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Column Will a policy of deterrence quell tensions on the Korean peninsula?

The problem with deterrence theory is that, at its root, it is based on threats which can lead states to the brink of war. North Korea’s behaviour should instead be viewed as an opportunity for engagement, writes Jason Douglas.

EVENTS IN NORTH KOREA have dominated international news in recent weeks. A fusillade of words from both sides has led to heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. The US, South Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia have all expressed concern about where this war of words might lead. The all-important question remains, however: what is Pyongyang trying to achieve? And, perhaps more importantly: what role can deterrence play?

Deterrence theory in everyday life

Deterrence theory is remarkable for its ubiquity in everyday life. With its roots in ancient times, deterrence plays a key role in almost all aspects of civil society. Organised religion, the legal system, and familial relations are all based on deterrence of some form or other. In its simplest form, deterrence can be described as the threat of punishment to prevent something from happening.

A good example of deterrence (or attempted deterrence) is the use of library fines. Library members are made aware that if the borrower does not return their book on time, there will be a financial sanction applied against him/her. Here, the library is attempting to deter the borrower from returning the book late. The library has no interest in taking the borrower’s money, (although it is a source of revenue) but is merely trying to ensure that the borrower is punished so that he/she will return their books in a timely fashion in future. In other words, if you have to pay library fines deterrence will have failed. An even simpler analogy might be a parent warning their child that if they misbehave, they will not be allowed go to a disco at the weekend.

It is important to stress that deterrence, however applied, is much the same in any context. Nuclear deterrence applies the same principles, though of course the stakes, and the risks involved, are much greater.

‘Calculated ambiguity’

Nuclear deterrence is thought by many to have kept the peace between the superpowers during the Cold War and, to a large extent, this appears to be the case. It can be said with absolute certainty that the situation that both sides were attempting to deter (a nuclear strike by the other side) didn’t come about. In the case of North Korea, the United States has threatened that it will respond if Pyongyang carries out a missile strike in the hope that Kim Jong-Un will heed the warning and back down. This is how deterrence is applied in real-life. Based on a policy of what has come to be called ‘calculated ambiguity’, US policymakers purposefully leave adversaries guessing as to their likely response in the event of a crisis in the belief that this enhances deterrence. Threats need not be verbal – they can be a visual reminder of the military power that a state possesses.

Threats can also be implicit or explicit, depending on the context and the prevailing strategic conditions. The US’ recent dispatch of two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers to Seoul is a case in point. This display of military power was calculated to instil fear in Pyongyang. The message it was designed to convey was one of American power and North Korean vulnerability. Joint military training exercises between the US and South Korea are designed to provide similar effect.

Pyongyang, too, has embarked on a course of deterrence. Its nuclear tests and its missile activities are designed to show the US and others that if they tangle with the North, they will get their noses bloodied in the hope that these states will think twice. With South Korea and Japan in Pyongyang’s crosshairs, these threats carry weight. Beneath the shadow of nuclear weapons, these tit-for-tat exchanges become highly dangerous.

A shakedown for aid and concessions

Pyongyang’s recent behaviour has demonstrated that its leader is no reformer. Since taking power two years ago, Kim Jong-Un has threatened war on the Korean Peninsula and nuclear strikes on the US, as well as its archipelago of military bases in the region. Reshma Patil, a policy analyst at Gateway House, highlights Kim’s motivation behind this aggression is ‘to consolidate his domestic hold on power among military veterans and repressed citizens by drumming up threats of a Western invasion, and later to arm-twist international powers for foreign aid.’

Most US analysts view North Korea’s outrageous behaviour as a shakedown for aid and concessions, but at the same time cannot discount its threats as completely hollow. Its actions are designed to conceal its internal weaknesses through a strategy of external aggression. This can only be counter-productive.

Deterrence: Important but Insufficient

What role will deterrence play in this situation? Speculation persists that another nuclear test is in the offing. How can the North be convinced to cease and desist? Threats will only go so far. While deterrence is, ultimately, a defensive tool, it is replete with issues which cannot easily be addressed.

The problem with deterrence is that, at root, it is based on threats which can lead states to the brink of war. It is a mechanism designed ostensibly to prevent the outbreak of hostilities, but allows underlying grievances to simmer. It is a useful tool, but not as useful as communication. What is required to defuse this situation is continued dialogue and engagement between the parties concerned. This will offset any misunderstandings and misperceptions which might make the use of force a distinct likelihood. With the risk of inadvertent war and escalation a possibility, this should continue as a matter of first importance.

Where this will end remains to be seen. China, Pyongyang’s only regional ally, is thought to be losing influence, and patience, but appears unlikely to abandon the regime out of interest for its own security. Regional tensions have been raised as North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric is merely inviting a greater US military presence in the region, something Beijing will not be pleased with. A unified Korea, China fears, will increase still this presence on China’s border.

An opportunity for engagement

Pyongyang is good at remembering dates. It usually does something provocative either on, or around, dates of special significance. April 15 is the birthday of the late Kim Il-Sung, the present dictator’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea. It might, as it has in the past, mark the occasion with some attempt to further strengthen its deterrence, as well as ruffle some feathers. This behaviour may be undertaken for domestic consumption, but the regime might be better served by providing its people with something more tangible and nourishing to consume – such as food.

North Korea’s behaviour should be viewed above all as an opportunity for engagement, especially between the US and China in which they can jointly deal with Pyongyang through the use of carrots and sticks, or a mixture of both. It is only through engagement and dialogue that friction and suspicions can be dispelled. As useful and as tempting as it is to use, deterrence is not a panacea. It might also provide the US with a major credibility problem if North Korea forces it to put its money where its mouth is. A joint effort between all parties is required. If the alternative is war, I trust that all involved will make the right decision.

Jason Douglas is a PhD student in UCC. He has written on various nuclear weapons issues such as  deterrence, non-proliferation and missile defences. Samples of his work can be found at

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