Author: Steff, R.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020
that the pursuit for a nuclear deterrent is viewed by the DPRK as essential for regime survival rather than territorial conquest.45 North Korea’s geographic position and experience as a ‘buffer state’, unreliable allies, confrontation with the US – a nation that Pyongyang has long-viewed as its pre-eminent security threat – drive these efforts. In essence, Pyongyang should not be understood to be an ‘irrational’ actor but rather one “responding to structural incentives in the international system.”46 This does not mean that a war on the peninsula cannot occur. After all, rational actors can make gross miscalculations or push a situation to the brink without intending to (as the number of near misses and crises during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US attests) – indeed, North Korea did precisely this during the crisis of 1994.47 But miscalculating is a separate issue to whether acquiring a nuclear deterrent is a rational course to preserve the existing regime in Pyongyang, and to the contention that the North is crazy enough to risk suicide by trying to occupy the ROK – an extremely unlikely decision given the circumstances.
From Nuclear Breakout to Diplomatic Breakout (2017-2020)
When Donald Trump was elected US president, North Korea was in full nuclear break- out mode, as the number of missile tests increased to their highest annual numbers in 2016 and 2017, and it detonated its sixth, and by far largest, nuclear weapon on 3 September 2017.48 Notably, Obama reportedly informed Trump that North Korea was one of the most urgent issues his administration would face.49 As such, during a 15-19 March 2017 trip to East Asia, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to the policy of “strategic patience” as the administration turned to a policy of maximum pressure.50 This included a new round of sanctions, deploying increased military assets to the region, and making overt appeals to China to try use its influence to restrain the DPRK’s escalating missile and nuclear tests.51
The administration’s evolving policy had some nuance. For example, President Trump said on 1 May 2017 that he would be “honoured” to meet the North Korean leader, “if it’s under… the right circumstances.”52 In retrospect, Trump’s surprising statement may very well have been a canny move that suggested the President was seeking to manage the crisis and, possibly, lay the groundwork for future negotiations. Furthermore, deterrence requires a mix of threats and assurances to work. If a leader only ever issues threats but never assurances, foreign leaders in competition with the US could conclude that there is nothing they can do to appease the US or deter it from conducting regime change in the long run, leading them to take drastic action. This is precisely the outcome an effective deterrence strategy is meant to prevent.53
In any event, rhetorical threats continued and tensions mounted. They seemed to reach a head when, in a speech to the UN in September 2017, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the US, and he declared that “Rocket Man [Kim Jong-un] is on a suicide mission.”54 Kim responded that he would deploy