey the rank and status of North Korean cadres. They are ceremonial, but integral to court life in the Kim dynasty. Marshal Ri Yong Ho’s aggrandizing decision to stand too close to Kim Jong Un at Kumsusan reportedly led to his dismissal.  Please mind the little white line on the floor, or you will be executed by mortar fire.

The message of sending a cruise missile into Kim Jong Il’s office is very clear: If you push us, we can kill your entire leadership before you have a chance to retaliate.

Western media basically ignored the footage and the threat. North Korea did not, releasing an incredibly vitriolic set of propaganda posters depicting Lee Myung-bak as a rat—a dead rat.

Following North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, South Korea has again released the same footage of cruise missiles soaring skyward and striking targets, claiming the missiles are deployed including at sea. And a South Korean official reiterated the statement about Kim Jong Un’s office window. This time, reporters are taking notice, though dutifully ignoring the fact that this is the second time the footage has been released. My favorite headline: In a Rare Move, S. Korean Military Releases Video Footage of Cruise Missiles to Public. Rare. Right.

President Lee Myung-bak also gave an interview stating that, in the aftermath of the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, he ordered a military strike on North Korea only to be restrained by military officials fearful of the United States. In Lee’s telling, it is the United States that shackles South Korea, making the case for more independence. (This is not the first time, by the way, that Lee’s aides have put this story out. It is merely the first time we’ve paid attention.) South Korea’s push for more independence, both in terms of operational control of its forces and the development of new capabilities, reflects a gradual embrace in Seoul of preventive strategies—an embrace that will increasingly put Seoul and Washington at odds over how to deal with a belligerent North Korea.

The reality is that if North and South Korea come to blows, the United States will be intimately involved. Neither party can act independently of the other, unless South Korea goes it alone. So far, most US policymakers seem unworried about stability on the peninsula. Many attribute all this to bluster and a bit of bluffing by the South Koreans, like President Nixon’s madman theory. I am not so sure. India and South Korea have taken an awful beating at the hands of their nuclear-armed neighbors. As democratic countries, such provocations are more than a foreign policy setback. Humiliating a political leader and inflaming domestic opinion has consequences in a democratic society. If South Korea invests heavily in ballistic and cruise missiles, there will be a sense that, having spent the money, Seoul should very well use them. Someday Pyongyang might push it too far. Ask the men who planned Pearl Harbor.

The problem is that the temptation of decapitation is probably an illusion for South Korea or anyone else. It is a fantasy; a form of escapism from the horrors of the nuclear age. The United States attempted to knock out Iraq’s command and control at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, beginning with an effort to kill Saddam Hussein at a place called Dora Farm. Saddam wasn’t home and ultimately Iraq was able to launch 23 ballistic and cruise missiles over the three-week course of the war. If South Korea were to attempt to decapitate a nuclear-armed North Korean leadership, the result would likely be a partial success.

There may be some South Koreans who will conclude that a decapitation strike need not be perfect as long as theater missile defenses can provide a measure of insurance in the event North Korea is able to fire one or two nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in retaliation.

Theater missile defenses, while an essential measure of protection, probably cannot make decapitation a realistic prospect. US missile defenses were able to engage only nine of the 23 missiles fired by Iraq, struggling with both cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles.

So far, the United States has demonstrated a profound lack of appreciation for this problem. Particularly galling is Washington’s assent to a revision in Seoul’s missile guidelines that serves as a tacit approval for this troubling evolution in South Korean capabilities and doctrine. The general policy of the Obama administration has been that Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama are friends and that the President was not likely to deny his friend the freedom to develop the military capabilities he needs. Irrespective of what Bruce Klingner calls the President’s bromance, the United States has interests in stability and crisis management that are being compromised at the moment.

