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Believing in deterrence: responding to North Korea

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 14 August 2017


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."

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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.

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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.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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