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A think-piece written by Ken Jimbo, from our friends at the Centre for US-Korea Policy …

The sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 raised concerns for both the South Korean and U.S. governments that North Korea may no longer be conventionally deterred. The two governments have been reviewing how their basic and extended deterrence policies should be reorganized to adapt to this seemingly new dimension of North Korea’s behavior pattern. In reviewing deterrence, the following four considerations are particularly important:

First, North Korea was certainly not deterred from launching limited strikes against the South not once but twice in 2010. The failure to prevent an adversary from engaging in repetitive acts of aggression derives from the adversary’s perceptions that the cost incurred for the previous attack did not exceed the benefit gained from it.

Looking back at the chronology of events from early summer to fall 2010, North Korea may have perceived that the ROK government’s response was weak especially in terms of mobilizing the international community to take collective actions against North Korea. The July 9 UN Security Council Statement on the Cheonan sinking failed to directly identify North Korea as responsible. International sanctions appeared further weakened as early as August when Hu Jintao met Kim Jong-il and pledged continued support for the North Korean economy. North Korea most likely learned that its attempt to escalate aggression against the South was successful and that there was still a margin for even further escalation.

Second, due to progress in its nuclear weapons program, North Korea may have greater confidence in its capacity to control the level of escalation. Shortly before shelling Yeonpyeong Island, North Korea revealed its new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientist Siegfried Hecker and reasserted its nuclear capabilities. These messages of nuclear weaponization were deliberately sent before the shelling of Yeonpyeong as signals to deter large-scale U.S.-ROK retaliation. North Korea seemed to believe that such signals and its nuclear capacity enhanced the effectiveness of mutual deterrence vis-à-vis South Korea and the United States at the strategic level. As far as North Korean perceptions are concerned, the magnitude with which North Korea can conduct conventional armed attacks before inviting major military retaliation had significantly increased.

Third, there exists a certain logic of restraint and escalation control by both Koreas and the United States. South Korea retaliated in response to the Yeonpyeong shelling by firing about 80 shells at North Korean barracks, command structures and artillery near the border. There was no significant military escalation from North Korea despite its verbal attacks. South Korean F-16 and F-15 jets were also rushed to the area, but they did not provoke North Korean targets. More importantly, the United States did not take joint action directly on initial counter strikes. In terms of the range of escalation, the offensive exchanges in the Yeonpyeong case were relatively low in intensity.

We can reach a tentative assessment that deterrence failed in 2010 and is likely to fail again, but that escalation control succeeded. Along with the above two factors of North Korea’s cost-benefit analysis and mutual deterrence, escalation control indicates a “stability-instability paradox” on the Korean Peninsula. This paradox characterizes a decreasing probability of a major war but an increasing probability of low-level conflicts. North Korea assumed that South Korea and the United States did not want the minor conflicts to escalate into a major one, making it safe to engage in the former.

Fourth, the role of China in deterring North Korean aggression is increasingly important. As deterrence consists of sets of action to convince a party to refrain from initiating harmful action, it is not necessarily determined only by opponents but also by supporters. China has two options in regard to deterrence on the peninsula. China can weaken deterrence by exerting efforts to persuade South Korea and the United States to not pressure North Korea. China can also increase its anti-access and denial capability to encourage North Korean military operations. For example, Chinese objection to the U.S.-ROK Yellow Sea naval exercise in July 2010 can be interpreted as an attempt to deny U.S. engagement access in a Korean contingency.

China also has the capacity to augment deterrence. North Korean fear of abandonment from China continues to grow as indicated by the frequent visits by Kim Jong-il and other high-ranking officials to China. Given the stability-instability paradox, the role played by China in terms of deterring low-intensity aggression and supporting escalation control seems pivotal. China’s unusually active, intense and public degree of engagement after the Yeonpyeong incident showed how alarmed Beijing was by crisis escalation.

