The policies of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States (US) toward North Korea (DPRK) are again at a crossroads. And as is often the case, the North Korean government, taking bellicose actions and engaging in threatening rhetoric, is manipulating the strategic environment to shape the way forward. The initial responses from the Trump and Moon administrations have been prudent. They have avoided a reactive tit-for-tat chest thumping, instead reiterating their commitment to balancing deterrence and détente. Equally important, both governments have signaled a renewed commitment to policy coordination and unity.
More recently, however, mixed signals from both Washington and Seoul have emerged that portend fissures in the alliance. This threatens ROK and US interests in achieving their joint vision of “peace through strength,” jeopardizes any hope for denuclearization and the transformation of relations with the DPRK, and risks inviting DPRK adventurism. To effectively deter future provocations and actively shape conditions to facilitate diplomacy, the ROK and US governments must increase efforts to maintain strategic alignment. They should avoid feeding the North’s narrative of a hostile external enemy while clearly signaling their collective resolve and re-designing the alliance to meet new and emerging security requirements.
The Strategic Case for Restraint and Unity
Earlier this year, the North Korean government announced that the country would increase its nuclear deterrence and put its strategic armed forces on high alert. On June 16, in a dramatic show true to form, the North demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong. Its government also threatened to redeploy troops to the area bordering South Korea and restore guard posts that were removed in the Demilitarized Zone. Only a week later, Kim Jong Un deferred these and other military plans, effectively de-escalating the situation. Since then, Kim has held a closed meeting of the Central Military Commission to discuss bolstering North Korea’s war deterrent and examining the “strategic mission” of major units. Taken together, these developments threaten, if not undo, the modest but significant progress South and North Korea made over the past two years in ending over seventy years of war on the Korean Peninsula. They are a stark reminder of just how tenuous the ROK-US détente with North Korea has been. The Kim Jong Un regime—now with even more advanced nuclear and missile programs—poses yet another challenge to a world already battling multiple crises.
Among numerous motivations for North Korea’s recent provocations is a desire to deflect attention away from acute public health and economic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kim regime will manufacture, as it has in the past, whatever propaganda serves its objectives regardless of alliance actions. Information that challenges the official state position, however, does penetrate the country, and perspectives among the North Korean people—including its elite—are neither uniform nor fixed. To convince the DPRK government to change its current course, the ROK and the US should respond in ways that deny the benefits of provocations. This will require both demonstrating the alliance’s collective resolve and highlighting the enduring alternative of peaceful engagement.
Pyongyang’s recent actions fuel well-intentioned demands in both Washington and Seoul for a more militarized approach to North Korea. This call comes from advocates of the ROK-US alliance, concerned that the Trump and Moon administrations have weakened both the alliance’s force readiness and the bilateral relationship. However, the ROK and the US must not allow the Kim Jong Un regime to drive events—polarizing the ROK public and dividing the alliance. Further, the ROK and the US must avoid rewarding DPRK leaders with the response they seek. Simply trading threats of military power—a return to a deterrent-dominant approach—will only provide an external distraction to the North’s internal challenges, strengthen hardline factions, and enter the alliance in a race to the bottom that crowds out diplomatic options. Instead, ROK and US defense leaders—through continued force and doctrinal improvements, shows of solidarity and strategic transformation of the alliance architecture—should design a military posture focusing more on deterrent effects that support efforts at reviving diplomacy.
“Speaking Softly” but Strengthening Defense
For the past two years, alliance managers have worked to adapt deterrence without compromising defense. They did this most notably by “dialing down,” if not muting, some of the alliance’s traditional messaging, including modification of combined exercises and an embargo on the US deployment of strategic assets, such as B-52 and B-1B bombers, to Korea. This has come at some cost to readiness, requiring the alliance to assume a degree of risk. Contrary to criticism, however, the silencing of more overt deterrence signaling to North Korea should not be conflated with weakening of defense. In fact, during the Moon and Trump administrations, the alliance has in many ways strengthened its military capabilities.
Ongoing defense reform and force modernization are enhancing the ROK’s capacity to respond to DPRK aggression as well as increasing its contributions to the alliance. In the past twelve months alone, the ROK has received Global Hawks and F-35A fighters and tested its indigenous bunker-busting Hyunmoo-4 missile. Transformation in forces and doctrine have also better prepared the US military to address vulnerabilities in its extended deterrence posture. The US deployment of W76-2 low-yield submarine launched ballistic missiles, development of the B61-mod 12 air-delivered bomb with dial-a-yield capability, operationalization of Dynamic Force Employment (DFE), and ongoing development of a Joint All-Domain Command Control (JADC2) concept all reflect an upgraded military capacity and continued commitment to its alliances.
