Billion Dollar Miscalculation: B-52s, Korea, and Missiles

By | March 24, 2013 | No Comments

Miscalculation winging its way over Korea.  Photo via Xinjunshi (New military affairs)

Miscalculation winging its way over Korea. | Photo via Xinjunshi (New Military Affairs, Beijing).

Miscalculation is underway on the Korean Peninsula and it’ll likely get worse soon.

Recent events around North Korea indicate the United States still has a fairly classic understanding of nuclear deterrence and the rule-set (think Wohlstetter and Kahn). The recent B-52 flyover is one such event. The US meant to send a finely trifurcated deterrence message to three disparate audiences (North Korea, US allies, and China) by flying a nuclear-capable (though not nuclear-armed, so far as we know) B-52 to South Korea. Yet even with a US classic understanding of deterrence dynamics, the message, the semiotics, and the strategy seemed to have had the desired effect on only one of the three parties. The other two intended recipients seemed to have received a different message and set the stage for even more miscalculation.

As Peter Hayes points out in his March 20 essay entitled “Tactically Smart, Strategically Stupid,” North Korea understands the B-52 as an expression of a hostile intent from an airpower that destroyed a large portion of North Korea’s structures and people during the Korean War. Sending a nuclear capable B-52 is likely viewed by the North Koreans as the US tacitly treating North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korea propagandizers received all the justification they think they needed to justify diving for bunkers and all other war preparations. According to Hayes, North Korea wasn’t deterred, but rather inspired by the B-52’s appearance to develop more capability and develop it more quickly.

But even if we believe that the DPRK doesn’t need motivation to speed up its nuclear development, the appearance of the B-52 matters for other reasons. The US allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, were to have understood that the U.S. would extend nuclear deterrence to the region in the form of a platform (the B-52) and a tanker bridge. However, conventional deterrence is really what should have been emphasized. For the U.S. to rely on nuclear deterrence, there is a subtle signal to the allies that conventional forces are less important (and perhaps even less capable), a signal which leaves open the possibility that the Allies would need to receive direct blows before the US engages in nuclear deterrence to avenge the wrongs. North Korea’s own recent threats to do just that may not be random lashing out, but an effort to exacerbate existing tensions in South Korean/Japanese defense discussions with Washington. Clearly this would be a negative security development as it would likely lead to an arms race which drains resources from all the economies in the region.

China, or at least some in China, received the intended message. Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui was on Phoenix TV suggesting in public for one of the first times that it may be time for the US and China to discuss a contingency on North Korea. (The statements are made via the above link, from about 1:14 – 2:00). China understands that North Korea is negatively impacting China’s security by providing a reason for the US to divert a billion dollars to strengthening a missile shield against a non-existent North Korean ICBM threat. As Jeffrey Lewis points out in “Billion Dollar Baby,” even in the age of sequestration that’s a sizable chunk of money, and same shield only might protect against a proven and existential Chinese ICBM. In a classic case of fear-based budgeting in Washington, one knows for sure, so no one wants to take a chance.

There is also a report that South Korea may bomb North Korean statues in surgical strikes if North Korea attacks South Korea. How could all this end but badly? Even if the US does not participate in the strikes, will North Korea consider the U.S. innocent? Will China intervene if the US intervenes? Where does the spiral end? There is one certain end point to the spiral, but that pathway features mushroom clouds, death and economic devastation. At least one proven method to slow miscalculation is to hold some talks, or, failing that, make a more comprehensive and clear verbal statement of US intent in the region. Even a mediocre speech doesn’t cost a billion dollars and can clear some miscalculation.

Blog by: Roger Cavazos

No Comments

  1. That B-52 is second only the stealth bomber in giving me some shivers, although I’m not in its direct shadow. As far as bombing of North Korea is concerned, no one seems to know the data better than Bruce Cumings, who distilled much of the relevant archival detail in a searing 2004 essay for Le Monde Diplomatique (English version here):

  2. I am particularly interested in the argument Roger makes regarding messages sent to Japan and South Korea by the B-52s, and North Korea’s desire to gently and not so gently exacerbate existing tensions among the three allies.

    I am in the camp of people who thinks North Korea does not need any incentive to keep developing its nuclear programs, will not relinquish them but/and cannot comprehend attacking its enemies in any “large” (and I use the term advisedly, especially on the 3rd anniversary of the Cheonan sinking) way because it doesn’t even have the power to conduct its own military exercises properly (see:

    But I do agree that North Korea knows perfectly how to play on the tensions between Japan, SK and the United States, and that the B-52 overflight does lend them a tool with which to do so. “An effort to exacerbate existing tensions in South Korean/Japanese defense discussions with Washington”? Now that is right out of the North Korean partisan guerrilla playbook.

  3. Spot on. The historical record is sometimes construed as the hysterical record. But from a DPRK standpoint, losing about 1/5 of the population (as assessed by Curtis LeMay) seared some long-term memories into their collective psyche. Those memories seared in the psyches have manifested themselves as bunkers, tunnels and other things dug into the ground.

    Chris’ point is well-informed and well-taken.

  4. Most underestimate the leader of North Korea; and to a good degree, he and his generals have already won. How? They have the world talking, but more importantly to their agenda, they have South Korea talking and fearing economic disturbance leading the a potential offer from South Korea to host bilateral talks on a peace plan and the path to reunification without the involvement of the USA and China.

    North Korea will keep up the pressure until South Korea ultimately realizes that they must take matters in their own unilateral hands and deal directly with the North; the USA and China would do well to remember that they are all mainland Koreans (first) and they know each other much more intimately on all levels than the USA and China could ever. A new identity in South Korea based on prosperity actually works in the favor of North Korea in that the South is very guarded to protect its burgeoning economy and export market at all costs even to the point of giving much to a diplomatic solution between the two.

    And follow the money, South Korea to China, and realize that any disruption to the flow would create a momentary disaster for the South while with little affect to China. China does not hold the winning cards in the poker game with the North because the North has nothing left to lose to China by its (the North’s) bluff; the North has played its game to at least a full-house, and now China itself might play the same game as the USA must decide in the end, both ultimately folding to the key players left in the game. China might only care about its prestige regionally by the loss of its hand; otherwise, China’s economy has little to lose in the game so why bother playing for little gain–China is much too wise for such nonsense. The South will continue to play the game with the North in order to maintain the flow of goods uninterrupted to China; the North will continue to play its disruptive bluff until reconciliation.

    The North wants all other players out of the game and they are achieving just that now by the reactionary stance that the USA must entertain by default: who would not react to nuclear threat. On a side note, it is funny to read what China has to say about maintaining calm; does anyone think that China would sit calmly if it was faced with a nuclear threat; no, it would have occupied in some fashion any (stupid) aggressor long ago.

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