The situation is a tough one. The reality is that as North Korea deploys an operational nuclear arsenal, it may also continue its aggressive conventional provocations. Some new conventional capabilities and missile defenses will be helpful, but there is ultimately no military escape from the reality that North Korea has a nuclear arsenal that provides some measure of deterrence, a measure of deterrence that it may choose to spend on killing South Koreans. Our best hope of managing the frequency of provocations involves marrying further defense investments with diplomatic efforts to restrain Pyongyang. And yes, that might look like bribery. But the alternative—and what appears to be the current course—is even less appealing. Deepening North Korea’s considerable isolation by expanding the conversation beyond nuclear weapons, to say North Korea’s deplorable human rights record, is emotionally satisfying, but it will be costly. The most likely outcome of such a policy will be to make years like 2010 more the norm than the exception, provided we are lucky enough to avoid a war in the process.

More importantly, the Obama administration needs to make it clear to South Korea that enjoying US security guarantees comes with responsibility. The fact that the ROK Defense Minister responded to the DPRK’s December rocket launch by stating that 800 km missiles should be “promptly put in place,” does leave one with the impression that South Korea did not wait for the revision of the guidelines to start work on new missiles. If Seoul wants to go it alone, that is its choice. But otherwise, a partnership is about both parties making compromises to seek mutual goals.

It’s not a very happy message, I am afraid. I am sure it is tough for the President to disappoint his buddy or start things off on such a sour note with Madame Park. But nipping South Korea’s enthusiasm for decapitation in the bud is essential to maintaining our ability to manage a crisis on the Korean peninsula. So, get over it. My advice? Forget bromance and man-crush. Think of Madame Park as a frienemy.

Reader Feedback

7 Responses to “Frienemies: The North’s Nuclear Test Was Bad Enough, The South Shouldn’t Make It Worse”

  1. Peter Hayes says:

    Correction to my post:
    That doesn’t mean the North Korean attacks were wrong
    should read
    That doesn’t mean the North korean attacks weren’t wrong

  2. Peter Hayes says:

    The North Korean covert and overt attacks on US and ROK forces in the 60s and 70s…and onwards…were appalling.

    Intriguingly, in the White House deliberations of the US response to the 1976 confrontation, one of which entailed landing a special forces team in Wonsan and blowing up a target, it emerged that over 200 such operations had been conducted in North Koreain the past.
    I take that to mean that the flow of covert operations across the DMZ was not one way in that period of maximum DPRK contraventions of the Armistice. That doesn’t mean the North Korean attacks were wrong; or that 200 US-ROK covert operations into the North were unjustified. Just that things at that time might have been more complicated than they appear on the historical surface.
    Also, the 1976 “axe murders” at the JSA on August 18th were actually axe handle murders, in which the North Koreans used handles to bludgeon the US GIs to death. Small point, they were killed and in military contexts, there’s not much difference between an axe blade, and a bayonet or a pike on the olden days.
    But ever since, the western media has referred to “axes” to imply the North Koreans are particularly barbaric murderers as against merely trained killers aka soldiers looking for a fight under orders (to test US resolve post-Vietnam withdrawal) or who simply lost control of themselves in a very Korean way.
    see excerpt following available at:
    http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve12/d286

    286. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Washington, August 25, 1976, 10:30 a.m..11. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, NSC Staff for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Convenience Files, Box 27, WSAG Meeting, Korean Incident, August 18, 1976. Top Secret; Sensitive. The minutes contain handwritten revisions by Gleysteen. The meeting occurred in the White House Situation Room. Gleysteen sent these minutes to Hyland under an undated memorandum.
    WASHINGTON SPECIAL ACTIONS GROUP MEETING
    August 25, 1976
    Time and Place: 10:30 a.m. – [omission in original], White House Situation Room
    Subject: Korea: MAC Meeting and Possible Military Action

