By Akihiko Tanaka / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
U.S. President Donald Trump has embarked on a five-nation tour of East Asia, with Japan being the first leg of the trip. Needless to say, North Korea is the most pivotal issue he is expected to discuss with the leaders of Japan and other host countries. As his Asian tour has just kicked off, it is difficult to specifically predict how the situation will evolve in the wake of his visit. Still, strategic challenges that have to be addressed in dealing with North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are clear. Let us summarize what they are as security issues.
First, it is obvious that the international community cannot tolerate the North’s nuclear and missile development programs. Pyongyang has continued to violate a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 2375 adopted on Sept. 11. Further, the reclusive country has laughed at the rest of the world for more than a quarter of a century, making false promises while sometimes intimidating other countries.
Should the international community show any tolerance for the North’s reckless activities, not only would the global nuclear nonproliferation regime teeter on the brink of collapse but the very credibility of the international order — which is ensured by the rule of law — would also be at stake.
Second, however, there appears to be almost no possibility that North Korea will lend an ear to the global call for it to abide by such indisputable international norms. What is worse, North Korea appears determined not to abandon the nuclear weapons and missiles it already possesses. In other words, while it is imperative to continue to remind North Korea of the illegitimacy of its nuclear and missile ambitions, such an approach alone will hardly induce its leadership to make even the slightest alteration to its audacious activities.
Third, as the North aims to manufacture more nuclear weapons and missiles and keep enhancing their capabilities, the security environment surrounding Japan is certain to deteriorate. During the Korean War of 1950-1953, the fighting on the Korean Peninsula caused no direct damage to Japan. In the 1990s, when North Korea began developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles, it was thought to have become capable of directly attacking Japan, but the North had no nuclear weapons yet. The security landscape has drastically changed over the past decade; North Korea has repeated nuclear tests to the extent that Japan is now within the range of its nuclear attacks. Moreover, it is thought to be only a matter of time before the North finally develops a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the mainland United States.
Unless there is clear evidence of an imminent nuclear attack by North Korea, conducting a preventive strike on the North would be problematic in terms of international law and extremely difficult practically. Preventive nuclear war is obviously illegal under international law and would bring about a nuclear catastrophe in the region. Conventional preventive war, while illegal too, would also be very difficult because it is inconceivable that the use of conventional weapons alone will completely neutralize North Korea’s military capabilities and prevent it from staging counteroffensives against South Korea and Japan. In other words, the North has military deterrence vis-a-vis not only the South but also Japan and the United States.
So what should we actually do? I think there is no solution but to strengthen pressure on Pyongyang by combining deterrence and sanctions.
Deterrence, which is a set of actions to prevent an adversary from taking military action, is usually said to have two types — deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial is employed to discourage an opponent from launching an attack by making him realize that his attack will be defeated because his opponent’s defense capacity is superior to his. Deterrence by punishment involves persuading the opponent not to attack by convincing him that any attack will be met by a far more devastating counterstrike.
There can be occasions in which deterrence is ineffective. Deterrence may not work when the target is not capable of rational strategic thinking, his whereabouts are unknown or he has a self-destructive motivation. Precisely for one or more of these reasons, deterrence is said to have little effect in putting off some terrorists. What about North Korea?
Severe impact likely
Considering what the North has done in the past, I believe that deterrence can be effective toward that country. It has been making every effort to ensure the survival of the existing regime, which is the complete opposite of self-destructive motives. The North is a territorial state meaning that all locations and facilities that may be attacked exist in precisely identified areas. Additionally, the North has so far behaved in a very strategic manner — apart from the illegitimacy of its goals, it has been highly shrewd and rational.
In other words, there are reasons to expect North Korea to be deterred from attacking other countries with nuclear weapons. Even if the North succeeds in further advancing its nuclear weaponry technology, it will not acquire the capability to completely destroy the United States’ nuclear capabilities in its first strike. Because the North has to expect a devastating U.S. counterattack, it can be deterred from making a first strike.
North Korean nuclear attacks on South Korea and Japan can also be deterred because the North would be subsequently annihilated by U.S. counterstrikes, presumably only with conventional weapons. As long as the North lacks the capability to annihilate both the conventional and nuclear war assets of the United States by the first strike, it could be deterred from contemplating such an attack. In other words, U.S. extended deterrence is still effective.
So can we say we are safe, now that there seems to be little possibility that North Korea will resort to a nuclear attack? Of course not. First, even if the North has been rational so far, we cannot always rule out the possibility of a misunderstanding on the part of the North. Such a possibility cannot be reduced to zero without the strengthening of both deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment.
In this respect, it is indispensable for Japan to enhance its ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. From the standpoint of deterrence, BMD capabilities with an accuracy rate of less than 100 percent are not meaningless. The less successful the North’s missile attacks are deemed to be, the more effective deterrence against North Korea can be.
If Japan, in close collaboration with the United States, gains the ability to launch a conventional counterattack, it will be effective in preventing a misunderstanding by North Korea about its capability to “decouple” the United States from its allies. If both South Korea and Japan have the ability to carry out counterattacks, the North can be deterred from intimidations or conventional attacks on the two U.S. allies. It is necessary to keep Pyongyang from becoming overconfident of its deterrent capacity against the United States.
However, in addition to working to strengthen deterrence against North Korea, sanctions against the regime have to be toughened. Some people say such sanctions do not work. I think they are wrong. In the first place, the international community has imposed no really punitive sanctions against the North yet. Until recently, China and Russia had continued almost normal trade with the North, while many countries granted visa-free entry to North Korean workers. If U.N. Security Council Resolution 2375, though it stopped short of all-out sanctions, is fully implemented, it will likely have an unprecedentedly severe impact on North Korea. Therefore, the international community needs to rigidly implement it.
Of course, the sanctions, including the latest ones, have been purported to press North Korea to mend its ways. Even if these sanctions have failed to achieve their goals, they have been necessary as a measure to prevent the country from accelerating its nuclear and missile development any further. The less weaponry North Korea has, the more effective Japan’s BMD systems and comprehensive deterrent framework become. In other words, any effort by the North to sharply increase the production of nuclear weapons and missiles must be stopped by any means.
The international community needs to prepare to engage in a long “cold war” with North Korea.
■ Tanaka is president of the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), a post he assumed in April this year. Previously, he was a University of Tokyo professor specializing in international politics. He was president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency from 2012 to 2015, vice president of the University of Tokyo from 2009 to 2012.