McMaster recently voiced this concern in an interview with The New Yorker, in which he once again argued that dealing with the Kim regime is different than dealing with the Soviets. “The North Koreans have shown, through their words and actions, their intention to blackmail the United States into abandoning our South Korean ally, potentially clearing the path for a second Korean War,” he warned.
This fear is well-founded, according to Rapp-Hooper. One of the most important consequences of North Korea developing a nuclear-ready ICBM is that it undermines “extended deterrence,” or the U.S. commitment to protect its faraway allies Japan and South Korea. If North Korea were to attack the South, would the United States really rush to Seoul’s defense if that meant exposing Seattle to North Korean nukes?
In this new environment, the United States will have to regularly reassure its partners in the region, and convince North Korea, that it will do what logic suggests it might not. The task is made all the more difficult by the fact that Trump has openly questioned the value of America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, most recently accusing South Korea of “appeasement” toward the North.
The United States, however, has avoided the “decoupling” of its alliances before; in the 1960s and ’70s, it found creative ways to ease the anxiety of its European allies following the Soviet Union’s acquisition of nuclear weapons that could reach the American mainland. Back then, people wondered whether the U.S. would endanger Chicago to save Berlin.
“So, actually, what McMaster is describing ... undercuts his first comments to ABC, because what he’s suggesting is that the North Koreans are trying to use nuclear deterrence for the same purposes that we have seen other nuclear powers use their deterrents in the past—that is, to coerce for the purposes of achieving their own political ends,” said Rapp-Hooper. “That doesn’t mean we like those political ends,” but it does mean that a nuclear-armed North Korea might be more similar to other nuclear-weapons states than McMaster lets on.
Still, even if North Korea’s leaders can be deterred from using their nuclear weapons, they might conclude that those weapons give them license to engage in lower-level forms of aggression against the United States or its allies—attacking South Korean forces at sea or along the demilitarized zone between the two countries, for instance—in order to intimidate the South and sow divisions between Seoul and Washington over how to retaliate. Deterrence will also require the U.S. to build up its military presence in North Korea’s neighborhood and be on high alert for any sign, however faint, of an impending North Korean nuclear attack.
The world could thus become a more dangerous place, even if deterrence carries fewer risks than going to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons. And chief among the dangers is miscalculation. Kim Jong Un may be generally rational, but that doesn’t mean he will always act rationally. Humans are human. As a Trump administration official recently told The New Yorker, “Saddam Hussein was not suicidal, but he committed suicide” in the lead-up to the Iraq War by underestimating the likelihood that the Bush administration would invade his country.