When it comes to North Korea, the United States and South Korea fundamentally misunderstand what it means to demonstrate resolve. In recent years, their actions have undermined the credibility of their own threat-making. And their policy decisions, though well-intentioned, are ironically creating conditions that make future circumstances more dangerous for both countries.
Global media recently whipped up a storm when claims emerged that North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb. The U.S. government’s rhetorical response was one of extreme skepticism — not about the fact of a nuclear test, but that the test reflected the hydrogen capability that North Korea claimed. In response to the test, however, the United States deployed a B-52 nuclear-capable strategic bomber to South Korea, escorted by South Korean fighter jets. Now the United States is considering sending still more nuclear-capable assets to Korea. This would be a mistake.
The message to North Korea that the B-52 dispatch was intended to convey could hardly be clearer: we have nuclear superiority over you, and if you go too far, you’ll experience what that’s like firsthand.
As ever, the B-52 constitutes a rather thinly-veiled nuclear threat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. The B-52 remains useful to the United States for a number of reasons; I’m not making an argument about the U.S. nuclear triad. But in the manner employed to signal against North Korea, B-52 deployments are proving to be the height of strategic folly.
In my new book, I explain why North Korea—a state that Richard Nixon once called a “fourth-rate pipsqueak power” and that late night comedians routinely mock—has been able to commit more than one thousand acts of unreciprocated violence against the United States and South Korea going back to the 1960s. How is a much smaller state repeatedly willing and able to not only defy a much stronger state, but attack it and its ally without provoking a larger war?
It boils down to perceptions of resolve; there can be no other answer than that the smaller state believes the larger state won’t retaliate if the provocation is limited in scale. In thousands of strategic interactions over the decades, the United States and South Korea have shown an unwillingness to take actions that risk war. With few exceptions, when North Korea attacks, the alliance has not responded in kind, or at all.
So why does this historical pattern—of North Korea provoking and the United States effectively backing down—matter for the B-52 overflight? Because nuclear signaling repeats another detrimental aspect of the historical pattern with North Korea: muscle-flexing from a safe distance. Despite a history of backing down when confronted with a direct challenge, the United States and South Korea have engaged in condemnatory signaling, posturing, and generalized threat-making, but only well after a crisis recedes. The B-52 is a signal of hostility, not resolve.
What do I mean? A ramped up military posture, propaganda broadcasts, ineffective but highly symbolic sanctions, an increased military exercise tempo—and of course nuclear signaling. North Korea perceives all of these actions as hostile, and they’re correct; to a degree it’s why the alliance does them.
But what’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.
But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.
One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”
Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:
“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”
Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.
Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.
But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability. That which makes South Korea feel good today is worth little tomorrow. Plus, it creates expectations in South Korea that the United States will resort to nuclear use against North Korea. This either ties our hands and forces us to bring nukes into a conflict with North Korea, or it creates false expectations that undermine our credibility as an ally. Both are bad outcomes.
The United States and South Korea would do well to engage in realistic threat-making and then retaliate when attacked. Over-the-top nuclear threats are counterproductive if one of our goals is to avoid a nuclear war. North Korea knows we have superior capability over them whether or not the B-52 flies over Korea. North Korea also knows—because it’s public knowledge—that if the B-52 were actually used in Korea, it would deliver payloads from thousands of kilometers away, not from over South Korea. Ironically, bringing the B-52 to Korea actually suggests it isn’t going to be used. The B-5 deployment doesn’t improve North Korea’s perception of our resolve, and in some ways actually further erodes it.
The challenge for us, then, is to convey resolve by disrupting historical patterns of hostility-yet-irresoluteness. Further feeding that pattern when our resolve really has changed simply invites inadvertent war. Worse yet, when war comes, we’re inviting circumstances that make it a nuclear affair, which we should want to avoid. Conflict with North Korea is virtually inevitable, but nuclear conflict isn’t. The task is to think a couple moves ahead to minimize the chances of it going nuclear; sending in the B-52 and other nuclear assets makes that task much harder than it already is.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, DKI-APCSS, or the U.S. Government.