Inadvertent war in Korea is more likely now than at any point in recent history. Whereas a second Korean war has always been possible, clashing U.S. and North Korean “theories of victory” — beliefs about what it takes to successfully coerce and control escalation — now make it plausible, even probable.
Patterns of bluster and brinkmanship have of course long characterized affairs on the Korean Peninsula. For “Korea watchers,” there’s a perverse comfort in the predictability of a situation that, to the uninitiated, sometimes looks anything but stable.
So on some level, the rhythm of recent saber-rattling between the Trump administration and North Korea recalls the perverse comfort of typical Korea policy. On a recent visit to South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence cited U.S. attacks in Syria and Afghanistan as indications of U.S. resolve against North Korea. This statement followed numerous officials confirming that the administration is contemplating preventive strikes against the North, and a recent policy review on North Korea yielding one overarching imperative: “maximum pressure.” North Korea’s rhetoric and posturing has been no less confrontational and no less familiar. As Pence departed Alaska for South Korea, North Korea attempted a submarine-launched ballistic missile test that failed. Upon news that a U.S. carrier group was headed to its neighborhood, North Korea responded that “a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment” and that it’s “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
These words and deeds themselves are more heated than usual, but unremarkable in the context of all that’s come before. North Korea routinely threatens war, often summoning images of a future mushroom cloud. The United States routinely dispatches aircraft carriers, bombers, and other strategic military assets in hopes of signaling resolve while actually registering little more than displeasure with North Korean behavior. The notion of “maximum pressure,” moreover, only differs from the approach of past U.S. presidents in the ambiguous adjective “maximum.” Pressure is the historical mean of U.S. policy toward North Korea. My concern is not with these observable dynamics to date, but rather with what lies beneath them, and what may be coming soon as a consequence.
It’s getting harder to ignore that the Pentagon, under Secretary Jim Mattis, may have a coercive theory of victory that largely mirrors that of North Korea under Kim Jong-Un. The danger is in the fundamental incompatibility of these disturbingly similar sets of strategic beliefs.
U.S. Signaling Antagonism
Senior U.S. military officers have repeatedly and publicly claimed that “Deterrence=Capability x National Interest x Signaling.” This aggressive formula is at odds with best practices from deterrence theory, as I discuss in my forthcoming episode of “Pacific Pundit.” Placing direct causal emphasis on using the military to signal resolve toward an adversary is mistakenly provocative, even antagonistic. It risks goading an adversary into aggressive actions, thereby bringing about deterrence failure. It ignores how and why military signals are taken seriously by adversaries, which has less to do with the wielding of a weapon than the history of proven willingness to use it. And it wrongly implies the need to take positive military action — for example, by deploying assets that would be necessary for prosecuting a war, like an aircraft carrier — just for stability to hold, to say nothing of what it might take to coerce your adversary into doing something they might otherwise not do. When signaling is treated as a cause and deterrence as an outcome, virtually any offensive action can be logically justified on the grounds that it helps buy the United States the deterrence it already has.
So, if moving ships and bombers around on a map were the full extent of U.S. plans to apply “maximum pressure” to North Korea, then U.S. policy might struggle to achieve its aims, but it would be no more dangerous than usual. In the context of this distorted formula, however, there are two interrelated differences that give reason to worry. First, the most direct reason that past crises with North Korea have not bubbled over into war was American restraint. The historical record of U.S.-North Korea relations reveals the surprising extent to which North Korea was poised to automatically retaliate and escalate in response to U.S. uses of force that never took place. Second, numerous administration sources have conveyed that the Trump administration is willing to launch preventive strikes in response to unspecified North Korean provocations, potentially even in response to non-violent actions like nuclear testing. This would be unprecedented. The United States has almost never threatened offensive action against North Korea; retaliatory action in response to violence sure, but never threatening to draw first blood. As crazy as such a move sounds, it would be consistent with a more offensive theory of victory that believes it necessary to do something more than uphold defense commitments. As I outline below, the preventive use of force— which is logically justifiable when signaling is mistakenly believed to be a cause of deterrence — clashes rather explosively with North Korea’s own theory of victory.
