I have to take exception to the title. There may be a failure of the perception of deterrence on the part of some, but we do continue to be successful in deterring the worst case and that is a deliberate attack by the north.
The Failure of Deterrence in Korea
In a poll released last month by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 66 percent of South Koreans said they wanted their country to develop nuclear weapons to ward off attacks from North Korea. In fact, only 48 percent of the population last year believed America would use nukes to retaliate against a North Korean nuclear strike against them, down 7 percent from 2011.
The survey by the private think tank in Seoul is a clear vote of “no confidence” in the US, which has, by treaty, since 1953, pledged to defend the South, with nukes if necessary. If the South Koreans trusted Washington, they would not want to have their own arsenal of the world’s most destructive weapons.
And if this many South Koreans suspect Washington’s resolve, it’s a safe bet that many policymakers in Beijing and Pyongyang doubt America as well. China and North Korea have increased their war-mongering rhetoric conspicuously of late, and both are behaving arrogantly, as if they think they can push the US out of Asia.
In the Cold War, the Soviets—and the Western Europeans—believed America would counterattack a strike by the Warsaw Pact forces. That deterrent threat maintained an uneasy but enduring peace along the Iron Curtain. Now, it appears that South Koreans’ confidence in the US commitment is eroding, along with their confidence in the security guarantees of the American “nuclear umbrella.”
As local trust in the viability of the US nuclear deterrence has eroded, so has deterrence against conventional attacks. In 2010, the North killed 50 South Koreans in two horrific incidents, the sinking of the Cheonan in March—46 sailors dead—and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November—four killed, two of them civilians.
To prevent further attacks, Washington on Monday announced the signing of a “South Korean-led, US-supported” defense pact to counter hostile acts. Seoul and Washington think that reducing the “combined counterprovocation plan” to paper will help contain Pyongyang’s threat. The concept is that the US, by promising to act against even small provocations, will prevent the North from committing any assaults.
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