The apparent failure of deterrence on the Korean peninsula in 2010 has had a significant impact on Japanese perceptions of basic and extended deterrence and raises important questions regarding the role of U.S. security alliances in Northeast Asia. First, there is the question of whether North Korea believes that an increased level of aggression against Japan might also go without significant repercussions and costs. Although the thresholds are high for North Korea to conduct missile attacks or vigorous guerilla activities against Japan, the Japanese government should pay greater attention to provocative behavior such as low-level and asymmetrical maritime assaults. Second, U.S. extended deterrence to Japan and South Korea should be equally strengthened in order to increase the cost of North Korean aggression. Bilateral security cooperation between Japan and South Korea should be given more importance since both countries share mutual interests in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance activities. Third, U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation must be upgraded to enhance the impact and credibility of U.S. deterrence in the region. The three countries must take concrete actions in line with the joint plans outlined in the foreign ministers’ statement of December 2010 in order to build a renewed and sustainable foundation for trilateral cooperation on North Korea and other regional challenges. This effort must also include joint steps to strengthen coordination with China as a rising regional power based on the common goal of Northeast Asian peace and stability.

Ken JIMBO is Associate Professor at Keio University.

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From our friends at Pacific Forum CSIS

Cool Heads Can Deter North Korea

by Leif-Eric Easley

Leif-Eric Easley [easley@fas.harvard.edu] is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government, a Kelly Fellow with the Pacific Forum CSIS, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute.

When considering how South Korea will respond to the sinking of one of its naval vessels in disputed waters near North Korea, most commentaries stress the lack of military options. In contrast, Ralph Cossa [“Cheonan Incident: Choosing an Appropriate Response” PacNet #21] calls for a United Nations Security Council Resolution mandating that all North Korean submarines and torpedo-carrying boats be restricted to port. Recognizing that the chances of the UNSC passing such a resolution are slim to none, Cossa recommends the United States and South Korea sink North Korean submarines that leave port, and threaten to bomb submarine bases on the North Korean coast. If an international investigation underway into the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking indeed concludes that North Korea is responsible, it is important to focus minds on maintaining credible deterrence vis-a-vis Pyongyang. Ultimately, however, it is necessary to pursue a middle course between “turning the other cheek” and moving toward a hot war in the Yellow Sea.

South Korea, the US and other concerned countries have a long wish list for the Korean Peninsula: a democratic, human rights respecting, global trading, non-nuclear, unified Korea allied with the US and favorably oriented to both Tokyo and Beijing. However, there are serious limitations to the ability and willingness of the relevant countries to pay for the items on this list. So unification needs to be peaceful and preferably gradual. Realizing this vision requires drastically changing North Korea’s calculus or a bloodless end to the Kim regime.

How to do this? An international coalition – with as much policy coordination and UN support as possible – needs to impose costs on North Korean bad behavior and credibly promise greater costs for worse behavior. The world also needs to credibly offer benefits for improved North Korean behavior. This includes diplomatic engagement in exchange for Pyongyang reducing tensions and economic engagement in exchange for steps toward denuclearization (frustrating as it is to deal with Pyongyang’s serial cheating and efforts to front-load benefits for itself).

If North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, it is likely that Pyongyang sought revenge for previous altercations in the Yellow Sea in such a way that would not trigger serious escalation or leave clear fingerprints at the scene of the attack. Pyongyang is probably not looking to fight a war (that it would almost surely lose), but is very unlikely to obey an international order to keep its submarines in port and is almost certain to respond militarily to an attack. In fact, the Kim regime – seeking internal unity for dynastic succession – may be strengthened by such a fight.

Considering its own interests and the interaction with North Korea, Seoul’s objective is to maintain deterrence while avoiding serious escalation. To be clear, it may not be possible to deter North Korean bluster, missile tests or even another nuclear test. The point is to deter a North Korean attack. Doing nothing in response to the sinking of the Cheonan could undermine such deterrence and allow Pyongyang to believe it can push the envelope further. But doing too much could invite the very attacks that Seoul wants to deter.

