North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence

  • Published

North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence by Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Cohen. Georgetown University Press, 2017, 240 pp.

The turbulent past year of US-North Korea relations has brought the problem of the divided Korean peninsula back to the front page after several years of absence. From the exchange of overheated language and threats in late 2017 to the subsequent summit and rapprochement in the summer of 2018, US–North Korea dialogue seems to have completed another circuit on the policy carousel. However, as Sung Chull Kim, a professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University, and Michael D. Cohen, a senior lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University (eds.) make clear in North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence, this jaded assessment unfairly discounts a substantive change in US–North Korea relations.

This collection of essays, written by Kim, Cohen, and seven other military and geopolitical luminaries from both sides of the Pacific, makes clear that the cycles of tension and detente during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations differ from the engagements of the Trump administration. The essayists demonstrate that the denuclearization of North Korea is now no longer a possibility and likely will not be a possibility as long as the Kim regime survives. The book draws a clear line to the only remaining policy path—deterrence.

The authors examine the policy of deterrence, more complicated in practical application than in theory, by addressing the paradox that nuclear weapons stabilize high-end conflict but destabilize low-end conflict, the regional implications of North Korean attempts to exploit differences between South Korean and US goals, and global implications of challenges to nonproliferation efforts. Additionally, the editors include essays focusing on the evolution of North Korean nuclear doctrine and strategy for survival, as well as the effects of possession or nonpossession of nuclear weapons on the effectiveness of a state’s efforts to influence the regional or global arena.

Key to the editors’ argument that North Korea will not denuclearize is Tristan Volpe’s essay on the history of North Korea’s proliferation blackmail strategy. Broadly, he argues that for the past 30 years the North Korean goal has been to make enough progress on objectionable weapons to cause Western consternation, then offer to freeze or roll back that progress in exchange for economic or political concessions. Volpe shows that in its early stages, when North Korea was still accumulating its first small bits of fissile material, this blackmail strategy was modestly successful.

However, as North Korea has built an arsenal of more and more potent weapons with increasing amounts of capital invested in their development and construction, the institutional will to use nuclear arms as a bargaining chip has waned. The weapons have become too valuable. Noting this, Western policymakers have increasingly tied any potential aid to direct and irreversible rollbacks of North Korean nuclear capabilities, creating an impasse. This trend, as other essayists note, came to a head when the 2012 rewrite of the North Korea’s constitution enshrined nuclear power status as a core aspect of the state. Importantly, the book notes this was integral to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power and thus will not be traded away under any circumstances short of the fall of the regime.

Ultimately, the editors make a convincing case against further nonproliferation efforts and instead focusing long-term efforts on finding a stabilizing deterrent. This, the editors note in their conclusion, will not be easy, cheap, or quick. It will involve close cooperation with South Korea and Japan, and it will inevitably involve coordination with China, no simple task in light of US-China tensions. Nevertheless, they argue, the difficult course of deterrence is the only path forward.

As a premier US partner in the region, more discussion of the Japanese role in a trilateral US deterrence policy would have been welcome; nevertheless, the editors effectively compress a complex situation into a brief essay collection without sacrificing breadth or depth. Charting a path for the future of US-North Korea relations, North Korea and Nuclear Weapons provides both a summary for the layman and deliberate insight for the policymaker.

2nd Lt Winston R. Atnip, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."