How to Deter North Korea: Personal Deterrence?

North Korean threats and provocative language have many on edge. Is it time for a more personal level of deterrence?

North Korea over the last several weeks has made some very provocative and frightening threats. It stands to argue that various South Korean along with several Democrat or Republican administrations in the United States have been unable to effect any meaningful or long lasting change in North Korea’s confrontational behavior.

From its myriad provocations dating back to the Cold War, Pyongyang has demonstrated a certain knack for taking a crisis right to the edge, sometimes resulting in causalities, but then backing away at just the last second.

While North Korea’s recent provocative behavior is most likely for domestic audiences as Kim Jong-un continues to consolidate power, such threats still serve to ratchet up tensions. Kim is also likely testing the new administration in South Korea that has just barely taken office.  In fact Yonhap news in South Korea reported that “President Park Geun-hye instructed South Korea's military Monday to set aside any political considerations and respond powerfully in the event of North Korean provocations.” President Park according to Yonhap remarked “"As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I will trust the military's judgment on abrupt and surprise provocations by North Korea as it is the one that directly faces off against the North" she explained.

"Please carry out your duty of guarding the safety of the people without getting distracted even a bit."

As tensions continue to mount, it is clear countless diplomats have sought a formula, some way to deter North Korea’s proactive actions. The great fear is that North Korean brinksmanship could one day spiral out of control and maybe start a war. Such a war would be a complete nightmare for East Asia. With North Korea sporting large amounts of artillery that are in range of Seoul, as well as 1.1 million soldiers and a range of asymmetric weapons, its military might not be the most modern, but its ability to inflict mass casualties is certain. With North Korea’s likely small nuclear arsenal and growing missile capabilities added to the mix, a nightmare scenario is not hard to contemplate.

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Could there be a formula that policymakers could use to deter North Korean actions and bellicose rhetoric?   One idea might be to apply deterrence on a more personal level.  Several months ago, I spoke with Professor Tom Nichols at the U.S. Naval War College who laid out some thought provoking ideas:

“Instead, I think the most credible threat is to say to any of these rogue leaders: "We don't know how any of this will end, but the one thing we can say for certain is that if you use a nuclear weapon, your life is forfeit. Period." That's credible because it's a threat we've made and fulfilled before, in recent memory. We haven't dropped a nuclear weapon on anyone since 1945, and there's no reason to think we're eager to do it again.

But we have gone after a series of people and removed them from power: Manuel Noriega has served prison terms in the U.S., France, and Panama, and will likely die in prison. Slobodan Milosevic died in jail in the Hague. Hussein was executed in Iraq. Moammar Qaddafi, with NATO assistance, was toppled and then literally almost torn to pieces by his own people. Osama Bin Laden breathed his last breath on the floor of a dirty, crummy little house in Pakistan with a Navy SEAL's bullet in his head. So I think it's pretty clear that if the United States and its allies say they're going to get you for doing something horrible, you can be fairly sure your days are numbered, no matter how long it takes. And that's a lot more credible than saying: "We'll kill five million of you and poison all your innocent neighbors for decades to come."

They need a threat their narcissistic, violent minds can understand.”

It seems clear that North Korea for sure is intent on driving home a fiery message to increase tensions. But if American leaders change their tune and endorse a more personal approach, maybe policymakers can touch a nerve in Pyongyang after all.