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Believing in Deterrence: Responding to North Korea

The chit-chatterati on the international relations circuit have been humming with each ballistic missile test and next provocation over how best to cope with the cruel dictator in Pyongyang. While Donald Trump persists in an ever escalating slope of sandpit politics, followed by reciprocating gestures, there are other suggestions as to how best to deal with the regime of Kim Jong-un.

One is the obvious, if implausible point of simply focusing on the man himself. According to the Joon Gang Daily in a piece run in March, elite US units from the Special Warfare Development Group, more commonly known as the SEAL Team 6, were set to participate in “an exercise simulating the removal of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.” The latest round of outbursts may well have also seen a bit more priming for an effort, though we will have to wait for a late night Trump tweet to that effect.

Tom Malinowski suggests avoiding an external solution, a thrust from the outside looking in. “Political change in Pyongyang and the reunification of Korea, as hard as it may be to imagine, is actually more likely than the denuclearization of the present regime.”

Internal change, in other words, is taking place. There is an awareness that the wealth to the south, across the DMZ, is not to be sneered at. Nor is suffering to be cherished. A type of North Korean citizen seems to be coming into being, one distinctly not robotic or unquestioning of the state. “They are resilient, increasingly entrepreneurial, people with normal aspirations, who will some day want a say in the fate of their country.”

Totalitarianism, or such police state mentalities, have their use-by date, an inbuilt obsolescence. George F. Kennan, the father of the containment doctrine adopted by the United States against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, preferred to see it in terms of disease and atrophy.

The Long Telegram, published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, outlined Kennan’s main point that “Soviet power bears within it the seeds of its own decay and the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.” Eventually, the system decays within, unravelling along with the assortment of myths that prop it up. The emperor eventually awakes to the fact that he has no clothes.

It can be argued, taking Malinowski’s line, that the North Korean regime has seen a fair share of sprouting on the score of decaying, certainly of those seeds in which awareness has been planted. As with other events of history, it took the shock of a famine in the 1990s to drive its citizens to examine options in China, and duly enlighten.

With that came the threat to Pyongyang posed by technology. In Malinowski’s words, “We worry about the miniaturization of North Korean nukes; what threatens the Kim regime is the miniaturization of information technology.”

The narrative of transformation is also pushed by such individuals as Michel J. Mazarr of the RAND Arroyo Centre and defence analyst Michael Johnson. Their angle is the information bomb, though their take suggests a sinister narrative of interference. “A host of nongovernmental organisations are working to smuggle information into North Korea, from leaflets to USB drives filled with Western and South Korean television shows.” No such thing, then, of the purely humanitarian angle. With the promise of aid comes ideological contaminant.

The broader premise then, is the value of deterrence, rather than those noisy threats of force that “stand little chance of working.” While it is impossible to ever prove other than in its absence, the analysts insist that the lack of an open conflict on the peninsula proves the sagacity of the deterrence theory.

Bolster, they suggest, the doctrine, rather than ditching it. Establish, if possible, an analogue of the procedures and safeguards that the US and the USSR had during the Cold War. “The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) should take continual steps to bolster deterrence, such as deploying tools to mitigate the North Korean missile threat and working to keep the US-ROK alliance healthy.”

Another aficionado of deterrence is Kevin Drum, who states a point he regards as patently obvious: “North Korea and the United States have been successfully practising mutually assured destruction against each other for more than half a century.” No, not of the same order, scale and authenticity of that practiced between Moscow and Washington during the Cold War, but something similar.

Along the most militarised border on earth, the sides have been locked in a standoff which has never truly come undone. As Drum insists, the standoff is “ghoulish” yet effective. Despite “hundreds of fracases and dozens of more serious incidents along the border” a “grisly logic of deterrence” has been at work.

The overwhelming sense among such commentators is that pre-emption with the sword, or in this case, a military strike, portends doom. Prevention, which would involve muzzling if not eliminating the leader, entails disaster.

To adopt the wise approach of time, a status quo held in check by a threat of lethal force, a sort of fatalism that lets history, rather than the actions of impulse, take centre stage, will ultimately win the day. But such logic risks, at any moment in time, the possibility of coming undone.

Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.



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  1. Freetasman

    Many of us will remember that before the Malvinas conflict the English government and the Argentinian dictatorship were very unpopular and in grave danger of losing power.
    The solution? start a patriotic conflict
    Now we have the same case, the regime in North Korea is in danger of losing power and Trump is not very popular in USA.
    The big problem now is that both leaders are absolutely mad which enhance the possibilities of doing something stupid.
    If something happens as a collateral damage for us it can work in favor of the Coalition government going by the ignorance of our electorate.

  2. michael lacey

    What is the real question about North Korea!

    Is there a way of dealing with the problem there are a lot of proposals, sanctions, big a new missile
    defense systems which is a major threat not just to North Korea but also to China which raise tensions. There are military threats of various kinds sending an aircraft carrier the Vincent to North Korea.

    These are the proposals of how to solve it , these are all the proposals that are being talked about.

    There is actually a way to solve this but the United States have rejected it and the proposal is ignored by the media and no one mentions it.

    Remember the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapon systems weapons and
    missile systems.

    The one proposal is to accept their offer, it sounds simple they’ve made a proposal, China and North Korea proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons systems and the US instantly rejected it . You can’t blame that on Trump Obama
    did the same thing a couple of years ago, same offer was presented, I think it was 2015, the Obama administration instantly rejected it.

    The reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo it says in return the United States should put an end to threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders which happened to include under Trump sending of nuclear capable B-52s flying right near the border.

    Maybe Americans don’t remember very well but North Koreans have a memory of not too long ago when North Korea was
    absolutely flattened literally by American bombing. North Korea was decimated losing 30% of its population.

  3. Andreas Bimba

    Tone down the war rhetoric and generally ignore North Korea. Apply trade sanctions as is being done now to encourage a compromise at some point over nuclear weapons, this method gained some results with Iran. China has also ‘earned’ the imposition of a level of US trade protection for a wide range of reasons. Improve antI ballistic missile capabilities, and counter artillery capability in the case of Seoul, civil defence should be improved in the US and the region, and ensure the military forces sufficient to quickly occupy the North if a major provacation occurs.

    This may sound hawkish but basically means waiting and not initiating military hostilities but being prepared for the worst and also reluctantly accepting the inevitability of the development of long range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads by North Korea, as was and is the case with China and Russia. Time and economic advancement is not in favour of North Korea.

    As for the ANZUS alliance, despite what Turnbull foolishly said recently, the agreement only necessitates consultations and measures to assist the other parties in the case of military attack or imminent threat. Assist could mean just diplomacy or sanctions for example. This alliance does not ablige Australia to join every war the US is involved in. Even as one of the nations involved in the Korean War, Australia is not obligated to participate in another war there.

    As for Venezuela, the US should keep out or face its own sanctions as the current issues are an internal matter for Venezuela. Trump is crazy to consider military action or even destabilisation in Venezuela and this looks like a rerun of the disastrous US involvement in Chile that brought the brutal dictator Pinochet to power.

  4. etnorb

    I agree with all these suggestions, but I am inclined to go along with the thought stated by Binoy, in other words send in a team of Navy Seals (or similar) to once & for all eliminate the “problem” at its source, have this idiot “disposed of”, properly! And all his fellow “leaders” or whatever they are called! No more fears of any nuclear threats!

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