Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Escalation is not deterrence on the Korean Peninsula

Reading Time: 4 mins
South Korean soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge, south of the DMZ, in Paju, South Korea, 24 August 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

In Brief

The United States and the DPRK have been trading diplomatic blows over Pyongyang’s ongoing missile testing and its contentious nuclear program. The Trump administration has called for a fast-tracked installation of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — a controversial missile defence system based in the ROK.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

US military ‘signalling’, namely the (faux) deployment of a carrier group to the Korean Peninsula, has been accompanied by rhetoric proclaiming the end of ‘strategic patience’ and pledging ‘maximum pressure’. But this US escalation is strategically unsound, and discounts its own interest in upholding the status quo on the peninsula.

In general, deterrence is the attempt to prevent an unfavourable behaviour by convincing the actor contemplating such an action that the cost will exceed the benefit. To understand the nature of deterrence on the peninsula, it is necessary to look at its history. After World War II, Allied powers cleaved the peninsula into two distinct republics in a region otherwise absent of ethnic, religious or cultural differences. As such, the communist DPRK and Western-backed ROK immediately saw each other as threats.

By 1948, the DPRK had procured military assistance from the Soviet Union, giving it superiority over the South’s military. Then South Korean president Syngman Rhee appealed for US assistance to avoid being ‘pushed into the sea’, to which the response was ‘ask the United Nations’. Conversely, then North Korean president Kim Il-sung, emboldened by Soviet assistance but anxious about Rhee’s unification ambitions, knew that he could not wait for a Southern collapse before attacking. This exigency was mirrored by Rhee, who believed the communists would overrun his republic before he could wrest complete political control.

Assuming their opponent would strike at any moment, both prosecuted plans to invade, starting the Korean War. To bring an end to the conflict, the ‘Armistice Agreement’ was signed in 1953. It introduced foreign powers who would henceforth uphold the balance of power on the peninsula. The intra-Korean struggle — now frozen but not resolved — would be subsumed into the Cold War system of competition between the US, USSR and the People’s Republic of China. This foreign-enforced balance muted the signals instructing the two countries to cannibalise one another.

Notably, the United States had threatened the use of nukes against the DPRK before and after the Korean War. In 1958, it placed nuclear weapons in South Korea, reinforcing the 1953 US–ROK ‘Mutual Defence Treaty’. This placed the ROK under the US nuclear umbrella, diminishing the DPRK’s conventional deterrent. But it was not until the DPRK’s discovery of the ROK’s clandestine nuclear program in the late 1970s that Kim Il-sung viewed the acquisition of nukes as necessary for state survival.

Clearly, on the peninsula political and military escalation did not create deterrence — it perpetuated insecurity until conflict arose. Both republics identified each other as aggressors and were convinced that their survival hinged on moving first. This was underpinned by ideological differences that delegitimised the other’s state-making efforts and unification ambitions. Today, the United States and the DPRK share this situation.

Escalation most acutely fails to engender deterrence when adversaries fail to comprehend the security fears of their opponent. By characterising their involvement from the outset as a defence of the ‘rule of law’ against the ‘criminal’ communist DPRK, Washington has failed to understand how its involvement could be cast into the localised struggle between the republics. It has failed to recognise that Pyongyang’s security fears may still be linked to the ideological and unification conflicts that underpinned the Cold War security dilemma.

Conversely, the DPRK cannot imagine how its nuclear belligerency could be characterised as attempted blackmail of a superpower. Measures which Pyongyang view as demonstrating resolve are cast as crude attempts to win compromise from larger actors with conventional superiority.

Moreover, actors on the peninsula fail to distinguish between defensive and offensive behaviours. The DPRK’s nuclear belligerency is not offensive belligerency. It is a misguided attempt to show resolve in the face of vulnerability to US–ROK conventional forces. North Korean missile testing and threats to strike US naval vessels simply reinforce Washington’s view that the DPRK is an aggressor who threatens regional security. By continuing to show firmness and resolve, both sides feed into mutual hostility that must eventually bear conflict.

In line with this misunderstanding, statements by the Trump administration expose an intent to enact regime change — militarily or otherwise. This shows an undervaluation of the status quo: regional stability remains dependent on a stable — albeit divided — Korean Peninsula. Until denuclearisation or a peace treaty can be reached, the status quo remains worthy of preservation. The United States should avoid escalation until the spiralling nature of the peninsula can be assuaged.

In light of the historical failure of deterrence, the Trump administration seems too at-ease with escalation on the Korean Peninsula. If policymakers on both sides ignore the fears motivating their rivals in the Korean security dilemma, they will confront a dynamic that may produce both armed and nuclear conflict.

