Foreign Policy

Keep Calm, Korean

By Andrew Kydd

US fighter aircraft over Korea. USAF photo by Master Sgt. Ben Bloker

US fighter aircraft over Korea. USAF photo by Master Sgt. Ben Bloker

South Korea recently announced that it would target the North Korean “command leadership” in response to further North Korean military provocations like the 2010 attack on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors. This appears to be an effort to raise the costs of such provocations in order to deter the North from engaging in them. As such it appears particularly non-credible and unlikely to succeed.

North Korea is motivated to provoke the South because its regime depends on maintaining a high level of external threat to justify its own existence and North Korea’s continued closure to the outside world. At the same time, it has an obvious incentive not to push the South too far, because it is much weaker than the South and would lose any bilateral war between them. So as long as the peninsula remains divided, one can anticipate a relatively steady stream of small scale provocations to keep the pot simmering, but not enough to make it boil over.

Add the North’s nascent nuclear capability and this conclusion is only reinforced. As far back as the 1950’s, international relations theorists have argued that nuclear weapons acquisition may reduce the likelihood of all out war, but increase the likelihood of small scale conflict precisely because the parties would no longer think escalation to full-scale war very likely. This “stability-instability paradox” has been applied to India and Pakistan to explain the 1999 Kargil War and subsequent terrorist provocations against India that followed in the wake of Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. This logic would indicate that DPRK provocations will be harder to deter than ever before.

Is there any reason to think that a decapitation strike is particularly credible now? South Korea probably does not often have real time intelligence on the whereabouts of Kim Jong Un, unless he happens to be reviewing a parade. Having warned him that they are thinking about decapitation, he is likely to stay underground if he does decide on a provocation. This raises the interesting question of why the South would make the warning at all, cf. Barbara Walter’s post on Israel warning the Hamas leadership to stay indoors. So the South Korean statement amounts to a threat to attack various government buildings in Pyongyang if the North launches a provocation. This raises the prospects of tit for tat retaliation, however, since Seoul is so vulnerable to North Korean artillery fire. It is hard to believe that the South would prevail in such a contest, given that the North Korean regime would be essentially unconcerned about the costs imposed on its civilians. The threat therefore appears to me particularly unlikely to be carried out, likely to be challenged, and hence unwise to make in the first place.

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