Deterring Kim Jong Il

Graham Allison charges that the Bush administration’s issuance of vague threats has been precisely the wrong approach to North Korea.

Effective deterrence required three components: clarity, capability and credibility. Clarity meant bright lines and unacceptable consequences. Credibility was understood to be in the eye of the beholder. How credible was the threat to trade Boston for Berlin? Never 100 percent. But U.S. forces, exercises and communication were crafted to convince Soviet leaders they dare not test it.

To date the Bush administration has demonstrably failed to deter Kim Jong Il. Successive U.S. demands that Kim not develop nuclear weapons, not test a missile and not test a nuclear bomb have been defied. In each case, the president has asserted that this would be “intolerable.” Pressed to be precise about what this threat meant, however, Bush refused, responding instead, “I don’t think you give timelines to dictators and tyrants.” National security adviser Stephen Hadley has gone further, arguing that red lines make no sense in dealing with North Korea because “the North Koreans just walk right up to them and step over them.”

Having stiffed Bush — and the world — in building a nuclear arsenal, testing a long-range missile and testing a nuclear weapon, might Kim now imagine that he could also sell nuclear weapons?

America’s challenge is to prevent this act by convincing Kim that he will be held accountable for every nuclear weapon that originates in North Korea. This requires clarity, credibility about our capacity to identify the source of a bomb that explodes in one of our cities (however it is delivered by whomever) and a believable threat to respond.

Kim must be convinced that American nuclear forensics will be able to identify the molecular fingerprint of nuclear material from his Yongbyon reactor. He must feel in his gut the threat that if a nuclear weapon of North Korean origin explodes on American soil or that of a U.S. ally, the United States will retaliate precisely as if North Korea had attacked the United States with a nuclear-armed missile: with an overwhelming response that guarantees this will never happen again.

There are two problems with this approach.

First, Allison is simply wrong on the first of his three C’s of deterrence policy. Clarity was never the hallmark of our approach to the Soviets. Indeed, drawing bright lines would have made nuclear escalation more likely, as it would signal to the adversary exactly what he could get away with. Sure, it was always made clear that a nuclear attack on the United States would result in massive retaliation and vice versa. At the same time, we always reserved the option to respond to lesser attacks with nuclear weapons, too. That was why we never renounced the right of first use.

By having a credible threat to use nuclear weapons in the case of war, with no precise thresholds, we deterred not only nuclear destruction but head-to-head conventional war as well. The risks of miscalculation were simply too high.

Second, it is simply not credible to think that we would use nuclear weapons against Pyongyang if some third party to whom they sold nuclear weapons used them against an American city. Making the threat would simultaneously fail to deter Kim and lower our esteem in the international community. Far better to simply make it known that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies would be met in kind against the perpetrator.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    He’s got the components wrong. There’s a physical component (he calls it ”capability”) and there’s a psychological component. I agree that the Bush administration, following the path of the Clinton administration, has muffed the psychological component.

    Potential adversaries must believe that whatever consequences, however vague, are promised will actually come to pass. It’s particularly helpful if the American people believe that.

    That’s not true any more. Too few people here, in Europe, and among potential adversaries really believe our threats.

  2. Cernig says:

    That’s the third punditing idiot to come up with a variant on what’s being called “expanded deterence”. First David Ignatius, then Victor Davis Hanson, now Allison.

    All perpetuate an uber-right myth that has spread to become “what everyone knows”: that the “axis of evil” – the very countries being watched closest – are the most likely sources for a terrorist nuke, rather than, say, a Pakistan that has successfully played the neocons for every dime and weapon they could while supporting Islamist terror, or the vast and unsecured nuclear resources of the former Soviet Union.

    These are where the real threats of a terrorist nuke come from.

    So suppose the LeK set off a nuke in Mumbai which is found to contain Pakistani uranium. The Indian government already maintains that Pakistan’s intelligence agency aids islamic terror groups in any case. Pakistan might claim a “rogue element” or deny all knowledge just as it did with the Khan network. If India claimed it’s right to “expanded deterrence” even so and nuked Pakistan’s four biggest cities do you think the Bush administration or any conceivable Republican successor would stand by and say “Fair enough by us, we did warn everyone”? Of course not. That’s just one possible counterexample to prove that the principle of expanded deterrence as put forward by the hawks would not be universal, but instead be claimed as the sole right of the U.S. Its pretty easy to construct more.

    If expanded deterrence is the sole preserve of America…well, that’s the huge can of foreign policy worms opened again. Back to PNAC’s American Hegemony with several vengeances. None of the other big nuclear powers will be at all happy, for starters. Russia will undoubtably get very nervous…

    Now, suppose an Islamic terror group gets a hold of fissile material for a bomb, or even a complete weapon, from some Russian Mafia blackmarket dealer in Uzbeckistan. They then set it off in Manhattan and a forensic examination determines that the bomb came from…the former Soviet Union. Probably produced in Minsk, Kiev or somesuch. Is the U.S. going to launch a retaliatory strike “with devastating force” on Russia or the Ukraine? Somehow I don’t think so and again its simple to think up other counterexamples.

    So just like “for us or against us” and “no distinction between terrorists and the nations that shelter them”, (think Pakistan again), it cannot be a sensible universal policy for even America.

    And if you stop to think for a moment, the actual idea behind this plan is idiotic. It is tantamount to saying that if you manufacture a gun that eventually ends up in the hands of a murderer, no matter how that happens, we will come round to your house and machinegun your whole family. Try getting that “expanded deterrence” past the NRA!

    Which makes it one of two things – either it is simply political red meat which isn’t applicable to the real world in a way that solves problems rather than creating them, or it is simply running around with nuclear scissors.

    Regards, Cernig

  3. Herb says:

    Who in the hell is Graham Allison?

    If he was so damned smart, he would be President.

  4. Mark says:

    Why is it so, that the Government of the U.S. feel that they have an inviolable right to police the wrongdoings of the ‘criminal’ nations of the world?
    How is it, that radical Muslims all around the world are not screaming about Russian infidels?
    Should the neutral observer be a little concerned to see the governments of China and Russia looking for calm when the U.S. are looking for direct action?
    If the U.S. government spent more time worrying about their own domestic affairs and stayed out of International politics they would not be held as such a legitimate target.
    Why should a goat herder from a virtually unknown country in the Middle East or Asia have an insatiable hatred for anything American?
    The one reason for this is vested interest. 100,000’s of people have been killed in the Chechnya wars in the last ten years. Where was the military intervention from the U.S. for this?
    Millions have been killed in various wars across the mid African states in the last decade.
    Not one operation that comes close to operation Iraqi Freedom.
    Is there anyone out there that can tell me why Iraq deserved the intervention that it got over the likes of Sierra Leone or Rwanda?
    I was delighted to see a despot like Saddam Hussein overthrown, but am very disappointed to know that there are worse atrocities going on daily, unpoliced across the globe.
    Is OIL the answer to all these questions?

  5. legion says:

    If he was so damned smart, he would be President.

    Ah-ha. Ha ha. Heh-heh-heh.
    Oh god…
    Thanks, Herb. That may be the single funniest thing I’ve ever read on a blog. Whooo!