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.