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Introduction: North Korea and Asia's Evolving Nuclear Landscape

Robert Jervis

PDF free through October 1, 2017

There is a small but not trivial chance that by the end of 2017 the United States will have used force against North Korea. The Trump administration, after declaring its predecessor’s policy of “strategic patience” a failure in light of the quickening pace of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, has claimed to be embarking on a new and more belligerent policy. That the criticisms of the past ring true does not provide grounds for believing that President Donald Trump—or anyone else—has a viable alternative.

Of course the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is only the most dramatic of the challenges in Asia. In the long and even medium run, the rise of China is more challenging and could lead to a greater rearrangement of the world order, if not to a much larger war. The Chinese and North Korean situations are not unrelated to each other, and almost all observers note that the former is key to influencing the latter. This of course presents trade-offs and conundrums to U.S. policymakers, who need to ask themselves how they are to cope with the rise of China while enlisting Beijing in the effort to tame, if not bring down, the Kim dynasty. If this were not challenging enough, the United States has to simultaneously reassure (and perhaps restrain) allies who have deep conflicts with each other and important domestic divisions.

This reminds us that while many of the ideas that analysts and policymakers bring to East Asia come from the Cold War, the struggle with the Soviet Union, for all of its dangers, had a certain simplicity that is absent in East Asia. The line dividing Europe was relatively clear; opportunities for provocations were limited; NATO, for all the rivers of ink spilled in describing its perennial crisis, was quite united; the clients of the Soviet Union had little autonomy, with Cuba being a troublesome exception; and after the mid-1970s, Soviet power declined relative to the West, although many observers were slow to detect this trend.

The East Asian security complex is, well, complex. To start with, the two main U.S. adversaries, China and North Korea, are in conflict with each other, as are the two main U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan. Of course, the conflict among the adversaries is a potential point of leverage for the United States, as was true in the Cold War after the Sino-Soviet split. But as Thomas Christensen so well showed, until the United States and China had a rapprochement in 1971, the conflict among our adversaries made them “worse than monolith.” [1] Of course, the parallel with the present situation is far from exact, in part because North Korea is so much smaller and less powerful than China and does not compete with it for international support. But the conflict does mean that the United States and the other states in the region cannot concentrate on one of these threats to the exclusion of the other.

China’s life is also complicated by the North Korea problem. On the one hand, China may gain leverage over the United States and the region if it can get rewards for increasing pressure on its neighbor. Given its fear of a North Korea collapse and the lingering ties leftover from the Korean War, however, China may not be willing to play this card. Even if it were willing to do so, the price it would ask might be too high. The other side of this coin is even less attractive to China: the fact that Beijing is known to have the ability to pressure North Korea makes it the target of U.S. pressure. President Trump’s statements to this effect have been characteristically bombastic, but his exasperation with Beijing’s unwillingness to do more was shared by previous administrations. Recent developments show both promise and risk. The progress of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs, including the successful test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) potentially capable of reaching Alaska, brings an urgency to the situation that might prompt China to take on a larger role. Although one can imagine some scenarios in which a war between the United States and North Korea would redound to China’s favor, consequences that are harmful to it seem more likely. The deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea, which China claims to see as a threat to its retaliatory force—a claim that is perhaps exaggerated but that represents no more than the normal degree of paranoia in international politics—would end if the North Korea threat did.

In the aftermath of World War II, Franco-German rapprochement was crucial for the defense of Europe and Western prosperity. This pattern was not to be replicated in East Asia, where South Korea and Japan maintained relations that were uneasy at best. [2] The Japanese were unable to fully come to grips with their mistreatment of the South Koreans, while the latter could not put this issue behind them. The United States, of course, gained some added leverage over each side, but this could not compensate for the weakness resulting from the lack of a common front when dealing with China and North Korea. That Japan first ignored and then became obsessed with the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens further complicated matters. Japan and South Korea also had their own interests in the region, and these did not always coincide with those of the United States. [3]

The complexities of the security environment in East Asia are unfortunately well-illustrated by the confrontation with North Korea. The standard literature follows Thomas Schelling in distinguishing between deterrence and compellence. [4] The object of the use of threats in the former case is to convince the other side not to do something; in the latter case, the objective is to convince it to cease doing something, to change its behavior. The United States’ minimum goal is to get North Korea to stop nuclear and missile tests. On the one hand, this approach can be seen as deterrence because these are tests that have not yet been carried out. On the other hand, it is probably best characterized as compellent because it demands that Kim Jong-un move off the established path of developing a usable nuclear stockpile.

The distinction between deterrence and compellence is of more than academic interest because it is generally agreed that the latter is a good deal harder than the former. Can even a well-designed coercive policy work? The difficulty of the task underlines the probable need to consider more than threats. Indeed, as Schelling stressed, threats are useless unless accompanied by appropriate promises. That is, in addition to threatening to do something unpleasant if the adversary undertakes certain actions, the state has to promise not to do so if the adversary complies. Theorists and, even more, national leaders have paid much less attention to the credibility of their promises than to the credibility of their threats. This seems particularly true of the current U.S. administration. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were aware of the problem and tried to reassure the North that if it gave up its nuclear weapons, the United States would not seek to overthrow it. Ironically, the Trump administration’s downgrading of human rights concerns and rejection of the common view that highly repressive dictatorships are almost always threats to their neighbors might make it easier for the administration to make credible promises. But the president’s belligerent attitude and general worldview seems to inhibit, if not block, an understanding of the need to reassure others.

