Signalling Displeasure: Deterring North Korea from Further Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Tests

On 12 April 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that announced that a US Navy “armada” centred around the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, was being deployed to the waters around the Korean peninsula in response to missile tests being conducted by North Korea. Of course, it turns out that the USS Carl Vinson had departed from Singapore and was actually headed towards the Indian Ocean to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Navy. Eventually, of course, the aircraft carrier deployed, as President Trump had initially claimed.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Signalling displeasure through the deployment of military assets

In itself, the deployment of the carrier battle group is nothing remarkable or unprecedented. A country will deploy military assets to signal its displeasure with the actions of another country, possibly the former’s putative adversary.

In the three Taiwan Straits crises – 1954-1955, 1958, and 1995-1996 – the US Navy 7th Fleet played a central role in managing the flare-up in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan. Even small states like Singapore: witness the mobilisation of SAF National Servicemen on 9 August 1991 in response to Operation Pukul Habis, part of the Malindo Darsasa joint exercise between Indonesian and Malaysian military units.

The examples cited above indicate that the intent of such deployments will vary from situation to situation. Singapore’s mobilisation of SAF National Service units was to signal its unhappiness with the joint Malaysian-Indonesian military exercise. The past deployments of US naval assets in the three Taiwan Straits crises were a combination of crisis management and deterrence, signally to both the PRC and Taiwan that on-going tensions and crises needed to be managed, not escalated, for the interest of regional stability.

North Korea and Regional Security and Stability

The Carl Vinson battle group was deployed to the Korean peninsula likely for a combination of compellance and deterrence reasons: to compel North Korea to cease its missile tests, and deter it from conducting a nuclear test that Pyongyang was widely rumoured to be contemplating. Except it is clear that the Carl Vinson failed to do precisely the first – North Korea tested an apparently new ballistic missile capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead on 15 May 2017.

The problem is that North Korea’s endgame is not entirely clear; nor is it clear how its ballistic missile and nuclear ambitions fit with and contribute to the attainment of this putative endgame. Indeed there is much that remains unknown about North Korea and its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

Technical intelligence gathered from North Korea’s ballistic missile tests provide the only data – largely unverified and hence the variances – on their capabilities. Authoritative estimates suggest that the Hwasong-7 short-range ballistic missile has a range of 800-1000 km; whereas the inter-continental range Taepodong-2 missile has a range of 4000-15000 km. The KN-14 inter-continental range missile currently under development is estimated to have a potential range between 8000 and 10000 km.

However, there are two glaring intelligence gaps concerning North Korea’s ballistic missiles. One gap is the throw-weights – the size of warhead – that these missiles possess. North Korea’s 15 May 2017 missile test may be able to carry a nuclear warhead. However, that further presupposes that North Korea has been able to weaponise its nuclear programme, that is, transform crude nuclear devices into warheads small enough to be deployed by missiles.

The second gap is the accuracy – typically measured in CEP, or circular error probable – of these missile guidance systems. As an example, the US Navy deploys the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile that has an estimated range of 12000 km, carries up to 12 warheads, and can land each warhead within 90 meters of its intended target. There is simply no data on the accuracy of North Korea’s missiles.

Limits to Strategic Effectiveness

Any strategy NECESSARILY requires an accurate understanding of the adversary. By failing to understand the adversary – in this case, North Korea’s endgame – any strategy will fail to leverage on the basic motivations of the adversary.

North Korea’s 15 May missile test plausibly demonstrates a failure of the United State’s apparent compellance strategy. Any deterrence or compellance strategy is predicated on three factors: capability, credibility and communication. The Carl Vinson battle group clearly possesses significant military capability. However, the credibility of the United States threat, despite evidence of President Trump’s muscular style from the 4 April 2017 strikes against Syrian military targets, was debatable at best; any military action against North Korea can only be conducted with at least the tacit approval of Beijing. Finally, the fiasco surrounding President Trump’s announcement demonstrated a failure to communicate clearly to the target state, in this case North Korea.

There is a seldom-discussed fourth factor: the susceptibility of the target state to being compelled or deterred. There are at least two schools of thought on understanding North Korean foreign policy behaviour.

At one end, encapsulated by United States Senator John McCain, who famously described Kim Jong-un as a “crazy fat kid”, North Korea is regarded as an irrational actor. Behavioural patterns that manifest this irrationality include: attempts on 21 January 1968 and 15 August 1974 to assassinate the then-President of South Korea, Park Chung Hee; the 18 August 1970 axe murder of two United States military officers in Panmunjom; the 23 March sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan; and, 23 November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines.

At the other end, North Korea may not be as irrational as the first school thinks it is. However, some proponents of this school argue, Kim Jong-Il and his successor Kim Jong-un deliberately cultivated a reputation for irrational behaviour as a way by which to maximise North Korea’s limited leverage in international politics.

If policy makers hold to the North Korea as irrational school of thought, this then provides very little incentive to attempt to understand North Korea, and to attempt to decipher its endgame. A crazy North Korea means the international community has little – if any, indeed – leverage through which to compel the former to cease its missile tests, or deterred to conduct a nuclear test in the not-too-distant future.

However, even an accurate understanding of North Korea will not necessarily result in strategic success; simply because the probability of Kim Jong-un truly behaving irrationally cannot be eliminated. The element of chance means that any strategy – however well thought through – holds within it the prospect of failure.

Finally, the deployment of military assets to the vicinity, whether for deterrence or compellance purposes, introduces an element of risk of miscalculation leading to a serious crisis, which if not properly managed, can result in armed conflicts that both sides might want to avoid.

North Korea is unlikely to significantly change its behaviour any time soon; neither will the United States likely back off or down. Expect further provocations from North Korea, and expect the inevitable reactions from the United States and other countries. Just don’t expect these measures to work.


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