A panel of experts on Monday discussed the utility and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or extended deterrence, in East Asia in the wake of a nuclear North Korea. The experts agreed that the U.S. policy of extended nuclear deterrence is doing little to stimulate North Korean denuclearization, but has been effective symbolically.
Leading the discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC on “North Korea and the U.S Nuclear Umbrella in North East Asia,” Dr. Patrick Morgan of the University of California said that the U.S. originally had several aims for extending nuclear deterrence to allies in North East Asia:
– to protect and reassure allies;
– to project U.S. power and become part of the region’s security management structure;
– to constrain allies by reducing the impetus for them to go nuclear;
– to build “better communities” by historically allowing for substantial adjustments in the capacities of states in the region such as China and Japan.
As for North Korea’s nuclear motivations, Morgan said that the ever increasing gap between North and South’s economic, military and political indicators led to vulnerability and resulted in a “terrible deterrence problem,” which Pyongyang“has worked very hard to try and overcome” by building its own nuclear weapons.
Morgan explained that many of Washington’s current policy goals cannot be realized through the provision of extended deterrence in the region. He highlighted how little the nuclear umbrella has helped in reversing North Korea’s nuclear program, curbing its proliferation related activities or in limiting its capacity to conduct nuclear blackmail. However, he did concede that Washington’s extended deterrence has been useful in keeping allies from developing their own nuclear arsenals.
Morgan said Washington’s current North Korea approach would not achieve results because the real target is, and should be, China, not the North. He explained, “doing it the way we’re doing it now is putting more and more pressure on North Korea in the [same] way we’re trying to put a lot of pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan – and they’ve got a fallback…[in this case] Chinese supplies, aid, and investments.”
He added, “in effect, we have tried hard to budge North Korea and we have had no success. China has tried to budge North Korea with an alternative approach, also without success. If we don’t get success because of their efforts, we have serious costs in terms of what we want. But if they don’t get a success in terms of our efforts, they [in contrast] are not paying a huge price.”
To achieve positive outcomes in the current context, Morgan recommended the U.S. gradually detach extended nuclear deterrence from the North Korea problem, and then try to find adjustments in the regional security management arrangement to compensate for the detachment. He suggested that one such adjustment could be a strengthening of conventional forces in the area. Morgan also recommended adjusting Chinese and Russian positions. One way to do so, in terms of deterrence theory, would be threatening to act in ways that will damage Beijing’s interests.
Dr. Victor Cha, the CSIS Korea Chair, agreed with Morgan that extended deterrence has not been overly successful in the North East Asian context. While underscoring the utility of it in helping deter a second Korean war or an attack on Japan, Cha pointed to Washington’s inability to deter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and conventional belligerence. He also warned that it is unclear how North Korea would perceive the symbolic ramifications of either maintaining or not extending Washington’s nuclear deterrence. Still, Cha stopped short of recommending an end to the umbrella because it could be perceived by the North as an admission of defeat and perhaps give Pyongyang a misconceived confidence of “nuclear superiority” on the Korean peninsula.”
Cha believed that extended deterrence was increasingly becoming symbolic and most often used by senior U.S. officials to reassure allies of Washington’s unchanging commitment to its nuclear umbrella.. He cited U.S. visits to the ROK and Japan immediately after both nuclear tests as evidence of this. However, Cha warned that such reassurance is perceived by allies as situational, and that they are receiving mixed signals from the U.S. He explained, “Any time you take an action of reassurance…. it registers as a positive statement, but it’s only because of the situation…On the other hand, when the U.S. says they will not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons [as in September 2005], that is not situational. That truly reflects American disposition. [So] this is a constant battle in the reassurance game.”
To deal with the current impasse, Robert Carlin, Co-Chair of the National Committee on North Korea said, “There’s a lot of things we have to know about their [North Korea] concept of the utility of their nuclear weapons, apart from the public statements. Unless we sit down and talk to them about it at length, in depth, we are not going to be able to figure out the danger points, the points at which they may have misconceptions, and the points they are willing not to press on the nuclear issue – not to use it for compellence (sic)”
Victor Cha later agreed with Carlin’s point of view, but pointed to the policy dilemma currently facing policy makers in the U.S. While admitting it would be useful to debate nuclear deterrence with North Korea, as was done with the Soviets during the Cold War, he said, “Even if you don’t explicitly or tacitly accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the minute you engage in that dialogue, everybody’s going to say you are accepting a nuclear North Korea, and that will have all sorts of ripple effects throughout the region, particularly among allies, who will then question the credibility of the US extended nuclear deterrence.”
After reaffirming the U.S. commitment of extended nuclear deterrence to allies in North East Asia, State Department representative Jofi Joseph pointed out, “It’s very, very difficult for any U.S. administration to engage in such talks unless that issue [nuclear issue] is front and center. The reason why we frankly care about North Korea is because of what they have done in the nuclear field, and without that, this wouldn’t be high on the agenda for any administration.”
Lamenting on the current impasse, Robert Carlin remarked, “I wouldn’t think that bad policy would be sustainable for a long time, except that it has been since 2002… and I’m afraid it can last longer. Not because there aren’t smart people in the right places, but because the politics of the situation, not just in this country, but among our allies, just don’t favor the right decisions and the sense of leadership coming to the fore. It’s not hopeless, but perhaps it’s a good time to go fishing.”
The event was organized by the Korea Chair and the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Committee on North Korea in Washington D.C.