A Roundtable Review of Van Jackson’s Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations

By | June 19, 2017 | No Comments

Image: Sino-NK

There are some questions in Washington whether the announced State Department policy on North Korea of  “maximum pressure and engagement” is actually a departure from earlier approaches (perhaps a difference in degree rather than kind). Despite media coverage of “heightened tensions” in April and May, both Pyongyang and DC have refrained from altercation, as chilly as relations may be. It is a good moment to critically review the history of US-DPRK relations, particularly as the Trump-Moon summit looms on the horizon later this month.

One place to start is Van Jackson’s Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press, February 2016). A Senior Lecturer in IR at Victoria University (Wellington) and former strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Korean linguist for the US Air Force, Van Jackson knows the topic from both academic and policy perspectives. Using IR theory and primary and secondary source evidence from the 1960s through the Obama administration, Jackson offers keen and convincing insight of how violence and provocative behavior on the part of both North Korea and the United States is framed by past action, perception, and reputation. In this Sino-NK roundtable review, Adam Mount (Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress), Daniel Pinkston (Troy University), and Martin Weiser (graduate of Korea University) provide different evaluations of Jackson’s analysis of the history of the US-North Korea relationship. – Darcie Draudt, Director of Research

A Roundtable Review of Van Jackson’s Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations

by Sino-NK

Jackson, Van. Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in U.S.-North Korea Relations. Cambridge University Press, 2016. 228 pp. IBSN: 9781107133310

A History of Backing Down: Perpetuating the US Rivalry with North Korea?

by Adam Mount

The line between war and peace on the peninsula has for the past six decades remained perilously thin. Perhaps this is due in part to the breadth of the line that separates structured academic analysis that draws lessons from a long history from the policy community that struggles intimately with the intractable bind in which historical decisions has placed us. Van Jackson is one of the uncommon scholars adept in both worlds.

For Jackson, the persistent militarized rivalry that causes recurrent but contained crises on the peninsula is produced and reproduced by the choices of US officials. By backing down in successive crises, the United States invites future provocations by signaling that it is unwilling to fight a general war over small skirmishes or continued advancement of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs. At the same time, these decisions have enhanced the credibility of US threats when they are issued, which deters broader conflict. As reputation is often deployed to argue that the United States is weak, it is a refreshingly nuanced diagnosis.

For US officials interested in halting the pattern, the book’s conclusion presents a choice: incur a greater risk of general war in order to terminate the periodic provocations or make use of the time that this strategy has purchased “by finding a way to ameliorate rivalry conditions.”

This is indeed the choice that the Clinton and second Bush administrations faced, but the situation has changed. Since the 2011 leadership transition, provocations have mostly been confined to nuclear and missile tests, and a steady stream of rhetoric. The US reputation for irresolution in the face of unconventional attacks has not been as costly as it has for nuclear and missile developments (a distinction that Jackson’s book does not model in detail). Pyongyang is investing in asymmetric capabilities but its degrading conventional balance would make it doubtful that it could fight a general war for very long. Pyongyang signals that it wants to end the rivalry, but insists that it will maintain its nuclear program, a paradox to the United States and its allies.

While the book is a compelling explanation of how we got into this position, it is not clear that the same dynamics still maintain the rivalry. It says little about how to untie the knot. Still, the book is instructive on certain specifics of US policy. For example, it is tacitly critical — while Jackson’s policy work is rightly overtly critical — of policies like nuclear assurance missions that reproduce the rivalry to little strategic effect. As the Trump administration has conducted four B-1B overflights in April and May, and is surging three carrier strike groups to the western Pacific, Jackson’s book encourages us to ask whether these pressure tactics help to resolve the conflict or simply perpetuate it.

In short, the book is valuable reading for those who work with Jackson to construct a strategy for confronting a nuclear North Korea.

