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

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:

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.

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38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea