Reversing Deterrence Failure on the Korean Peninsula

by Matthew J. Harris

North Korea’s continued pursuit of a long-range, nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting the U.S. homeland represents a growing threat to the American people. Earlier this month, South Korean officials reported that North Korea had likely reached a “significant” level of technology toward miniaturizing a nuclear device to be fitted atop a missile. If completed, the long anticipated miniaturization effort will provide Pyongyang with a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead. It will also further demonstrate that the U.S. approach to decrease the possibility of a North Korean nuclear warhead killing Americans has failed.

In 2010, after North Korea sank a South Korean warship and bombarded a South Korean island, the U.S. government suspended deal-making efforts designed to convince Pyongyang to denuclearize and cease further aggression. After two years of remaining steadfast against providing incentives for North Korean assurances, however, the United States wavered and signed an agreement in February 2012 to send Pyongyang food in exchange for  halting all long-range ballistic missile launches, nuclear tests and uranium enrichment. Like previous attempts to use incentives to curb North Korean provocative behavior, this effort failed. In April 2012, Pyongyang snubbed the international community by attempting a long-range ballistic missile launch.

The White House has followed the same pattern before and after each North Korean ballistic missile launch and nuclear test. Prior to the April 2009, April 2012 and December 2012 long-range ballistic missile launches and the May 2009 and February 2013 nuclear tests, Washington issued warnings, which North Korea’s leadership predictably disregarded. And, after every provocation, the administration scampered to the United Nations begging for sanctions.  Neither approach has yielded any satisfactory reversal of Pyongyang’s defiant behavior.

The Obama administration’s policy for dealing with North Korea is called “strategic patience” and emphasizes taking a longer-term perspective to bringing about cooperation with the hermit regime. But North Korea’s continued pursuit of a long-range, nuclear-armed missile reinforces the perception that the United States cannot effectively deter Pyongyang.  This perception creates two problems.  First, history is replete with instances of Pyongyang taking advantage of the U.S.-South Korean alliance’s inability, and perhaps unwillingness, to implement sufficient costs. Second, Seoul may begin pursuing its own deterrence strategy without U.S. participation, implying that United States’ extended deterrence for its allies is ineffective. South Korea pursued nuclear programs during the early 1970s in response to the announced withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula.  What makes the Obama administration believe Seoul will react differently to continued setbacks?

In 2012, South Korea announced plans to deploy a cruise missile capable of precision strikes against targets anywhere in North Korea. An extended-range, precision-strike capability is the most practical and promising option available to strengthen the deterrence posture on the Korean Peninsula. A force of precision-guided cruise missiles would reduce the risk to aircraft if it ever became necessary to preemptively attack North Korean nuclear and missile launch facilities. A missile defense system could not manage the potential barrage of hundreds of North Korean threat missiles on its own, especially if the system must face numerous rocket, cruise and ballistic missile threats simultaneously. A cruise missile capability also ensures the ability to punish the North Korean leadership for any provocative behavior by attacking specific targets, which also decreases the potential for inadvertent escalation. Furthermore, it avoids the need to extend the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles, which should pacify any perceived threat to neighboring states. And support of a precision strike conventional capability may help to abate desires to redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. North Korea has continued to develop and field ballistic missiles capable of striking any South Korean target, and notoriously holds Seoul hostage with the threat of an attack. Restricting Seoul’s ability to develop and field a similar capability does not produce stability, especially when Pyongyang demonstrates a willingness to conduct deadly attacks without consequence.

The Obama administration should make haste in showing support for South Korea’s bold cruise missile deployment decision. After North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted: “We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region – or on us.” For the past six years, the Obama administration has stood idly by and squandered its opportunity to deter North Korea’s nuclear missile development. With deterrence failure quickly approaching, now is the time for the United States to embrace a new strategy on the Korean peninsula.

Matthew J. Harris is president of Prime Meridian Communications in Runnemede, N.J.  His research specializes in nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and emerging security issues.