Steven Den Beste's recent discussion about conventional deterrence and a potential fight with North Korea is correct in it's understanding of the mechanics of analysis, but doesn't take into account some underlying conditions that radically affect the analysis of North Korean behavior. The first and most important thing about deterrence is that it is a form of communication, and as such works more effectively when both parties share a similar culture and understanding of the world. One of the most common mistakes of planning and analysis is the failure to effectively game the opponent's reasoning. Game theory is a useful planning tool and relies on the fundamental assumption that both actors are "rational". In this context, "rational" doesn't mean "not insane"; rather it refers to the behavior of an actor who acts in their own perceived best interest. So, if one fails to understand what the other player's perception of their own best interest is, then the resulting analysis may be incomplete or flawed.
In the case of North Korea, many observers tend to underestimate the importance of one of the most significant drivers to national behavior: ideology. In the post-Cold War world, many political analyses tended to view political interaction in the context of traditional Great Power struggles, much like the interactions among European nations prior to the twentieth century. During the Cold War, however, ideology started to play an increasingly important role. This doesn't mean that ideology is necessarily the overwhelming factor - but it does condition what a nation perceives to be their own best interests. In other words, ideology shapes how a rational actor makes decisions, which in turn affects how the communication of deterrence operates.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and general collapse of international communism, most American interaction with foreign powers has been with countries that are either ideologically similar to the U.S. or countries that have enough interaction with the rest of the world to make mutual understanding possible. Even Cuba has significant trade links with the rest of the western hemisphere and, as a result does not exist in complete economic and diplomatic isolation. North Korea is so isolated diplomatically and politically that they really can't conceive of other nations as similar peers, but tend to view them as being truly "other." Much of this arises from the affect that North Korea's particular ideological circumstances have on its outlook.
North Korea is most commonly thought of as a "communist" regime, which is at best only partly true and at worst radically mischaracterizes the nature of North Korean politics. First and foremost, North Korea is Stalinist. Stalin ran a nominally communist country, but Stalin's rule and development of a strong cult of personality set his rule apart from other Soviet rulers. His regime essentially was a totalitarian dictatorship of the most extreme variety, in which his personal power and influence became effectively indistinguishable from the power and influence of the Soviet Union. Many countries have strong leaders or even dictatorial leaders, but under Stalin there was no functional difference between Stalin himself and the state, and by extension, the country. The same is true in North Korea. The power and behavior of North Korea is inextricably linked to the personal power and behavior of Kim Jung Il. In these kinds of societies, it is therefore very important to understand the things that shape the mind of the leader.
Some readers may argue that Saddam Hussein ruled in a similar intellectual isolation, but it is important to note that Hussein grew up in a world that was not ruled by Saddam Hussein. Kim Jung Il has lived his entire life in isolation at the heart of the nation founded by his father, Kim Il Sung. He has never lived in a world in which he was anything but safely ensconced in the very core of North Korean political thought. Even after he came to power, it was several years before he uttered more than one sentence in pulic. Even in Iraq, Tariq Aziz was educated overseas while Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has a son studying in Europe. North Koreans don't even have this level of access to the outside world.
This willful isolation has its roots in the core concept of North Korean ideology: the Juche Idea.
"North Korea's Juche (literally self-reliance) Idea was improvised in the 1950s for the purpose of cutting off the Soviet Union's influence, and as a means to purge Kim Il Sung's political rivals. At that time, the de-Stalinization movements were raging in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin, who had helped Kim Il Sung seize power, and also criticism against Kim Il Sung was growing within North Korea for the failure in the Korean War.
Now Juche Ideology is utilized by the ruling hierarchy in Pyongyang as an ideological weapon to justify its dictatorship and hereditary power succession plan on the domestic scene, as a means to justify its closed-door system externally, and as an ideological tool to achieve a Communist revolution in the South." SOURCE
Fast forward more than half a century and Juche has become more than just "self-reliance." It is complete and total rejection of anything that might lead to Korea (in general) or North Korea (in particular) being subservient, in either perception or practice, to any outside power. Combined with an extraoridinarily doctrinaire Stalinist/Marxist view of the world full of evil capitalists, exploiting the proletariat by using their running-dog lackeys and imperialist roadies, Juche has taken on an extraordinarily strange and peculiar character.
