North Korea’s nuclear test doesn’t signal US deterrence policy has failed, or the need for pre-emption

Robert Delaney says that it is too late to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, but policymakers in Washington, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo can still work to prevent global nuclear catastrophe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 7:30pm

US President Donald Trump struggles with policy clarity on most issues, so it isn’t surprising that his administration has sent mixed signals regarding the Korean peninsula.

This past weekend brought tensions in the region to a new level. It started with reports that Trump plans to withdraw from the US’ free-trade agreement with South Korea and ended with Pyongyang’s latest, most powerful, nuclear detonation.

It remains to be seen whether Trump kills the trade pact, needlessly damaging relations with the US’ most important military ally in Asia, but Trump probably figures another head-scratcher might let him sidestep a more fundamental question.

Last month, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said a “preventive war” is one option the US is considering to prevent North Korea’s capability to hit major US cities with nuclear-tipped missiles.

On the face of it, the comment suggests the Trump administration might move away from the US government’s policy of deterrence when it comes to North Korea.

Susan Rice, national security adviser under president Barack Obama, explained in an interview what deterrence means and why it would be a mistake to move to the pre-emptive approach:

“We don’t ever take off the table the threat of the use of force. But pre-emptive war ... would be catastrophic for the Korean peninsula, for the over 200,000 Americans that reside there, for the 26 million people of metropolitan Seoul, for Japan and the 40,000 American troops stationed there, and for the global economy,” Rice said. “We risk a direct confrontation with China and a conflict could potentially go to the extreme of going nuclear.”

Pre-emptive action as a means to ensure the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula brings with it the greatest risk of the outcome that Rice warns of. Unfortunately, most in Washington, from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to one of his predecessors, Henry Kissinger, continue to talk about how to keep North Korea nuclear-free.

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Trump’s administration doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Pyongyang has all but achieved its goal, and undoing this reality would require military intervention of the pre-emptive sort because Kim Jong-un will not give up his achievement without the kind of fight that would lead to a global nuclear winter.

The US’ best option now is to stick with deterrence and work quickly with South Korea and Japan to ensure there’s a missile defence system in place. China should understand that a policy of deterrence, backed by more robust defences, is better aligned with Beijing’s strategic interests than denuclearisation and pre-emption.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo could even offer China a seat in whatever multilateral body is charged with implementation and formally pledge to dismantle the extra defences if North Korea stops its provocations.

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There is no solution for the current tension around North Korea that satisfies all sides. The US and China need to accept a degree of discomfort until Pyongyang realises a foreign policy dependent solely on nuclear threats doesn’t make sense as a long-term strategy.

Policy hawks may use the North’s new nuclear-tipped missiles as evidence of the failure of deterrence, but by this logic they are saying the same of the US’ approach to the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and China in earlier decades.

As an effort to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, deterrence failed. Let’s expand the definition to mean a policy that prevents nuclear holocaust.

By that measure, deterrence has so far been a success.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York