Modified version of a map showing locations of of the USS Pueblo’s attack and seizure and the downing of a Navy EC-121. | Image: CIA

The Importance of an Honest Reputation: What Theory and History Say About the US-North Korea Rivalry

by Daniel Pinkston

Van Jackson’s experience as an Air Force linguist and Department of Defense strategist combined with his academic training places him at a tremendous advantage compared to those who narrowly focus in one realm with little understanding of the linkages between theory and praxis. We often lament that the division of labor in the modern world forces us deeper into our narrow niches of specialization, which results in lost efficiencies that could be obtained if the academe, government, private sector, and non-profit organizations shared more information. In Rival Reputations, Jackson does an excellent job of integrating theory, current history, area studies, and policy.

For full disclosure and transparency, I must say that Van is my junior (후배) from the US Air Force and the Defense Language Institute, so maybe I have slight biases. However, I am highly confident that international relations and security studies scholars, policymakers, and the broader multidisciplinary Korea-watcher community will find value in this book. Jackson, who has written extensively on security policy and deterrence, begins with a review of the scholarly debates on credible commitments and resolve, which are linked to the reputation of states. These concepts have implications for the likelihood of conflict between states, so the theoretical debates ultimately have important policy implications because the costs of conflict can be high. For security studies specialists focusing on the Korean peninsula, this is a must read. I also highly recommend it for readers with multidisciplinary backgrounds and a keen interest in Korean affairs.

Traditional theorists such as Thomas Schelling asserted that commitments are interdependent, and therefore states establish reputations over time.1)Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960); Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008 [1966]). Schelling posits that perceptions of weakness or firmness are carried into the future. From this perspective, states have an incentive to demonstrate resolve now because the failure to do so will erode a state’s reputation. However, another body of scholarly work takes a contrarian view,2)See, for one example: John Mitton, “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria,” Contemporary Security Policy, 36 no. 3 (2015): 408-431. arguing that past demonstrations of resolve and the relevance of reputation matter not for current cases. Instead, assessments of credible commitments and resolve are solely based upon current material capabilities and state interests. Jackson explores the logic of reputation within the context North Korea-US rivalry in an effort to help us better understand the policy implications of this theoretical debate.

For readers interested in more in recent diplomatic history or current history of the Korean peninsula, the book’s case studies provide an excellent historical overview.  Jackson also does an excellent job linking the cases to theory and policy. He explores in rich detail the USS Pueblo crisis (1968), North Korea’s shooting down of the US Navy’s EC-121 aircraft (1969), the Panmunjom axe murders (1976), and the North Korean nuclear crisis (1993-1994). These cases are used to test a number of rival hypotheses related to US reputation in foreign affairs. Jackson concludes that bluffing erodes credibility, but honestly backing down does not. Reputation matters, in other words, and US unwillingness to retaliate against low-level provocations has invited subsequent North Korean belligerence.

In a world of imperfect information, decision-makers inevitably look to historically-informed heuristics to assess the likely behavior of rivals in the present. One relevant lesson that can be taken away from Jackon’s historical analysis is that policymakers must be cautious to avoid the mistake of interpreting all instances of backing down as weakness. Not everything is worth fighting for; it’s foolish to escalate every confrontation. Paradoxically, honest signaling to de-escalate when the stakes are not worth fighting for can help establish a reputation for honesty, which makes coercive threats over high-stake interests more credible.

The USS Peublo, which was captured (along with its crew) by the North Koreans in January 1968, shown anchored on the Taedong River. In late 2012, it was moved to the Botong River, next to the new Fatherland War of Liberation Museum. | Image: Wikicommons

Lots of Signals, but Some Important Gaps

by Martin Weiser

Several books have already covered the violent history of US-North Korean relations, with some recent works arguing for a certain rationality to how North Korea applies military force. Van Jackson follows the same line of logic, which is not surprising for someone who served as senior country director for Korea under the US Secretary of Defense. Jackson’s core argument is that deterrence has not worked. The US, he argues, has continuously backed down and never retaliated, thus inviting future violence by North Korea. Meanwhile, North Korea has not made threats the US could identify as credible due to the constant flow of belligerent rhetoric; the US could neither back down in advance nor show resolve before North Korean attacks occurred.

