Each time the world witnesses cycles of North Korean provocations or nuclear diplomacy, or both, Korea watchers and specialists question whether deterrence is possible or feasible. The answer to this question has become more complex over the past several decades because the object of deterrence—the number of undesirable North Korean actions—has grown in tandem with Pyongyang’s growing military capabilities. The expanding scale, scope, and number of North Korean actions the United States and South Korea wish to deter has, in turn, naturally caused confusion in the international discourse, resulting in frequent use of the term “deterrence” without clarifying the target(s) of deterrence and by conflating the definitions of deterrence, compellence, and other foreign policy tools. Any answer to the fundamental question of whether deterrence is possible vis-à-vis North Korea depends on the target(s) of deterrence, which necessitates a clear definition of deterrence and clarification of the target behavior(s) for deterrence. Based on this clarification, the policy objective can then be defined, followed by an identification of the appropriate foreign policy tools to use to achieve the designated objective.
Deterrence is a strategy aimed at discouraging an adversary from taking an unwanted action (usually military in nature) by raising the cost of that action and instilling credible fear of the consequences. Nuclear deterrence discourages an adversary from using nuclear weapons for fear of retaliation. Once an adversary has already taken an unwanted action, however, deterrence has failed and the question becomes one of compellence—persuading or forcing an adversary to give up something it already possesses or to terminate an ongoing action(s)—or the use of other policy tools. Compellence is harder to execute than deterrence because it requires persuading an adversary to change its existing behavior (e.g., taking an action it otherwise would not take) and a credible commitment to act against the adversary by imposing costs (e.g., threat to inflict punishment) in the event the adversary refuses to comply, or actually executing a costly action (e.g., following through on the threat), both with a deadline. Deterrence, on the other hand, is not associated with a deadline to act against an adversary.
Read the full article in the Council on Foreign Relations' Asia Unbound blog.
More from CNAS
CommentaryWhat Will North Korean Cybercrime Look Like in 2022?
North Korean hackers will likely continue to employ more phishing campaigns in the future while tailoring their level of obfuscation based on the target’s sophistication....
By Jason Bartlett
Congressional TestimonyDuyeon Kim testifies before European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs
Chairman McAllister, Vice Chairs, DKOR Chairman Mandl, and distinguished Members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the European Parliament, thank you for the opportunity...
By Dr. Duyeon Kim
CommentaryChina’s New Land Borders Law Is a Nightmare for North Korean Refugees
A combination of high-level pressure from foreign governments and steady support for grassroots refugee resettlement organizations and programs is the most practical way to as...
By Jason Bartlett
CommentaryThe Two Koreas’ Recent Arms Displays Are Sending Very Different Messages
North Korea has announced that it successfully tested a new, smaller submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, on Tuesday. State media claimed the missile—launched from t...
By Dr. Duyeon Kim