Much of international security depends on maintaining credible deterrence. Effective deterrence relies on two key factors: capability and credibility. In order to prevent a hostile force from attacking, countries need to be able to show that they have the resources to respond with force, i.e. military power, alliances, and force projection capabilities. However, if a country is believed to lack the political will to respond to aggression with force, their military capabilities will not be effective in deterring hostile action. On the Korean Peninsula, the US-South Korea alliance has a mixed record of deterrence. The alliance, with its modern military might displayed in regular joint exercises, clearly has the capability to deter the North Korean threat. In addition, it has projected the necessary credibility to deter any large-scale North Korean invasion since 1953. However, the alliance had proven to have little credibility in regards to responding to lower level provocations from North Korea, which has resulted in the current decades long cycle of North Korean brinksmanship.
North Korea has taken advantage of this situation to engage in a strategy of extortion from the international community- often demanding aid, apologies or changes in policy after each round of provocations. These small-scale aggressions over time have resulted in significant loss of US and South Korean lives. From 1953 to 2003, North Korea was responsible for 1,439 major provocations, as well as the deaths of at least 90 US and 390 ROK soldiers. Since 2010, North Korea has: sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean submarine, killing 46 seamen; shelled Yeonpyong, a South Korean Island, killing four South Koreans; and threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. The cycle continued again on August 4th of this year, with South Korea blaming North Korea for planting mines in the DMZ that maimed two South Korean soldiers, and on August 20th exchanged fire across the DMZ. As this current crisis unfolds, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of current US-South Korean strategy to stop the cycle of crises that have held South Korea hostage.
Since the Korean War, the United States has restrained its South Korean ally from responding with force to North Korea’s provocations and appeased rather than confronted Pyongyang. Two examples from 1968 demonstrate this trend. On January 21, 1968, a group of North Korean commandos infiltrated South Korea and the Presidential Blue House in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee and US Ambassador William J. Porter. Rather than responding forcefully to the attempted assassination of a US ambassador and an allied head of state, the United States, through Ambassador Porter, warned President Park that the US would strongly oppose any South Korean use of force. The second incident occurred two days later, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship, and its crew from international waters. North Korea held the 83 US crewmembers hostage for 11 months, and abused the men. In order to end the hostage crisis, the US Lyndon Johnson administration issued a written apology to North Korea. Both instances could have easily been considered an act of war and in both President Park wanted to respond forcefully but was restrained by its American ally, which worried about the possibility of a second Asian land war breaking out during the Vietnam War.
A second Korean War would be unquestionably devastating, and the US-South Korea alliance deserves commendation for preventing that outcome. However, as the economic and military gap increases between the South and the North, the chances of another invasion have decreased. Also, while the Kim family regime engages in behavior that many consider bizarre, its continued survival for more than seven decades, and its ability to outlast almost every other communist state, is a strong argument for its survival instinct and rationality. The US-South Korea alliance has endeavored to make it credibly clear that any large scale fighting on the Korean Peninsula will inevitably end North Korea and the Kim family’s dynastic chokehold on the North Korean people. There is no reason to expect that a proportionate response to North Korean provocations will result in all out war, or that the big deterrence will fail. However, by increasing the cost of each North Korean provocation, and refusing to give into Pyongyang’s extortionary practice with enticements, will decrease the value of North Korea’s brinksmanship strategy.
In 2011, South Korea developed a proactive deterrence policy that allowed South Korean forces to retaliate promptly and proportionately against the point of origin of North Korean attacks. This strategy was put into place after the August 20th North Korean artillery firing across the DMZ, which resulted in South Korean forces returning fire an hour later. The South Korean response demonstrated seriousness, but was done in a manner to ensure that there would be no North Korean casualties. North Korea has responded with a show of force, mobilizing troops and artillery to the DMZ and sending out its submarine force, but has also agreed to a long series of talks with South Korean officials at Panmunjom. North Korea is an expert at raising tensions and making demands, but it is important to reassert deterrence against its provocations.
The current South Korean stance has the greatest chance of ending Pyongyang’s violence, but as North Korea raises the stakes in protest, pressure will increase to give into Kim Jong-un’s demands. The United States should stand strong with Seoul to show that North Korean actions will not intimidate it, nor will it accept violent attacks against a close ally. This is not a call for reckless retaliation that could destabilize the region, and it does require signaling to Beijing of the limited nature of any response, but for too long North Korea’s provocations have gone unanswered. Following and supporting South Korea’s proactive deterrence policy will reestablish the alliances credibility, and should not be abandoned despite North Korea’s bombastic threats.