This has a lot of practical effects on how North Korea behaves. During negotiations, North Koreans are notorious for not taking yes for an answer. Commonly, one will accede to a North Korean demand only to be confronted with greater demands. Why? Because in their worldview, the only reason that an evil, capitalist exploiter, like the U.S., is willing to negotiate is because they clearly are operating in their own class interests, thus, at the heart of every demand agreed to is a capitalist ploy to subjugate the heroic and noble North Korean nation (and by extension, Kim Jung Il). It is virtually impossible, in the context of the North Korean outlook, to imagine that any negotiation with the United States can be conducted in good faith, because axiomatically, the historical dialectic dictates that the United States must be negotiating in bad faith to gain control over North Korea and the Juche Idea cannot allow North Korea to be bent to the will of an outside power. Similarly, the North Korean reaction to any mishap is automatically based on the notion that other actors are acting to take advantage of North Korea. Thus, delays on the construction of a light-water reactor under the Agreed Framework was incontrovertible evidence of American bad faith and was clearly a trick to make North Korea sacrifice its security without providing any economic benefit.
By way of analogy, it is sometimes useful to imagine that North Korea is run by a bunch of conspiracy theorists. Not unlike the virulently anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists who believe that the world is run by a shadowy cabal of Zionist banking interests, North Korea interprets all foreign, particularly American, behaviors in the most sinister and cynical way possible. As a consequence, the North Korean worldview cannot conceive of a Japan or South Korea that is not entirely a puppet whose strings are held by capitalist/imperialist interests in Washington, DC.
This has become particularly apparent is the North Korean refusal to engage in multi-lateral negotiations over the current nuclear crisis. Given that North Korea believes that the bourgeois ruling elite South Korea and Japan will automatically accede to the interests of the American ruling elite, the North Koreans view their inclusion in negotiations as a cynical ploy to fill the table with American puppets in the guise of being internationalist.
North Korea has also been quite reluctant to even include two nominal allies, China and Russia, in the negotiations because those countries can put economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, which runs directly counter to the Juche Idea of utmost self-reliance. Admitting nations to the negotiations that have real power of North Korea, and can exert this power in a very visible fashion, cuts directly into North Korean notions of self-determination and independence.
As Mr. Den Beste and others have argued, the U.S. is effectively deterred from attacking North Korea due to the massive potential civilian casualties in Seoul. However, that does not necessarily mean that the North Koreans believe that we are effectively deterred. Given that they tend to believe that the South Korean people are subjugated by capitalist oppressor lackeys of the United States and that the ruling elite of the U.S. has no interest in South Korea other than as a source of exploitable, expendable workers, the North Koreans aren't entirely convinced that the U.S. government gives a damn about the possible death of millions of South Koreans. While we are effectively deterred because of that reason, deterrence is a communication process and works only if both parties are deterred and are known to be deterred. North Korea may not completely believe we are deterred. Ergo, North Korea may attack simply because they may think they are pre-empting an imminent threat.
Similarly, ideology colors security assessment. One particular problem endemic to the militaries of totalitarian regimes is that incompetence, inadequacy and failure are often covered up, so that the leaders at the top may have no genuine idea what their own capabilities actually are - only what subordinates think the leaders want to hear. If North Korea were truly convinced that we could and would roll over them without much of a fight, their military spending wouldn't be nearly as high as it is - simply because that would be throwing good money after bad. To be fair, a major factor behind the size of the North Korean defense budget is the political influence of the DPRK's military establishment. Nonetheless, one doesn't spend that much money without coming to believe that the money is well spent. That particular defense budgeting flaw goes back for millennia and can be found in virtually every military establishment in existence today.
Conversely, security specialists around the world have always encountered the persistent problem of either wildly overestimating or dramatically underestimating the prowess of potential opponents. While North Korean military documents are not widely available, some insight can be gained in examining Chinese military doctrine, as both countries have a similar security culture and roughly comparable world views.
