Issues & Insights Vol. 19, CR1: Sustaining Deterrence in a Time of Change and Uncertainty

January 22, 2019

The Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the US Air Force Academy Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (AFA PASCC), brought 47 officials and experts from the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK), along with 5 Pacific Forum Young Leaders, all attending in their private capacity, to Maui, Hawaii, Aug. 6-8, 2018 to explore the three countries’ thinking about changes in relations with North Korea, extended deterrence, and ways to strengthen trilateral security cooperation. A two-move tabletop exercise (TTX) was conducted that dealt with radically different outcomes in negotiations with Pyongyang. Key findings include:

In contrast to our initial meetings a few years ago, the group has become comfortable engaging on these issues and knowledgeable about important features of a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Significantly, the track-1.5 process is well supported politically in all three capitals. 

Discussions were candid and frank, with understandable differences in perspective on various issues. Significantly, there were no references to longstanding animosities between Japan and South Korea that have hampered bilateral and trilateral cooperation. In addition, there was no evidence of competition between ROK and Japanese participants for US attention. Trilateral cooperation prevailed.

The first instinct among all three teams in crises was to consult.

US allies continue to demand reassurance in crises. South Korea is acutely aware that it is surrounded by much larger regional powers; and some South Koreans continue to argue for an independent nuclear arsenal (ideally with US consent or even help). Japan is acutely aware of, and increasingly uneasy with, limits on its defense capabilities and the resulting reliance on the US. Japanese and Koreans were listening carefully for hints of any weakening of US resolve to fulfill our alliance commitments, but more than once misinterpreted US statements as being insufficiently firm and reassuring despite US assurances to the contrary.

There was consensus that North Korea has not made the strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons and is not likely to do so. 

Kim Jong-Un will draw out the negotiating process – with the US and South Korea – as long as possible to maximize benefits he can obtain, to identify and exploit divisions among the allies, and to create conditions for the eventual recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state.

US policy declarations notwithstanding, there was broad agreement that the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea reached its peak prior to the 2018 summitry and that it will now be nearly impossible to fully reinstate.

Japanese and ROK participants were troubled by the US decision to halt joint military exercises with the ROK and raised the point repeatedly. While some participants acknowledged that the impact of suspension could be limited and have no or only a marginal effect on military readiness – and this was debated – the way it occurred (without allied consultation) and the language used by the US President (adopting North Korean phraseology and characterizations) were especially alarming.  

Japanese policymakers see Northeast Asia as a single theater, and acknowledge that their national security is deeply integrated with that of the Korean Peninsula. They repeatedly called on the US to take no action that might weaken the US-ROK alliance or dismantle USFK structures. 

While allies insist that decoupling is not occurring, tension is growing in both alliances and there is increasing concern about the potential for decoupling as a result of issues triggered by ordinary alliance relations as well as those arising from North Korean diplomatic initiatives. Shifting public attitudes could also have a negative impact.

A simple characterization of positions would be: ROK – cautious optimism (trust but verify); US – cautious pessimism (distrust but verify); Japan – pessimism (distrust).

Allies experience great uncertainty when they try to anticipate decisions by President Trump. They are not sure how to operationalize his intent to “put America first” and worry about the implications for alliances. Reassurance by some US participants that there is more continuity than change in US policy – while admitting that the president’s style is unique – largely fell on deaf ears.  The need to reassure is stronger than ever.

ROK participants revealed a hardening of views toward China and see Beijing as an increasingly malign influence on the Korean Peninsula. It is not clear how much Seoul will cooperate with the US (or Japan) to counter Chinese efforts elsewhere, but this is an important shift in perspective. Japanese views of China remain as hard as ever.

The meeting featured a two-move table-top exercise (TTX). In move 1, nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea were making progress (including a declaration of nuclear facilities by the North), as were talks between North and South Korea. There was no movement in relations between Japan and North Korea.

There was great skepticism toward North Korea’s nuclear declaration – which aligned with median estimates of its stockpiles and included all its known facilities – and no inclination to “sweeten the pot” to encourage Pyongyang to do more. All teams wanted the North to take additional substantive steps before they would respond to its offer.

That said, the Korean team was the most receptive or cautiously optimistic, and the Japanese team the most pessimistic, especially since medium-range missiles were not included in the initial DPRK offering and there were no other steps toward denuclearization. 

If there was an inclination to provide incentives for North Korea, the “carrots” were economic rewards, not security-related items.

No team suggested a reduction in the US force presence or weakening of the US-ROK military alliance in response to any North Korean proposal.

While some Japanese seemed willing to show flexibility on the abductee issue, Tokyo’s contributions to any denuclearization program will be limited as long as there is no progress on that problem.

TTX Move 2

While North-South economic talks make progress, nuclear talks break down. The North is accused of cheating on its nuclear declaration, and President Trump demands the return to maximum pressure to force DPRK denuclearization, threatening the end of the US-ROK alliance if Seoul does not go along. A Japanese surveillance ship is attacked by North Korea air and naval forces; Pyongyang explodes a nuclear device in the Sea of Japan with no reported casualties. A US team searching for POW/MIA remains in the North is presumed taken hostage.

There was extensive debate and no conclusion about the meaning of the North Korean detonation. The assertion by some Americans that a nuclear demonstration is a sign of weakness – a bluff – was rejected by most Japanese. Several countered that any North Korean use of nuclear weapons constitutes a deterrence failure. All participants focused on ways to re-establish deterrence after nuclear use.

Japanese pressed Americans on whether a North Korean capability to threaten the US homeland entered into US calculations on how to respond. Americans insisted it did not.

Although the US goal after move 2 was the swift and definitive elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and capability, that message was not understood by other participants. The problem was that the US response did not include a kinetic response against North Korea. Instead, it focused on rebuilding a coalition to reinstate maximum pressure to achieve denuclearization. While the US was prepared to support a Japanese request for a kinetic response, Japanese participants appeared to desire a more proactive US approach.  

Several Japanese participants insisted that only a declaration that the DPRK had committed an act of war and a kinetic response to the attack against the MSDF vessel and the nuclear detonation would meet their public’s demand for retaliation. Some stressed that US failure to respond kinetically could spell the end of the alliance.

Korean participants anticipated and understood that a kinetic response to the attack on the Japanese ship was likely but expressed concern that it be coordinated, limited, and with an eye toward the possibility of a counter-response aimed at the ROK.