    Here is the relevant excerpt (William Clements is from DOD; this session at the NSC with Kissinger is after the President had nixed the idea of attacking a fuel depot at Wonsan):
    Kissinger: I see that Stilwell’s now beginning to take a tough line even though he was so cautious last week when I was talking of tough action. I saw his incoherent message. As I understand it, the North Korean proposal is evil, immoral, dangerous, etc. but it amounts to unilateral North Korean withdrawal of their guardposts. I want to know what’s wrong with it. Would they withdraw all their guardpost and personnel from our side? Supposing we said there must be freedom of movement but that we can accept the proposal to remove the guardposts?
    Habib: We couldn’t send our guards over to their side. There are two kinds of personnel. They are suggesting that the security or guard personnel be split apart, but other personnel could presumably still move around within the joint security area.
    Kissinger: But we would get rid of the North Korean posts on our side and this would be a good thing.
    Habib: There may be some problem of the effect on the armistice agreement.
    Kissinger: I want to play it as a concession on the part of the North Koreans. We should construct our answer so that their proposal looks like a concession rather than a deal. Let’s first get rid of the guardposts.
    Clements: Henry’s saying make it look like we kicked them out.
    Kissinger: Yes. First get rid of the posts, then deal with the problem of access by our security personnel into their part of the area.
    Clements: I like that idea. Our people get treated so badly. They get kicked, spit on, cursed, and we are unable to tell our people to protect themselves. Every morning they have a special meeting where they are told to take abuse and to maximize their restraint. Remember our man who got kicked in the throat not long ago?
    Kissinger: Who was that? When?
    Habib: A Navy commander who got badly kicked in June 1975.
    Brown: We had to protect the Pentagon the same way during the riots. Our men had to take almost endless abuse without reacting.
    Kissinger: You know my preference was to hit the barracks but that was overruled. Now, we have to find a way of winding the thing up. The practical consequences will be that they will have removed the guardposts.
    Clements: And the guards, (mistakenly believing that the North Korean barracks in the JSA area would be removed under the August 25 proposal)
    Kissinger: Their barracks will stay. As I understand it their two guardposts on our side would go. We have no posts on their side so we would dismantle nothing.
    Habib: I am reading from the North Korean statement: “In order to prevent a conflict between military personnel of both sides and in order that each side insure the security of each personnel in the conference area, Panmunjom, we believe it most reasonable to separate the security personnel of both sides in this area with the MDL between them so that they may perform their guard duty moving in their respective area only. This will make both sides have their guard posts only in their respective part of the conference area. And this will prevent military personnel of both sides from both encountering each other and passing by the posts of the other side. Then there will occur no conflicts.
    Kissinger: In effect they are offering to dismantle their guardposts. We should say to them: We notice your proposal amounts to removing two guard posts on our side; we have none on your side; we believe there should be freedom of movement in the zone and suggest that our Secretaries meet to discuss this. First we have to get their assurances about the safety of our personnel, then we can discuss implementation of drawing a line. We should play it up as a retreat on their part. Phil — you will have to find some form of words to do this.
    Habib: We will draft a message and we will also draft guidance. We will have to clear both with President Park.
    Kissinger: Every time I wanted to hit hard at the North Koreans last week I was told that Park didn’t want to take military action. Now I gather he wants to do something.
    Clements: He really was playing it very soft at the beginning of this business.
    Kissinger: I think we are coming out pretty well.
    (Turning to Clements) But we called this meeting to discuss your plan. Go ahead and explain it.
    Clements: (Using a map of North Korea and pointing to the area of Sonjin Hang Harbor) We all recognize this coast line is fairly open. Here is a fuel dump. It is easy to get into the harbor. I would like to interrupt to emphasize that in Defense we are treating this matter on a really strict “need-to-know” basis.
    [text not declassified]
    Brown: Better make that November 1 rather than December 1.
    Clements: It will be too damned cold.
    Kissinger: How about November 2? It may not make the front page that day. What would they do?
    Clements: [text not declassified]
    Kissinger: George, what do you think?
    Bush: I think it would be terribly risky, but I know you don’t need our advice on that score.
    Clements: [text not declassified]
    Kissinger: What kind of defenses do the North Koreans have?
    Brown: They have superb defenses, and the operation would involve a very high risk. The North Koreans have excellent coastal radar. It would be a very high-risk operation.
    Clements: I don’t completely agree with that.
    Kissinger: [text not declassified]
    Clements: [text not declassified]
    Kissinger: What would we have achieved if the North Koreans did not know who did it?
    Clements: The advantage would be the element of doubt.
    Brown: They would have to know we did it if it were worth doing.
    Kissinger: I’m just thinking the process through. No matter how we did it, the North Koreans would charge us with being responsible for it. Then we would be faced with questioning by the Senate,Foreign Relations Committee and what would we say to them?
    Brown: According to Buchen, we would have to report under the War Powers Act to both the Speaker and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
    Kissinger: What would we say to them as to why we did it?
    Clements: Our Assistant General Counsel says you would not have to report under the War Powers Act.
    Kissinger: They (the Congress) will say that we have to report and if we don’t want to lie we would be forced to take a no-comment line which would in effect be admitting that we did it.
    Brown: In explaining why we would have to say that it was a response to the murder of two Americans.
    Kissinger: Our explanation would look very weak, particularly after two months (??) I respect your position. Last week I was in favor of firm action but it was overruled at Vail, not by this group. It was a tragedy. I have never seen the North Koreans so scared.
    Brown: They didn’t get any comfort from the Chinese or Soviets.
    Bush: Or from the third world.
    Clements: I like the plan.
    Brown: I think we should go ahead working out the plan.
    Kissinger: Yes. Develop the plan.
    Brown: If we have the plan developed, it would be ready if we wanted to use it. [text not declassified]
    Kissinger: I think this is a good way.
    Clements: I like it. It doesn’t have an overt character. I have been told that there have been 200 other such operations and that none of these have surfaced.
    Kissinger: It is different for us with the War Powers Act. I don’t remember any such operations.
    What barracks were we going to hit in North Korea?
    Clements: We thought we would need 36 Max (??)
    Kissinger: I am positive they would not have hit back. Unfortunately, we can’t do it now. My idea had been to cut down the tree, get out of the JSA, take out the North Korean barracks, and then stand down. Of course, there was the risk of further casualties.
    Could we have done it with Walleyes? How many Walleyes would it have taken? Could we hit the barracks from our side of the DMZ?
    Brown: I don’t know how many bombs it would take because I haven’t studied the target, but I’m sure we could hit it from our side of the DMZ [text not declassified]
    Kissinger: (The advantage of a Walleye would be to) avoid counter-battery fire.
    Clements: Why would an air strike avoid counter-battery fire?
    Hyland: Because they would not be responding to masked artillery. (??)
    Clements: I still think they would have reacted.

