Moon Jae-in’s victory in South Korea’s presidential election injects a new element of uncertainty to the already fraught situation on the Korean peninsula. Moon is widely perceived to advocate a more conciliatory approach toward the North, in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s confrontational stance. His electoral victory may thus portend a break between Seoul and Washington, which could have significant implications for regional stability. This potential split lends a newfound urgency to recent debates regarding the wisdom of a more assertive deterrent posture toward North Korea.
Much discussion on the topic has revolved around the United States’ decision last month to dispatch a carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula and the implications of the subsequent delay in the “armada’s” arrival. Many analyses of the carrier strike group’s deployment implicitly assumed, or explicitly argued, that dispatching such a potent symbol of American power was intended to “signal resolve” and bolster deterrent threats aimed at the North.
In this vein, Van Jackson recently argued in War on the Rocks that American demonstrations of resolve are highly destabilizing in the Korean context. He persuasively suggested that such demonstrations undermine the policy of American restraint that has prevented tensions on the Korean peninsula from boiling over since 1953. Others have argued that such demonstrations of resolve are superfluous, as America’s commitment to South Korea’s defense is already quite well established. The 28,500 American troops and 150,000 American citizens living in South Korea, along with a nearly 65-year-old mutual defense treaty, clearly communicate the United States’ commitment. U.S. troops along the 38th parallel serve as a crucial “tripwire,” as American casualties in the early stages of a conflict would make capitulation and retreat politically untenable for any president. The U.S.-South Korean alliance also represents one of America’s most durable security commitments, and the reputational effects of reneging on this commitment would be catastrophic.
So, if signaling American resolve is both dangerous and redundant, why do it?
Unfortunately, these debates mischaracterize the signaling purpose of crisis military deployments in the Korean context. These signals are indeed largely redundant as a demonstration of American commitment. But dispatching a carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula could help demonstrate American military capability — specifically the ability to rapidly deploy sufficient firepower to limit the damage caused by a North Korean attack to acceptable levels.
“Capability” refers to a state’s ability to accomplish specific tactical and strategic objectives through the actual use of military power. “Resolve” refers to a state’s willingness to incur costs in order to achieve these objectives. Scholarly literature on crisis signaling typically focuses on resolve rather than capabilities for two reasons: First, it is widely argued (if still highly debatable) that capabilities are easier to measure and evaluate than resolve, which is inherently unobservable. Second, with respect to U.S. foreign policy specifically, American military preponderance is so firmly established that demonstrating a war-winning military capability is generally seen as superfluous. Why signal America’s military preponderance when everyone already knows it exists?
With respect to North Korea, America’s ultimate military superiority is not in question. But there are other, more specific military capabilities that the United States might want to demonstrate. Most importantly, it is highly questionable whether the United States could deploy its overwhelming military capabilities to the Korean peninsula quickly enough to meaningfully reduce the damage South Korea would suffer in the event of a war. Demonstrating this capability might communicate new information to Pyongyang, and thus have a meaningful deterrent benefit.
Recent analyses of North Korean military doctrine indicate an extremely high likelihood of rapid escalation, potentially resulting in the use of nuclear weapons within the first 24 to 48 hours of a conflict. An attack would likely also include massive artillery volleys that could potentially inflict catastrophic damage on Seoul, a city of over 20 million people. As such, the material and civilian costs of a war on the Korean peninsula would depend on the United States’ ability to rapidly deploy and effectively target overwhelming firepower. In the early stages of a conflict, the U.S. military would face strong incentives to launch extensive preemptive attacks against North Korean nuclear assets, command and control infrastructure, and known artillery emplacements along the border. A full carrier strike group deployed directly offshore would substantially increase American capabilities in this regard, potentially mitigating the still-catastrophic damage South Korea would likely suffer.
This actually makes the Trump administration’s bungled deployment substantially more problematic than previously assumed. If the carrier group’s deployment was intended primarily to convey resolve, then forward-deployed American troops and a long-running mutual defense treaty could mitigate the damage resulting from the “missing carrier.” But if the deployment was designed to demonstrate American capability and capacity to successfully preempt a North Korean attack, confusion regarding the timeline of a naval deployment could prove highly problematic. Precisely because the United States’ capacity to pull off a successful preemptive attack is so uncertain, a bungled demonstration of this capability might cause the North Korean leadership to radically downgrade its estimate of America’s ability to quickly respond to a crisis.
Conversely, a credible signal of this capability could meaningfully contribute to American deterrence in the region. But, given the likelihood of rapid escalation in a Korean conflict, even minor discrepancies in American and North Korean expectations about the timing of a carrier group’s arrival could create dangerous perceptions in Pyongyang of a “window of opportunity” in which to strike. Therefore, botched signals of America’s rapid deployment capabilities, like the “missing carrier” debacle last month, could seriously undermine deterrent efforts.
None of this is to say that the United States should be dispatching an aircraft carrier to the region when tensions on the Korean peninsula escalate. But in order to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of military deployments as bargaining signals, we need a clear conception of what exactly these signals are intended to convey. In the North Korean context, demonstrating American capability may actually be more important than signaling its credibility.
Kyle Haynes is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University, specializing in U.S. foreign policy, international security, and crisis bargaining. You can follow him on Twitter @kyle_e_haynes.
Image: U.S. Navy, Petty Officer 3rd Class Dusty Howel