As the United States conducts 10 days of joint naval exercises with South Korea, the rationale is easy enough to understand: The exercises, which take place annually, are designed to reassure US allies South Korea and Japan, and deter North Korea from aggressive action. Indeed, as policy goals, US reassurance and deterrence have become ever more important in recent months. Pyongyang kicked off the summer by successfully firing its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, followed with a series of missile tests, and successfully exploded its first hydrogen bomb on Sept. 3. During that time, Kim Jong-un’s regime threatened to launch ballistic missiles towards the US military base in Guam—a threat it renewed last week—and fired ballistic missiles over Japan on two occasions. US allies in Asia are understandably nervous.
Given these recent events, it’s not necessarily surprising that the US response appears squarely aimed at reassuring allies and deterring aggression by North Korea. But while these are important goals, they come with potential risks, too. If the Trump administration cannot balance these two goals with some restraint, it will continue to worsen the risk of nuclear war.
Getting the balance right. Over the summer, the Trump administration appeared to approach the North Korean crisis with a single strategy in mind: to deter Pyongyang’s use of force against the United States and its allies through demonstrations of strength and resolve. Washington has ratchetted up pressure through a number of means. It imposed bilateral sanctions, alongside those levied by the UN Security Council, to punish the North Korean regime. Even prior to the current 10-day naval operation, the US military carried out joint exercises with both South Korea and Japan, including an aerial show of force on Sept. 17 in response to Pyongyang’s latest missile test. Trump also pledged to increase investment in national missile defense to protect the United States and its allies from a North Korean attack. Last month he warned the world that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if America or its allies were attacked first.
These various displays are intended not only to demonstrate US resolve to act if Kim Jong-un attacks the United States, but also to reassure Japan and South Korea that Washington is committed to their security. Both countries have been under the US nuclear umbrella since the Cold War, and their belief that the United States will come to their aid if they are threatened militarily has been key to preventing Tokyo and Seoul from developing their own nuclear arsenals.
However, the recent spate of North Korean tests and Pyongyang’s aggressive efforts to develop the ability to strike the mainland United States have prompted new concerns about the reliability of US security commitments to the region. Prior to now, the United States could threaten North Korea with military force if Pyongyang attacked South Korea without fear of repercussions against the US mainland. North Korea’s recently acquired ability to hit the United States directly undermines the credibility of US threats and makes it increasingly challenging for Washington to convince its allies that when push comes to shove, it would sacrifice its own security for that of another country (or trade San Francisco for Seoul, as the saying goes). Trump’s recent behavior appears intended to convince allies that the US government still has their back.
The key challenge facing the United States is that these various efforts to signal resolve to North Korea—while they may help deter Pyongyang and reassure allies—come with a number of significant dangers.
First, Trump’s threats and demonstrations of military force towards North Korea may increase pressure on Pyongyang to use its weapons preemptively. As MIT political scientist Vipin Narang argues, the conventional military inferiority of North Korea compared to the United States makes Pyongyang extremely reliant on its small nuclear arsenal for security. If North Korea fears that a US attack is imminent, it might rationally choose to use its nuclear weapons against nearby targets to destroy US military capabilities. It could then use its longer-range missiles to try to hold the US government ransom and deter it from further action. The more Kim Jong-un fears a US attack, the more likely this outcome is, and US threats combined with military shows-of-force are likely only exacerbating the situation.
The lack of clarity in the content of Trump’s threats adds fuel to the fire. Trump’s August 8th statement that menacing North Korean verbal declarations—not just behavior—would be met with “fire and fury” created further confusion about what North Korean actions would invite a US military attack. This uncertainty may increase fears in North Korea that the United States is on the verge of a preventive strike, and reinforce the perception that it would be better to employ military force now, from a position of strength, than to risk being made significantly weaker.
The more recent personalization of the dispute and Trump’s derisive references to Kim Jong-un as the “rocket man” who is on a “suicide mission” have made the case for US restraint even stronger. In order to diffuse crises, leaders of all states need to be able to save face in front of their own domestic audiences and the international community. In other words, they need to be able to back down gracefully. Trump’s personal attacks against Kim Jong-un—a dictator who relies on a carefully cultivated image of power and strength—make it much harder for the North Korean leader to take any steps that might show weakness, and instead incentivizes further escalation. This was apparent in Kim Jong-un’s explosive and highly personal statement on September 21st, during which he promised to “tame” the US president with “fire.”
Finally, US behavior not only affects its relationships with North Korea, Japan, and Seoul, but also another major player in the region: China. When a US administration promises enhanced missile defense systems to reassure regional allies and protect America, it overlooks the effect that these measures can have on Beijing. US investments in missile defense and other infrastructure to defend against nuclear attack may spark fears in China that their own nuclear force is now vulnerable to US attack. This could destabilize the US-China relationship and increase the risk of an arms race.
The man in the middle. In the midst of this period of heightened tension, it came as a relief to learn last month that the United States and North Korea have opened lines of communication, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters last month. Talks provide the US government with an opportunity to mitigate risks posed by its efforts to deter and reassure, by signaling some degree of restraint to Pyongyang.
How might it do this? Tillerson has previously indicated his desire to diffuse tensions with North Korea and enter into negotiations. The possibility of talks provides him with an opportunity to relay this message, and to reiterate his previous “Four Nos”—that the US government is not seeking regime change, the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s government, an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, or an excuse to send the US military into North Korea. These messages might go some way towards defusing the current crisis and reassuring Kim Jong-un that his regime is not under immediate threat.
Of course, the challenge for Tillerson will be convincing North Korea that he speaks for the US president in issuing these assurances. This is not an easy task given Trump’s recent comment that the secretary of state is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” It is unfortunate that Trump has chosen to undermine his senior diplomat, but Tillerson, at least, has continued to insist that diplomatic efforts will continue for as long as possible. Let’s hope so, because one thing is clear: Restraint is a key ingredient to de-escalating the crisis with North Korea.
This piece was written by Julia M. Macdonald, an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Denver and in 2016-2017 a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. Her research focuses on state threat assessments, use of force decisions, and US military strategy and effectiveness.