  3. Nick says:

    US security guarantees come with responsibility.
    True, but so does limiting a sovereign nation from developing defensive weapons to defend itself. South Korea has the technology base to make nukes and long range missiles. As has been said elsewhere, the technology and robotics needed to precision produce microchips, smartphones and TVs in 2013 is more complicated than making a Fat Man or Little Boy circa 1945.

    We limit South Korea’s ability to fight back while not fighting back on their behalf. What did we do after the Cheonan or after Yeonpyong? Sadly, we did nothing.

    If we keep doing nothing, SKorea will kick us out and develop their own nukes to reach MAD. Unfortunately, a limited nuclear strike on South Korea (ie not Seoul) may result in a peace treaty and capitulation by the US if NK has the ability to wipe out NY, DC, LA and SF.

  4. […] the South would not dare to respond to another provocation. One analyst has compared this to the seatbelt effect. After seatbelts were introduced in cars, a Chicago University economist, Sam Peltzman, noted that […]

  5. […] the South would not dare to respond to another provocation. One analyst has compared this to the seatbelt effect. After seatbelts were introduced in cars, a Chicago University economist, Sam Peltzman, noted that […]

  6. […] Jeffrey Lewis worries about the next moves […]

  7. John says:

    The idea of a preventive strike on the North is certainly a serious concern,but that concept is not the exclusive property of the ROK military. In fact, that concept originated from the Clinton(1994) and Bush administration(2003).

    So, who knows but it is quite possible the ROK military may have received the idea from the US military in Korea, the real military boss in South Korea today.

    As for the North’s military provocations, Jeffrey seems unaware of the hidden history of ROK military’s attacks inside North Korea in the 60’s. That was a bad time in Korea due to the Vietnam War. US was sending ROK troops to fight in Vietnam, and North Korea was trying to aid North Vietnam by tying down ROK/US troops in South Korea.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.