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The ABCs of Deterring North Korea

Published by War on the Rocks

By Joshua Rovner

Kim Jong Un has rekindled a decades-old debate among international relations scholars: Are some leaders too irrational to be deterred? Some in the Trump administration think so. National Security Advisor H.R. McMasterrecently suggested that the North Korean regime is so brutal that deterrence theory does not apply. His comments echo previous concerns about rogue states that are impossible to deal with. Others have sought to reassure nervous Americans that deterrence worked against murderous regimes in the past, and we can rely on it today to deter North Korea from nuclear war.

This is an important debate, to be sure, but it is incomplete. The question of deterrence is not simply about preventing war, because a nuclear North Korea can act in several ways that threaten U.S. interests even if it never uses nuclear weapons in anger. Some of these actions are probably beyond U.S. control. But Washington can deter the most dangerous threats, even if it can’t deter everything.

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