No Surprise in Failure to Deter N. Korea


Jun 2, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in Chicago Tribune on June 2, 2009.

North Korea's latest misbehavior highlights an uncomfortable truth: the failure of the United States and the international community to deter North Korean actions.

Unfortunately, this failure was predictable. Deterrence is based on the costs a country perceives it will face versus the benefits it expects to obtain. In this case, it is pretty easy to see why North Korea has not been deterred.

Consider the benefits:

The appearance of power: North Korea's leaders are trying to overcome their appearance of weakness. Kim Jong Il's health has been poor. He allowed the development of markets to help distribute food — markets that have undermined the regime's ability to control who gets fed. North Korea's recent nuclear test and "space launch," in contrast, make Kim appear empowered. Indeed, in some ways they make North Korea appear to be a peer of the U.S.

Military deterrence: North Korea fears the U.S. and other outside intervention, including military attacks. Demonstrating a capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles and detonate a more powerful nuclear weapon raises North Korean deterrence against outside threats.

Prospect of more aid: North Korea's economy has largely failed and its people go hungry. The missile and nuclear tests provide North Korea with a basis for extorting aid (such as the oil promised in 2007) from its neighbors and the U.S.

New earning possibilities: Contrary to press speculation, Kim really does want a space-launch capability (largely identical to intercontinental missiles). He has seen China sell low-cost space launches to earn hard currency and "acquire" foreign technology. North Korea would like to reap similar benefits.

Diplomatic wiggle room: North Korea has had to give up a little of its nuclear program to get some foreign aid. But Kim is clearly not prepared to forfeit his nukes altogether. Now he can claim that the UN reaction to his space launch is hostile and reset the six-party nuclear talks, seeking new aid.

And consider the costs:

Not a lot: There have been financial sanctions. These affect trade, and North Korea's main trade partner, China, has been reluctant to impose sanctions. So North Korea has paid little cost. Sanctions may actually harm the markets that worry Kim, meaning sanctions could even be viewed as a benefit.

So how to actually deter North Korea? The pattern can be reversed only if the U.S. is prepared to threaten actions that really bite:

Propaganda: North Korean defectors regularly send balloons with anti-Kim leaflets into the North. North Korea is really offended by them. South Korea and the U.S. could threaten to send more, and step up the broadcast of radio and TV messages into North Korea. The increasing penetration of outside culture undermines Kim's rule.

Food fight: South Korea could begin stockpiling food, saying it is preparing for a North Korean regime failure. In such circumstances, many people in the North will starve without rapid outside food aid. One of my colleagues describes this as a "Joseph in Egypt" solution, preparing for famine during times of plenty. Many Christians in South Korea would understand this reference. North Korea would be furious.

Missile defense: The North will need to demonstrate a successful space launch several times before it can sell such a capability. The U.S. could undermine such efforts by threatening to intercept long-range missile launches, arguing that these are a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718.

The point is that America and the international community need to be serious. They have threatened much, but imposed little about which the North Korean leaders are truly sensitive.

In recent days, North Korea's bluster has been unusually threatening, apparently to deter retaliation or other actions by the U.S. or its neighbors. That leaves the U.S. with few options. It could wait for more reasonable North Korean behavior, but likely face continued North Korean provocations. It could pre-emptively agree to meet North Korea's demands — stopping the provocations, yet undermining U.S. regional alliances. Or it could prepare a campaign plan of actions and reactions, letting North Korea know its escalations will lead to tangible costs.

All of the options involve risks. The question is: Which will we accept?

Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a non-partisan, non-profit research institution.

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