Moreover, complaints about reduced ROK-US alliance deterrence signaling as a means of expressing goodwill and non-hostile intent toward North Korea also obscured strong demonstrations of US-Japan alliance capabilities. US deployment to the broader region of strategic assets in shows of force with the Japan Air Self Defense Force, in addition to Japan’s own defense development, were undoubtedly watched in Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. Despite the significant challenges today in ROK-Japan and ROK-US-Japan cooperation, these US and Japanese capabilities are expected to support the ROK-US alliance in a conflict. Thus, any perceived weaknesses in US extended deterrence and in US alliances in the Indo-Pacific are unlikely to stem from a belief that capabilities have eroded.
The greatest current challenge to deterrence effectiveness in US alliances stems from a question not of capabilities but of commitment. Consequently, progress in advancing the capacity for deterrence is not directly translating into stronger deterrent effects. The Trump administration’s approach to alliance management, and its public criticism of allies, sends confusing signals about political commitment to and the cohesion of alliances. For example, when the US ended its Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) in Guam, security experts in Seoul questioned whether this was a negotiating tactic to pressure the ROK government to pay more in Host Nation Support. Public messaging by the US military later explained that the US was actually strengthening its readiness through a transition from CBP to operationalizing its DFE concept. This change sought to address the operational vulnerabilities of having a “targetable footprint,” a concern allies and the US alike have, given North Korea’s Hwasong-12 and China’s DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, even this US effort to enhance force resiliency by increasing operational unpredictability was misconstrued for a period of time as an effort to strong-arm its ally rather than strengthen US extended deterrence.
Perceptions of credibility influence decision-making within alliances and by adversaries. As former Defense Secretary Mattis noted, “operations occur at the speed of trust” and “vicious harmony is needed on the battlefield.” Reduced ally and adversary confidence in US commitments has a powerful impact on the effectiveness of deterrence—regardless of the strengthening of military capabilities. JADC2 may enable the US to operate at “machine speed” and overcome challenges to synchronizing capabilities across multiple domains. However, in competition and conflict, that will increasingly depend on alliance cooperation. Operational tempo will also depend on the ability of US and friendly forces to have confidence in and integrate with each other. Additionally, public statements disparaging allies as free-riders and other depictions of political-military discord tempt adversaries to exploit perceived weakness in alliance cohesion. Even though North Korean provocations are more likely to increase alliance solidarity rather than to split the United States and its South Korean ally, the perception of a weaker US political commitment may precipitate DPRK miscalculations and bolder risk-taking behavior.
At the same time, however, the current strains in the alliance, if approached practically, present an opportunity for positive change. The demand of both the Trump and Moon administrations for alliance transformation provides the needed political drive to innovate legacy architecture and effectively adjust to evolving deterrence requirements. In this regard, the US has no more effective partner than the Moon administration, which wants to take greater responsibility for ROK defense and enjoys the support of a dominant progressive party in the National Assembly. However, context and process also matter. The way in which the ROK and US pursue changes in the alliance will shape perceptions of whether such adaptations strengthen or weaken cohesion and deterrence. Consider, for example, recent reporting of a schism in the alliance over the next combined command-level exercise. Allegedly, while the ROK is focusing on certification for the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON), the US is stressing the aim of strengthening the alliance’s defense posture. This reflects a false dichotomy—OPCON transition to a future ROK-led Combined Forces Command can and should be pursued in a way that bolsters, not weakens, alliance readiness.
Realizing the Alliance’s Strategic Potential
A strategy focused on enhancing deterrent effects should drive alliance transformation and force development. Leveraged properly, enhanced ROK-US military cooperation can enable the alliance to more quickly and effectively operate across multiple domains and in a contested environment against adversaries with increasingly sophisticated anti-access area-denial capabilities. Greater autonomy of an empowered ROK military, as well as a more strategically flexible US force, enhances the alliance’s operational versatility and unpredictability. Because system disruptions and failures must be assumed in potential conflict, the alliance should offer greater resiliency and redundancy relative to what either the ROK or US might enjoy independently. “Plug and play” compatibility should be a requirement in development of disruptive technologies. Such interoperability will offer alliance leaders the option of integrating systems to realize network effects.
Ultimately, the alliance must shift from its traditional reliance on unfettered US military superiority to maintain extended deterrence to a more collective posture that harnesses the strategic value of this military partnership. The two countries, however, must first work to restore mutual trust and confidence, as well as approach alliance cooperation as a positive-sum endeavor that aims not to exert power over, but to realize power with, the other partner. This will enable the alliance to modify its deterrence posture so that it is not only based on a readiness “to fight tonight,” but effectively designed to deter North Korea in the strategic campaign it is engaged in today.
This argument makes a conceptual distinction between defense (capabilities), deterrence posture and deterrent effects. Defense capabilities refers to military assets and readiness. These capabilities combined with messaging of a commitment to impose costs in response to or deny the benefits of an adversary’s actions compose a deterrence posture. Deterrent effects will refer to whether an adversary is then persuaded not to conduct certain actions based on this posture.