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Modern deterrence theory is about more than an implicit nuclear threat. Both American and South Korean conventional forces require considerable bolstering to provide the unequivocal message that any attack would be met with an overwhelming response. There is potentially still a small window of time for the US to introduce an effective conventional deterrence policy in the interregnum between the North’s current capability and the actual mating of their thermonuclear capability with a missile. While it is unlikely to reverse the North’s nuclear programme it might halt or at least retard it. The sanctions regime is necessary but insufficient on its own to bring change, largely because it is being hampered at the UN by China and Russia.

Deterrence on the Korean peninsula must still hinge on the premise of a conventional military strike. Much of the commentary on the crisis has done the West a great disservice by stressing that a conventional military strike would bear a catastrophic price, without fully exploring the logic. The assumption may be correct but if the US is to switch to a credible policy of deterrence in the region, there needs to be a serious conventional military plan in place. As we know from the Cold War, deterrence is impossible without it. The conventional wisdom is that war would result in the near-immediate destruction of Seoul by the North’s artillery. Indeed, this was probably the single most challenging problem facing the US in terms of deterrence in Asia, until the arrival of Pyongyang’s thermonuclear weapon. The problem is that the artillery threat is overstated, primarily by the conflation of the total number of artillery pieces possessed by North Korea with the number of long-range systems that can actually reach downtown Seoul.

It appears that neither Boris Johnson nor Stephen Bannon had read the strategic estimates on North Korea before opining on the subject. Most of the North’s systems lack the range to cover the 40-50 kilometres from the DMZ to Seoul. The number that can actually manage this ranges from 500 to 1,100, about 70 per cent being self-propelled howitzers and the remaining 30 per cent multiple-rocket launchers. Reliable military estimates suggest that this is not an insurmountable threat to contend with. The North’s artillery is sheltered, making pre-emptive strikes difficult, although far from impossible for US “bunker busters”. A combination of pre-emptive strikes and counterbattery fire would rapidly degrade the North’s capability. Indeed the logistics of targeting Seoul mean that even the North’s long-range systems would have to be based in a relatively limited area, reducing the uncertainty of target selection. This is not to suggest that such an option is desirable or that it would not come at considerable loss of life in South Korea. Presenting this strike as credible is not the same as suggesting it should be undertaken. However, it does need to be presented as a credible threat to the North for meaningful containment and deterrence to work, hopefully before a thermonuclear warhead is miniaturised and placed on a strategic missile.

It is clear that the US policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea has ended in abject failure. Containment and deterrence remain the least bad option. However the US will need to persuade the North that it is less likely to survive by posing a nuclear threat than by cooperating with the international community. As with any foreign policy, or indeed sanctions, the first step is for Trump to envisage what he wants to achieve and to stop his counterproductive rhetoric. In other words, Trump needs to provide a specific, feasible proposition with which North Korea could comply to escape sanctions and to combine it with concrete military deterrence. The current Security Council resolution does include particulars of objectionable North Korean behaviour but the list is so exhaustive that it seems unlikely that, even under the harshest military and economic threat, Pyongyang would comply.

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