Nicol Brodie is a research student at the ANU.

3 responses to “Escalation is not deterrence on the Korean Peninsula”

  1. Mr Brodie wants us to believe that both parties are equally guilty in the North-South conflict. He writes “both prosecuted plans to invade, starting the Korean War”, no the war started when the North invaded the South on June 25 1950. He writes allied powers “cleaved the peninsula into two distinct republics” at the end of WWII, that is not true the 38 parallel was a line for accepting the Japanese surrender between the US and the Soviet Union. His tale of South Korean nuclear activities leaves out two important facts, it was the US that got S Korean to abandon its attempt to gain nuclear weapons and US nuclear weapons left South Korea in 1991. North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to defend itself. Brodie claims statements by the Trump Administration expose an intent to enact regime change, that is not true the US wants the North to give up it missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea in not trying to maintain the status quo they are attemping to greatly increase their nuclear weapons and long range missiles, they want an nuclear tipped ICBM that can hit the USA. Mr Brodie should study the past attacks by North Korea including the 1983 assassination attempt on the S Korean president in Rangoon the killed 21 people including four senior SK officals. Then you have the bombing of KAL flight 858 in 1987 that killed all 115 people on the flight. You also have the 31 man attack on the S Korean presidental compound in 1968 that killed nearly 100 people. If that is too far back in history for you, you have the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 that killed fifty people.
    The list of North Korean attacks is well over 100. North Korea knows it can not survive for long with the far more successful South Korea they want nuclear weapons to achieve their aims with regards to South Korea. ps Moon Jae-in just stopped four more batteries of a THAAD from being made operational

    • This is a succinct and comparatively gentle refutation of the very strange aspects of Mr. Brodie’s piece. The terms Mr. Brodie uses are strange – I do not understand the difference between defensive and offensive belligerancy. As Dennis points out, the lack of historical context is surprising.

    • Dear Dennis,

      In my view, the two allied powers cleaved the Peninsula into “two distinct political” movements by virtue of their division of Korea along the 38th parallel, before Japan’s surrender. This division formed the basis of Two Korea’s political and economic separation. But, you are correct in saying that the DPRK’s invasion in 1950 is the generally accepted beginning of the Korean War. My explanation follows the argument made by historian Bruce Cummings. However, Cummings is a revisionist historian and I did not include any evidence when restating his position.

      Even if one is to accept that the DPRK invaded and started the Korean War, unconventional warfare (1) being waged between the two actors before such an invasion exhibits their blatant hostility toward each other. The fact that the DPRK prosecuted their invasion plans, simply highlights that the DPRK were first to succumb to their security dilemma. More importantly, it shows that the DPRK were convinced that their survival would depend on annihilating the ROK, which North Korea thought would invade.

      Yes, I have omitted the facts you listed regarding North Korean belligerence and nuclear ambitions. But again, they do not detract from my thesis: that military escalation will not produce deterrence or stability; it will make the DPRK feel more insecure and increase the likelihood of conflict. It may be the case that the “list of North Korean attacks is well over 100”, however, you may be conflating the United States’ right to respond to DPRK belligerency, with the likely effectiveness of that response. In fact, this “list of attacks” is additional proof of the DPRK’s escalatory theory of victory (2) – and by extension, deterrence (3).

      You note that the US curtailed the ROK’s nuclear program – this is true. However, that does not mean that current US policymakers are of the same mind.

      Interestingly, your two sentences encapsulate the nature of the Korean security dilemma as characterised by my piece. “North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to defend itself.” Irrespective of whether they ‘need’ them, the DPRK has decided to obtain, test and potentially use nuclear weapons. For various reasons, they are convinced that this deterrent, alongside other aggressive measures you have mentioned, are necessary to survive. As you state, “North Korea knows it can not survive for long with the far more successful South Korea [so] they want nuclear weapons to achieve their aims with regards to South Korea.”

      Thus so long as the DPRK “knows”, or rather, remains convinced that nuclear and conventional belligerency is key to surviving; and that both actors cannot sufficiently empathise with each others security concerns, then the chance of conflict will increase upon escalation. This is because neither is deterred by each other’s military posturing, but rather frightened by the expectation that one will strike first. Hence if the United States were to make further ‘threats’, or engage in further military signaling, it would likely engender more DPRK belligerence.

      I hope this addresses some of the weaknesses in my argument. I do apologise for any historical errors that you think I have committed in the article.

      Thank you for the comment!

      Nicol Brodie

      1. The Korean War: An International History, William Stueck



Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.