It might be surprising to some observers, but some Chinese military analysts found the First Gulf War to be a dramatic example of American weakness. For example, the Vice-President of the Academy of Military Science, Li Jijun wrote this about the American military, prior to the Second Gulf War:
"U.S. Armed Forces revealed many weak points. For example, the combat consumption was too great, and it could not last long. There was great reliance on the allied countries. The high-tech equipment was intensive and its key links were rather weak; once they were damaged, combat effectiveness was greatly reduced. Also if the adversary of the U.S. was not Iraq, if the battle was not fought on the flat desert, if the Iraqi armed forces struck first during the phase when U.S. armed forces were still assembling, or if Iraq armed forces withdrew suddenly before the U.S. armed forces struck, then the outcome of the war might have been quite different."
Other areas of U.S. weakness cited by Chinese analysts include the following points:
- The United States had insufficient means of transportation.
- U.S. munitions cannot damage deep underground bunkers.
- Various U.S. weapons systems have their own specific weaknesses.
- The United States did not have superiority in its efforts to destroy Iraqi tanks.
- The U.S. non-linear form of combat makes it vulnerable to being divided.
Chinese analysts believe Iraq failed to exploit critical U.S. vulnerabilities by:
- not making surprise attacks on U.S. airbases and the U.S. rear,
- permitting the United States time to build up logistics and to train for several months; and
- not employing pre-emptive "special measures" such as harassing attacks.
It is probably not a dramatic statement to suggest that any American analysis making similar statements in the euphoric post-war environment would have been subject to a great deal of critical scrutiny.
Similarly, some Chinese military authors are openly skeptical about American chances in another Korean War. A colonel at the Academy of Military Sciences feels that several factors would ensure American defeat "if in the next few years a Korean War erupted." Some of his main points are:
- The United Sates will not have 6 months to deploy and train forces. Instead, "the Korean People's Army will surprise attack South Korean air bases, ports, and communication lines."
- "U.S. casualties will not be as low as in the Gulf War… On the Korean peninsula, the population is dense, with river networks and mountains, roads are few, unsuitable to armor… casualties will be extremely high."
- "North Korea's mountains are wrapped in clouds and mist; it will be difficult for the U.S. air force and high technology weaponry to give full play to their vast superiority.
- Temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade below zero "provide excellent conditions" for guerilla warfare.
- North Korea will "not allow the United States to land in the rear."
- U.S. ground forces lack the numerical strength they once had. During the Korean War, U.S. troops numbered more than 400,000 at one point, but "the result was not victory." During the 1960s and 1970s in the Vietnam War, America had 663,000 troops and a great technical superiority, but "the result also was defeat." U.S. forces in the year 2000 will be reduced 30 percent from current levels.
[ed: much of the above commentary about Chinese military analysis borrows from this document.]
Regardless of whether or not these views have changed in light of the recent actions in Afghanistan and Iraq (or whether or not they have any validity at all) is rather secondary to the underlying point that there are some Chinese (and presumably North Koreans) who express significant doubt about the ability of American forces to prevail in another Korean War. This impression has been reinforced by the historical placement of tactical nuclear weapons systems in South Korea during the Cold War. In the more complex deterrent framework that prevented a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Europe, it was widely understood that nuclear weapons were to be used to halt the massive Soviet columns advancing through West Germany. It would stand to reason then (in the eyes of the North Koreans) that the historical decision to deploy nuclear weapons in South Korea reflects a lack of American confidence in their ability to halt North Korea by conventional means alone. Although the US has since withdrawn its nuclear weapons from South Korea and Japan, there is still a feeling that the same dynamic applies, but the US would just be using longer range missiles and bombers carrying nuclear warheads to stave off the imminent collapse of the South Korean and American militaries. And so, in their estimation, not only might the United States loose a Korean War; it is entirely possible that the American ruling elite know that they cannot win such a conflict without resorting to nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, since nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles are currently viewed as the acme of deterrent security through military strength, it is almost inconceivable that a North Korea under the sway of the Juche (self-reliance) will rid itself of the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons under any but the most extreme circumstances.
So, the conventional deterrence framework suggested by Mr. Den Beste is correct, but only from an American viewpoint. The North Korean perspective, however, is markedly different. This, in and of itself, doesn't mean that deterrence will not or cannot work. The key is whether or not the parties can accurately gauge the thought process of their opponents. Can the U.S. understand how North Korea thinks? Can Kim Jung Il understand how America thinks?