While sinking a North Korean submarine would be a proportionate response to the sinking of the Cheonan, doing so in textbook fashion would be difficult. Bombing a base on North Korea’s west coast would not be proportionate, and the situation could quickly get out of hand. Recognizing this, it is unlikely Seoul will adopt a military retaliation strategy. Such a course would not have domestic political support or be helpful for the South Korean economy. Likewise, Washington has other concerns it prefers to focus on rather than escalate matters with Pyongyang. A more likely and effective strategy for Seoul to respond to the Cheonan incident could involve the following military, economic, and diplomatic components.

First, there are important military measures short of a counter-attack. South Korea can upgrade its submarine and anti-sub capabilities, enhance readiness and improve the sophistication of its patrols. This would reduce the chances of another Cheonan incident and increase the likelihood that North Korean forces would suffer if a similar attack was attempted. Seoul could redouble efforts to show no daylight between it and Washington on alliance issues such as the transfer of operational control, base realignment, and a civilian nuclear power agreement. US forces in the region could be subtly reinforced, as Washington has done in the past, to send a cautionary signal to Pyongyang. And Seoul could reach out to Tokyo on naval cooperation. Nothing sends quite the same signal to Pyongyang as increased security coordination between South Korea and Japan.

Second, there remain ways of punishing North Korea economically. Data for March 2010 suggests that trade between South and North Korea increased nearly 90 percent compared with the same period last year. There are clearly trade benefits for Pyongyang that Seoul could threaten to take away. More importantly, if the Cheonan investigation produces compelling evidence, Seoul can take the high road in rallying international support for strengthening UN economic sanctions against North Korea. South Korea can also make clear it will not tolerate North Korea’s violations of contracts in the joint North-South projects at the Mt. Kumgang resort and the Kaesong industrial complex. Doing so would further deprive the Kim regime of cash until it returns to compliance.

Third, South Korea could leverage the Cheonan incident for greater support from China. Seoul might call on Beijing to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, make its aid to North Korea more conditional, and emphasize to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during his trip to China that North-South relations must improve. If six-party denuclearization talks are not soon revived, China could host five-party talks to draw up an East Asia security mechanism that would include maritime security. It is unlikely that Beijing will explicitly agree to these suggestions. But it would be difficult for China to offer nothing in response to calls for post-Cheonan cooperation. Beijing has a keen interest in restraining North Korea from wrecking the neighborhood and cares about building China’s image as a responsible stakeholder. If North Korea is found culpable in sinking the Cheonan, Beijing shielding and supporting Pyongyang under the circumstances would not inspire international trust in China.

Seoul may develop a strategy combining elements of these measures plus others. The point is there are meaningful options between the maximal strategies of “turning the other cheek” and departing from the Armistice Agreement to teach North Korea a lesson. It is also important to observe how these policies interact with a dynamic political-economic situation inside North Korea. Depending on Pyongyang’s words and deeds and the allies’ preparation for contingencies, if the North Korean regime reaches the edge of the precipice, South Korea and the US might offer it a hand of assistance or nudge it over the edge. One thing is for certain: Seoul and Washington should not let Pyongyang drag the rest of us down with them.

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Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) Discussion Paper No. 5

Arguably already the most modern military in Southeast Asia, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) hopes to transform itself into a “technologically advanced” military capable of a “full-spectrum of operations” this century.

This paper traces the origins of the SAF’s fascination with technology by identifying its wellspring and the agents that have deepened it.

Four main explanations for the SAF’s fascination are offered. First, the SAF sees technology as a vital force-multiplier in battle, thus mitigating Singapore’s perceived strategic vulnerability. Second, the SAF is a product of Singapore society writ large which itself is attracted to the latest technology has to offer. Third, the SAF’s technocratic leadership has made its professional essence inherently pro-technological. Finally, the SAF is intimately influenced externally by the Singaporean “military-industrial-administrative complex,” providing both non-military direction and support for its acquisition and development of cutting-edge military technology.

Download the IRASEC Discussion Paper here

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