Commentary Magazine


How to Deter North Korea?

So far the Obama administration has hung commendably tough in its response to North Korean saber rattling. Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, President Obama has resisted the urge to make concessions to North Korea to stop their warmongering. Instead, he has deployed military assets to the region to make clear that any North Korean attack will be met with an overwhelming response.

But that hard-line stance may be starting to waver under the continuing pressure being applied by young dictator Kim Jong-un, who appears eager to prove that, like his old man (departed Dear Leader Kim Jong-il), he too can extract concessions from Washington and win a propaganda victory. His latest move is to close down the Kaesong industrial complex where some 50,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean firms. This is a vital source of hard currency for the North, so this cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver indicates just how far Kim is willing to go.

Now there are leaks emerging from Washington that some within the administration are worried that the hard line may be going too far–that our response, or South Korea’s, to North Korean aggression could actually provoke a war. Thus we saw yesterday the plugged-in Washington reporter David Sanger reporting in the New York Times that American officials are preparing exquisitely proportional responses to any North Korean attacks: “For example, if the North Koreans were to shell a South Korean island that had military installations, as has occurred in the past, the plan calls for the South to retaliate quickly with a barrage of artillery of similar intensity.”

As for the possibility of North Korea launching a ballistic missile, “Pentagon officials said they would be ready to calculate its trajectory within seconds and try to shoot it down if it appeared headed toward impact in South Korea, Japan or Guam, an American territory. But they planned to do nothing if it were headed toward open water, even if it went over Japan, as one previous North Korean test did.”

This is precisely the wrong signal to send to Pyongyang. The North Koreans may be isolated, but they read the New York Times too–and the message they will take away from Sanger’s story is that they don’t have much to fear from an attack–the worst that could happen is a few rounds of artillery falling on their soil. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has gone much further by threatening that North Korean attacks could be met with South Korean military action against Northern command and control centers–attacks which could presumably target Kim Jong-un and his coterie.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the debate about how far any counter-attack against the North should go–there are clear risks in Park Geun-hye’s threatened approach (the risk of provoking a wider war) just as there are in the milder approach telegraphed by Sanger (the risk of not deterring North Korean attacks). But of one thing I am certain: it is a mistake to dispel Pyongyang’s doubts about the nature of a unified South Korean-American response to any attacks on their part. Only if Kim Jong-un fears the worst will he refrain from attacking. But having read the New York Times, he is likely to be less restrained now.