In similar situations during the Cold War, the lack of total isolation and shared historical and cultural elements helped facilitate deterrent communication. However, the utter isolation of North Korea, their total lack of contact with the outside world and the ready-made ideological view of the world make deterrent communication much more complex and troublesome. This is another indirect consequence of the ideological factors affecting the current crisis.
It is reasonable to ask if, given the potential breakdown of deterrence, is war imminent? This leads into the larger question of whether or not North Korea truly "wants" war. Economically, North Korea has all but collapsed. Their GNP has fallen by more than half in the last decade. As I see it, there are three basic avenues for North Korea to choose among at this time. One, option is invasion of South Korea to seize South Korea's wealth and economic infrastructure. Secondly, the DPRK can opt to live peacefully, under a deterrent umbrella provided by ICBMs and nuclear weapons - allowing them to significantly reduce the size of their standing army and start putting more funding into trying to revive their desperately weak economy. Thirdly, North Korea could keep funding its army, get rid of all of its nuclear and missile capabilities, but only at the cost of massive western economic aid. All of these approaches have underlying problems.
Attacking South Korea has numerous problems. China has indicated that they would actively support (whatever that means) North Korea in the event of a U.S. attack. However, they have not indicated, one way or another, what they would do if North Korea attacked first. Thus, if North Korea goes over the line, then they stand a significant chance of losing their ace in the hole. Certainly Russia cannot be counted upon to give the same support the Soviet Union did during the first Korean War. In the eyes of the North Korean leadership, if no other options exist other than war, then their best option is for the U.S. to be goaded into attacking first. The North Koreans may feel that if the U.S. can be goaded into a war, ensuring Chinese support, then they have a substantial chance of winning, particularly since the inclusion of Chinese troops would make the American use of nuclear weapons almost impossible, because of the risk of Chinese retaliation. Additionally, given the collapse of the North Korean economy and subsequent drop in military funding, North Korea must be getting painfully aware that their ability to successfully prosecute a war is diminishing day by day.
On the other hand, a North Korea with an effective nuclear deterrent is completely and totally unacceptable to the United States. North Korea has a record of prolific sales of missile technology prohibited by the Missile Technology Control Regime (although North Korea is not a signatory to the agreement, it does serve as a good indicator of the missile technology that is commonly viewed to be a proliferation threat.) North Korea has sold missile technology and equipment to Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, to name some of Pyongyang's biggest customers. There is no reason (from the American perspective) to belive that North Korea wouldn't be just as blase about the transfer of nuclear weapons and technology.
The third option is also fraught with complexity. This path is among the most ideologically unappealing paths for North Korea to take, as it would then make North Korea even more dependent on the fickle generosity of the west. More substantially, however, it doesn't solve and of the underlying problems of economic collapse and incredibly high military spending - it only defers those problems for as long as aid keeps coming in.
All of these options tie into together in the current crisis. If the U.S. adopts a military response to North Korea, then it is entirely possible this could result in a North Korean "win" according to their calculations. Conversely, if the U.S. doesn't attack, then North Korea will try to keep its nuclear arsenal - also resulting in a net gain, according to their calculations. If the U.S. doesn't attack and tries to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, then North Korea will demand massive amounts of compensation.
From the American point of view, North Korea's record of proliferation - especially in the post-9/11 policy environment - is entirely unacceptable. Secondly, America's institutional culture absolutely loathes the idea of "giving in to blackmail." Given the apparent collapse of the Agreed Framework, many in the American policy community feel that North Korea can be trusted and that extension of further economic aid, especially in light of recent North Korean behavior, will simply encourage such excesses in future.
Thus, we arrive at our current impasse.
The overriding question of whether or not the dogs of war will be run loose on the Korean peninsula is by no means a simple question. One can go back to basic ideological principles for a final perspective. In the west, war is viewed as a breakdown in communication and faulty analysis - in other words, a failure of deterrence. In China (and presumably North Korea) war is viewed as an inevitable part of the functioning of the historical dialectic. From either viewpoint, it is absolutely clear that war in Korea is more than a trivial possibility. A peaceful outcome may only occur by default: the U.S. being unwilling to conduct another military operation on the heels of the Second Gulf War and North Korea being unwilling to risk war without clear Chinese support.