The main evidence Jackson uses to support his claim is a series of incidents beginning in the late 1960s. These include frequent assaults by North Korean troops across the DMZ; the capture of the USS Pueblo (1968); and North Korea’s shooting down of a US Navy EC-121 spy plane over the East Sea (1969). Jackson attributes the subsequent recession of aggression to improving US-China and inter-Korean relations, but explains that North Korea again took to violent escalation in 1976 with the Panmunjom axe murder incident (8-18 도끼살인 만행사건). That the US did not back down but showed resolve a few days later, Jackson argues, led to relative peace in US-DPRK relations for the next fifteen years. In the final chapters of his book, Jackson forwards his thesis as a novel way to understand not only the two nuclear crises but also the 2010 inter-Korean clash, although he acknowledges that his interpretation of more recent developments is less convincing than those from times prior.

How the US and North Korea perceive each other during crises and how they understand each other’s signals and threats has received too little attention in the literature. Van Jackson fills this void, showing what can be done with the official documents available today. There are, however, a few shortcomings worth considering.

First, although Jackson implicitly deals with how North Korea is “America’s longest-running intelligence failure,” as former ambassador and CIA Seoul office chief Donald Gregg put it, readers unfamiliar with this part of US foreign policy would likely have benefitted from an additional chapter on how little is known about the inner workings of the North Korean government and how the US government struggles to understand the Pyongyang regime.

Second, there are some leaps of logic made by the author that may leave some readers unconvinced. For instance, whether the Panmunjom incident can be seen as a direct consequence of earlier US decisions and a “more intense North Korean challenge” (p. 203), as he argues, seems doubtful. Presumably, the author made this claim to support his interpretation that future challenges only decrease in quality and quantity after sufficient resolve is shown, as happened three days after the axe murder incident with Operation Paul Bunyan.3)One participant in the operation was a certain Moon Jae-in This shortcoming notwithstanding, he provides an interesting take on how better communication and maneuvering on both sides could have prevented most of the military violence.

Lastly, for researchers more familiar with the matter, there are several gaps in the empirical evidence that deserve attention. Only a few days before the 1976 incident, North Korean tanks had entered the DMZ — an act unprecedented since 1953. Moreover, since 1975 not only North Korean ships but also fighters had begun violating the Northern Limit Line (NLL).4)Balasz Szalontai and Sergey Radchenko, North Korea’s Efforts to Acquire Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons: Evidence from Russian and Hungarian Archives, Cold War International History Project Working Paper #53, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 14; and Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008 (Routledge, 2010). These important signals by North Korea, intentional or unintentional, actually support the author’s claim of increased military threats around that time.

Similarly, Jackson excludes certain inter-Korean clashes from his analysis, such as the sinking of a South Korean vessel north of the NLL in 1967, an act which led the United States to threaten air attacks should a similar incident occur again. As a result, diplomatic sources claim Kim Il-sung adopted measures which stated that “in the future nobody can open fire on a target without [his] approval.”5)Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No.76.075, TOP SECRET, March 1, 1967,” March 1, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated by Eliza Gheorghe. Ironically, the sunken ship had been transferred only few years before from the US Navy to South Korea. This undermines Jackson’s claim that North Korea was not perceptive to US threats of future retaliation even if the current provocation went without military consequences.

Despite the these shortcomings, Jackson’s book provides a wealth of evidence to think about for both students and scholars, and deserves praise for tackling the question of signaling in US-DPRK relations.

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1. Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960); Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008 [1966]).
2. See, for one example: John Mitton, “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria,” Contemporary Security Policy, 36 no. 3 (2015): 408-431.
3. One participant in the operation was a certain Moon Jae-in
4. Balasz Szalontai and Sergey Radchenko, North Korea’s Efforts to Acquire Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons: Evidence from Russian and Hungarian Archives, Cold War International History Project Working Paper #53, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 14; and Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008 (Routledge, 2010).
5. Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No.76.075, TOP SECRET, March 1, 1967,” March 1, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated by Eliza Gheorghe.