Saturday, July 19, 2008

Deterrence on the Peninsula

Since the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War, neither side has violated the Demilitarized Zone in strength. There have been minor skirmishes and provocations along this frontier, but there have been no events or series of events that has seriously threatened the status quo. The conventional foreign policy assessment as to why there have been no major violations of the armistice was conventional deterrence. Victor Cha puts it bluntly: “North Korea has not attacked for fifty years because deterrence works.” (pg 54) Cha does not define “deterrence” but the definition one selects for that word is crucial to determining how the policy works on the peninsula.


Cha implies that “deterrence” is actually the rational reaction to the balance of power, a rough equivalence in the war making capabilities of the two sides across the DMZ. The clear implication is that “deterrence” is the only rational response by one side to what an opposing side with equal capabilities is doing or can do in the near future. The way “deterrence/balance of power” is expressed on the peninsula, so long as the US neither provokes nor makes North Korea feel that the only possible response is a cross-DMZ attack, the balance is maintained. Unfortunately for classic balance of power calculations, no dispassionate analyst would assess the situation on the peninsula as a balance.

The US military is the most capable in the world. American forces have fought at least one war every generation using the most advanced armaments in regions all over the world. South Korea fights with and trains with the Americans around the world and has a population and economy that vastly larger than the North. There is little likelihood that North Korea is prepared for the combat power of the US and the ROK. Further, captured North Korean vessels are in such poor condition that it is hard to imagine that weapons kept in North Korean war reserve will be in better condition than that which is actually employed. Yet, even with such a disparity in capabilities, there still exists deterrence. The only explanation for this is that all sides have agreed to attribute lacks of attacks to balance of power when in reality; the South and the US have consciously chosen not to destroy the North.  


An alternate definition of deterrence is one has less to do with a country’s leadership’s rational reaction to the carefully weighted assessment of their enemy’s capabilities, and more to calculated self-interest. On the Korean peninsula, it is in every player’s interest to maintain the status quo. The North Korean leadership does not want to experience the catastrophe that awaits Communists whose countries fall violently. South Korea does not want the expense and recession that awaits should they be forced to assimilate the impoverished and backwards North. The United States has a myriad of other crises around the world and would prefer to put off the reckoning on the peninsula as far out in the indeterminate future as possible.  


Cha, Victor D. and David C. Kang. Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies (New York: Columbia University Press) 2003.