We Know Nothing About North Korea


To guard against an enigmatic adversary, we cannot afford to leave any tools on the table.

The 40-day disappearance of Kim Jong Un had the world caught up in wild speculation. Had he been overthrown? Was his sister now running the country? Did he eat too much cheese? Based on his reemergence in the media today, it appears that Kim is suffering from a leg injury, killing any hope that he was tied up in a closet somewhere with a sock in his mouth. Nevertheless, the slew of speculation in the media was merely a symptom of a far more unsettling reality.

We have no idea what is going on in North Korea.

This is dangerous, particularly when taking into account North Korea’s aggressive military tendencies, and the potentially disastrous consequences of a war on the Korean Peninsula.

No One Trick Solution

The uncertainty surrounding North Korean leadership raises questions about U.S. deterrence policy toward the reclusive nation. Many believe that promises of retaliation are adequate to deter North Korea from taking aggressive military action, such as launching some of its large arsenal of ballistic missiles at a regional adversary, or even the United States. However, in order for the United States to have confidence that its deterrence scheme will work, it must have a detailed understanding of whom it is trying to deter.

U.S. policymakers must know who is in charge, and whether or not the adversary value what is being threatened. It is necessary to understand how that leader makes decisions, and who is advising them. They need to understand the domestic pressures that they are facing, and craft your deterrence to compensate for those pressures. They need to know whether or not the adversary perceives the deterrence threat as genuine.

The United States cannot be certain about any of these things regarding North Korea. There have even been recent reports suggesting that Kim Jong Un was ousted in 2013, and now acts as merely a puppet for a military cabal that is actually calling the shots. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, however, recently said there was no evidence that Kim has been deposed. So who is in charge?

Once again, no one really knows.

It is when wading through this fog that strategically hedging against uncertainty is the only responsible thing to do. When dealing with a country like North Korea, you have to cover your bases, and never rely on a single course of action (promises of retaliation) to ensure an adversary is consistently deterred.,There is no room for error when dealing with issues of war and peace. This is never truer than when nuclear weapons are involved.

No single course of action is fully reliable; therefore all tools must be used to address the threat at multiple levels. Retaliation based deterrence is one tool, but the international community must also continue nonproliferation and counter proliferation activities. Interdictions of DRPK shipping and encouraging stricter export controls in key transshipment hubs to curtail the DPRK’s weapons development and proliferation are some examples. It also should aggressively enforce existing sanctions, and keep the option of diplomatic engagement open should a genuine opportunity arise. Furthermore, the U.S. and its regional allies must continue building a robust regional and homeland missile defense to guard against the possibility that other measures fail.

Other Measures Have Failed

Over the years, several courses of action taken against North Korea have failed to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. Despite sanctions, trade embargoes, interdictions and international treaties, North Korea has continued work on its nuclear weapons program. It continues developing missiles capable of threatening their neighbors and possibly the United States, and has exported those missiles to any country that will pay, including Syria and Iran.

North Korea has continued to show aggression toward its neighbors despite the risk of U.S. or South Korean retaliation. In November 2010, North Korean artillery bombarded a South Korean island for over an hour, killing four South Koreans. Eight months prior, North Korea torpedoed a South Korea warship, sinking it and killing 46 South Korean sailors. Both instances could easily have led to war, if it not for South Korean restraint. Imagine the consequences if a similar North Korean attack had had sunk a U.S. Navy ship.

Look Away From the Mirror

One of the most common pitfalls in crafting foreign policy is to assume that other governments think as we do. This “mirror imaging” makes it easy to believe that the North Korean leadership would be deterred from taking provocative military actions for fear of their own destruction, because this is how we think. History has proven time and again, however, that foreign countries, particularly adversaries, rarely perceive the world through the same lens that Americans do.

Once we abandon these assumptions and look away from the mirror, we begin to see North Korea for what it truly is: an unpredictable unknown. With so much at stake, we cannot guarantee specific behaviors from a country that we know so little about. There is no room in a sound U.S. strategy against North Korea for intentionally staying vulnerable to North Korean ballistic missiles with the belief that they can be deterred 100% of the time through retaliatory threats alone. We must anticipate North Korea to do things that we may find surprising, irrational, or counter to their own self-interest. We cannot afford to leave any tool, particularly missile defense, on the table.

2 thoughts

  1. While the article presents a number of structural arguments that would apply if the DPRK had any significant military or economic power the article failed to answer why the United States should care. The DPRK is impoverished with a GDP generously estimated between 24 and 40 Billion USD supporting ~23 Million persons. The DPRK military looks impressive in paper or standing in the square in Pyongyang; it lacks fuel, food stocks and overall support for offensive operations. In the event of war with South Korea, NK could damage Seoul via shelling but the ROK military would beat them in every matchup. While the DPRK has exploded nuclear explosive ‘devices’, militarization of such items is non-trivial and requires technical depth and breadth that are unlikely to be found in the economics constrained ‘hermit kingdom’.

    So while “We Know Nothing About North Korea” it really doesn’t matter. It’s a local problem.

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