The Pentagon’s belief that sustained deterrence rests on communicating resolve through military posturing rather than through upholding commitments is in keeping with an expectation that war in Korea would be Kim Jong-Un’s responsibility, not America’s. A U.S. general assigned to Korea recently told the press, “Our biggest concern is that he’s going to miscalculate. That’s always our concern.” This kind of thinking overlooks the interdependence of North Korean strategic decision-making with our own. A North Korean attack is most likely in response to it misinterpreting America’s aggressive signaling as something more dramatic or imminent than Washington intends.
In fairness, the U.S. military’s faith in the ability to signal resolve through military assets predates the Trump administration. Some version of the deterrence formula above was occasionally espoused by military counterparts when I served in the Pentagon during the Obama administration. The difference is that the Obama administration was notoriously risk-averse, and the White House micromanaged the Department of Defense, allowing it very little discretion on policy matters. But the Trump administration appears to be a much more permissive — even enabling — environment for such coercive beliefs, if only because of Mattis’s reputation as a hawk and the prominence of the Pentagon in President Trump’s national security policy to date.
Clarifying North Korea’s Theory of Victory
America’s more assertive theory of victory is not, on its own, a recipe for war. And in contexts outside Asia, seeking deliberate friction might be useful. For example, in situations where adversaries doubt U.S. resolve, where military signals don’t risk being mistaken for war, and where adversaries lack the ability to meaningfully retaliate against U.S. interests, such an assertive stance could be productive. But none of that applies to North Korea. The acute danger of offensively oriented U.S. thinking about coercion is that North Korea thinks in largely the same way, and has a massive, diverse retaliatory capability at its disposal.
I recently reviewed two newly translated documents from Soviet archives, obtained by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. They relayed conversations between senior North Korean officials and their Soviet counterparts on the day after North Korea shot down a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft, killing all 31 Americans on board. The documents were written by the Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang, reporting conversations with senior North Korean officials. These documents strongly suggest that North Korea has a highly offensive, highly reputational theory of victory toward the United States, believing that
military force has political value, escalation is a reliable means of de-escalation, provocations help deter “US aggression,” and retaliating when attacked is essential to maintaining credible deterrence.
In other words, North Korea’s formulation for how to deter war places high emphasis on offensive signaling through low-level violence, provocations, and retaliation if attacked. Extrapolating how an adversary thinks from evidence dating to 1969 would normally be difficult to justify, but in this case the documents are simply illustrative, reinforcing a mounting body of analysis that suggests North Korea’s theory of victory is disturbingly escalatory.
When Theories Collide
We have in Korea a clash of strategic beliefs that will make it hard to avoid locking into what scholars describe as a “spiral model” of conflict: A scenario in which punitive action intended to deter the adversary leads to adversary retaliation or even more aggressive behavior. Conflict spirals are historically rare, but so are the conditions found on the Korean Peninsula. If both sides believe too fervently in the value of military signaling to achieve deterrence, then both are primed to respond to the signals of the other with still more provocative signals. The underpinning intention of both may be defensive, but because of what they believe about shows of resolve, each is primed to respond adversely to the other.
The alternative need not be unqualified appeasement. Recent research on the history of failed rapprochement with North Korea expects that accommodating an adversary is much harder than many foreign policy doves expect. Instead, stability is more likely if the United States adapts its deterrence posture to account for North Korea’s coercive theory of victory — retaliating when attacked but not attacking first — and remembers that making good on threats and promises over time has a much more meaningful impact on preventing adversary aggression than military signaling alone ever will.
I hope I’m wrong about the Pentagon’s theory of victory. But if I’m not, and the United States is going down a more offensive path with North Korea, where does it end, and how?
Van Jackson, PhD is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks and host of the Pacific Pundit podcast series. In June, he joins Victoria University of Wellington as a Senior Lecturer in International Relations. In addition to previously serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Air Force, he is author of the unusually expensive book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2016). The views expressed are his own.