A second complication is the need to work with regional allies, especially Japan and South Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have traveled to these countries to carry the message that the United States will be steadfast in their defense, but it is far from clear that either country is willing to endorse the use of force or even more explicit threats. This is not surprising, given that they would be the target of any North Korean military retaliation. Furthermore, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has pledged a more “dovish” policy than that followed by the impeached government of Park Geun-hye.

These differences could make it difficult for the Trump administration to undertake steps that would increase the credibility of its threats. If the United States were really preparing to strike, it would have to plan for North Korean retaliation. The obvious move here would be to evacuate American civilians from Seoul. Doing so would increase the credibility of the U.S. threat, but it also would cause enormous unrest in South Korea.

Even negotiated solutions or arrangements could be inhibited by or exacerbate splits with U.S. allies. The obvious move in this direction, suggested by China but rejected by the United States, would be “freeze for freeze.” Under this settlement, North Korea would halt its nuclear program in return for the United States and South Korea suspending their joint military maneuvers. Since North Korea does not yet have an ICBM, this would meet the United States’ primary objective of keeping the U.S. homeland free from threats. But it would leave Japan and, even more, South Korea as targets. Of course, the United States could argue with much validity that keeping the U.S. homeland safe enhances the security of allies because it bolsters the credibility of the United States’ threat to use force if need be to protect its friends in the region. The logic of extended deterrence is indeed impeccable, but the notion that the United States would be willing to give up the exercises with South Korea in order to protect its own homeland while leaving its allies vulnerable is not likely to sit well with them.

All this excludes the problems and opportunities of Russia’s interests and the rise of China. On the one hand, these countries may help ameliorate the situation on the Korean Peninsula because they are at least indirectly threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons and so would like to broker a deal. On the other hand, having the United States be preoccupied with this threat has advantages to them. China, in particular, might be tempted to promise greater support in return for U.S. concessions on economic or geostrategic issues. Such trade-offs, undesired by any administration, seem particularly repellent to Trump. I gather that the saying “May you live in interesting times” is not really an ancient Chinese curse, but it does seem to apply here.

In these unsettlingly interesting times, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), with generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has conducted a multiyear study of Asia’s nuclear future. This project aims to inform a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics influencing the Asia-Pacific’s current and future nuclear environment and assess the implications for U.S. strategy. Findings from the project have been published in NBR’s Strategic Asia series, the Asia Policy journal, and a 2016 NBR Special Report. [5] The essays collected in the current report build on these findings by providing assessments of Asia’s emerging nuclear dynamics from U.S., Japanese, and South Korean scholars. The essays were originally presented at a private workshop in Tokyo in November 2016 and were subsequently revised to incorporate feedback from workshop participants and the project’s senior advisers.

Christopher Twomey shows how complex interstate competition and strategic and military rivalries are combining to make Asia’s second nuclear age unstable and prone to nuclear spirals. Michito Tsuruoka reflects on the implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance of Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, while Sugio Takahashi argues that the prospect of North Korean nuclear ballistic missiles requires the United States to quantitatively and qualitatively upgrade its assurances to Japan. Jina Kim explains how North Korea’s “balance of threat” strategy and advancing capabilities necessitate a more comprehensive U.S.–South Korea extended deterrence strategy. J. James Kim then probes the domestic public opinion and regional power constraints shaping South Korean policy toward the North. Finally, in a comparison with Cold War nuclear deterrence, Matthew Kroenig argues that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo must formulate a common understanding of the threat scenarios posed by North Korea’s nuclear forces, fashion a clear strategic response, and develop mechanisms for communicating that strategy to both allies and the North Korean regime. The report concludes with comments by Aaron Friedberg on the North Korean crisis and the second nuclear age.

The complex web of relations among U.S. allies and adversaries in Asia makes the lessons of the past both limiting and empowering. This NBR Special Report provides prescient and actionable analysis of Asia’s nuclear dynamics at a moment when the need for such research could not be more exigent.

Robert Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University.


[1] Thomas J. Christensen, Worse Than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2] Victor D. Cha, Alignment Despite Antagonism: The U.S.-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[3] The divergences in the early years of the Cold War explain why the United States sought bilateral arrangements with these countries rather than seeking multilateral agreements, as in Europe. Victor Cha, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[4] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

[5] Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner, eds., Strategic Asia 2013–14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2013); Christopher P. Twomey et al., “Approaching Critical Mass: Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future,” Asia Policy, no. 19 (2015): 1–48; and Matthew Kroenig, “Approaching Critical Mass: Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future,” NBR, Special Report, no. 58, June 2016.