Re-establishing the concept of deterrence in North Korean relations played a pivotal role in bringing the country to the nuclear negotiation table, a Stanford scholar says.

composite image of U.S. and North Korean flags

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson said re-establishing the concept of deterrence in North Korean relations played a pivotal role in bringing the country to the nuclear negotiation table. (Image credit: iStock / simon2579)

Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, explains how deterrence – a military strategy of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences – worked in opening possible discussions between the U.S. and North Korea.

Hanson also points out that the U.S. must make it clear to both China and Russia that the next round of nuclear proliferation may not be favorable – it may happen in pro-Western countries with missiles pointed in directions other than at America, he warns.

Hanson was recently interviewed on the subject:


What are the reasons that North Korea is now willing to possibly talk to the U.S.?

I imagine that it feels the easily manipulated era of the “Agreed Framework,” “Six-Party Talks” and “Strategic Patience,” in which three administrations gave them quite massive aid to behave, and thus either not proliferate or denuclearize, is now over. Trump is an unknown quantity and often in history volatility and unpredictability are assets, at least in the sense that unlike the situation with Carter, the Bushes, Clinton and Obama, Pyongyang is not quite sure what Trump might say – or do – at any given moment. So, they are cautiously trying to learn whether he is like past presidents and whether China, facing new U.S. pushbacks, will continue its opportunistic support. Trump’s team of James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley are widely respected but also serious in reestablishing lost American deterrence.


What role will deterrence play in the U.S. foreign policy approach toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons program?

Threefold, I imagine. 1) The breakneck current effort to bolster missile defense at home and in the region seeks to nullify not only North Korea’s, but also China’s, first-strike nuclear capability. 2) The updating and improvement of the American nuclear arsenal, along with increased defense spending, signals that the U.S. is prepared and will have the capability for any possible military scenario. 3) The rapid buildup of Japanese and South Korean forces – and the unspoken specter of possibly, in extremis, going nuclear themselves – not only deters North Korea, but in China’s eyes makes Pyongyang responsible for creating an increasingly unfavorable strategic balance in the region. The more that China feels strategic currents are not flowing in its direction, the more likely Beijing will see North Korea as a liability rather than a traditionally useful irritant to U.S. forces in the region. We need to encourage that calculation.


What should the U.S. be wary of regarding North Korea’s approach on diplomatic talks?

We know the North Korean playbook: Grand agreements followed by delays and excuses, followed by threats and venom, followed by further aggressions and nuclear brinksmanship, culminating in a “crisis” that requires an umpteenth new American concessionary approach that is inevitably seen as appeasement to be manipulated rather than magnanimity to be repaid in kind. We cannot go down that road. Denuclearization cannot be negotiated. We can pledge not to seek regime change or even promise not to seek forced unification under Seoul, but only in the context that North Korea is verifiably denuclearized.


Did President Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward North Korea play a factor in bringing them to the table?

I think in several ways: Pyongyang was mystified by such behavior. North Korea’s leadership really never dreamed that an American president would sound more volatile than a Kim. At least for a few months, it views Trump as dangerous, especially given the outrage he sparked among the American foreign policy establishment that broadcast to the world its fears that Trump, in fact, was unhinged. The U.S. foreign policy team sort of plays good cop to Trump’s bad. Trump’s bellicosity and unqualified support for South Korea was an important antidote to North Korea’s transparent efforts to separate Washington from Seoul; e.g., telling South Korea that the U.S. would never risk San Francisco to ensure a nuclear umbrella over Seoul, while reminding the U.S. that the South Koreans are not worth running new existential risks to its homeland over an “internal” matter between the two Koreas.


What U.S. policy directions do you expect will emerge from possible upcoming talks?

We can expect more North Korean rhetoric, lies and machinations. But at least Kim Jong Un won’t be getting any money from us or our allies. And now with these new stiff sanctions and pressures, time is on our side, as North Korea reverts to a premodern society. In a situation in which our homeland is now likely a North Korean target, we must not concede – especially when the inevitable accusations that we are “starving” innocents in North Korea arise – and give up as we did with the disastrous Iran deal; just when Tehran was facing existential economic crises, we let up.


Any other points you’d like to address or highlight?

We must apprise both China and Russia that the next round of nuclear proliferation may not be like prior episodes in which unstable regimes or anti-American states developed a few nuclear weapons, while China and Russia either yawned or smiled. Japan and South Korea and, who knows one day, Australia or Taiwan, and, in the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will go nuclear – and in a much more nightmarishly effective way – if the world cannot stop North Korean and Iranian proliferation. And the new members of the nuclear club will likely be pro-Western and their missiles pointed in directions other than at the U.S. So far, China and Russia have found proliferation politically advantageous; we must change that mentality and warn them that it will not always be so if they continue their reckless patronage.


Victor Davis Hanson is also the chairman of the Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group at the Hoover Institution.

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