Ep. 12 Richard K. Betts: The Implications of Increasing Provocations of North Korea
Interview | May 31, 2022
Richard K. Betts
Leo A. Shifrin Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University
In this interview, Dr. Richard K. Betts, Leo A. Shifrin Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, discusses the implications of North Korea’s provocations and suggestions for maintaining security on the Korean peninsula. On North Korea’s provocations, Dr. Betts claims that North Korea’s recent provocations are in fact, not tremendously significant as portrayed and represent a failure of U.S. hopes of using the prospect of negotiations as a leverage to prevent Pyongyang’s tests. While U.S. allies remain skeptical on U.S. efforts on extended deterrence, he claims that this is the “best” the U.S. can do and has done in the past. On the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which has invited heated debate among Seoul and Beijing, Dr. Betts underscores that the initiative behind such deployment lies in responding to North Korea’s threats. Additionally, he recommends that South Korea and the U.S. should try to find a conventional arms control solution and trade that for sanctions relief in North Korea to alleviate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
I. North Korea’s Missile Provocations
• Dr. Betts posits that North Korea’s recent series of missile tests are “not tremendously significant as they are portrayed,” but “more symbolic in significance than (the) the real substance.” Nonetheless, continued provocations reflect “a failure of our hopes that we might have used the prospect of negotiations as a leverage to keep them from testing.”
• According to Dr. Betts, it remains a key challenge to prevent nuclear escalation and to “deter potential enemies in Asia ... to deter them from seeing any potential benefit in initiating the use of nuclear weapons.” He states that “conventional military efforts” have been “quite credible.”
• While the “the reemergence of Chinese American antagonism and the shift of strategic planning towards the prospect of a major war between the great power” is particularly problematic, this shift has now been “complicated by a completely new situation outside the military arena – that is, economic globalization and the tremendous economic interdependence.”
II. Implications of North Korea’s weapons development for China
• China, over the recent years, “has been frustrated with the limits of its control over North Korea” and how Pyongyang has “proceeded independently in ways that are not always in China’s interest.”
• Nonetheless, “North Korea is one of China’s few allies, almost its only ally.” Dr. Betts highlights that “the weak small ally can still have a lot of leverage on the stronger supporting ally out of fear of losing that connection.”
• Regarding the North Korean security threat, he notes that “one of the dangerous things about the situation in East Asia is the inability of the U.S. and China to consult with each other in a serious way about how to handle a future crisis.”
• Dr. Betts views that “the U.S. will not move its forces into North Korea and that South Korea should be able to handle the situation on its own, which hopefully might be some reassurance to China.”
• He emphasizes that it is important to understand “how North Korean nuclear weapons may affect Chinese calculations and what sorts of pressure or control” China must place.
III. U.S. Response to North Korea
• Concerning the U.S. response to North Korean nuclear capability, Dr. Betts claims that the best option is to “rely on the traditional policy of strong deterrence.” He views that “the U.S. still has to rely on the basic threat to Kim Jong-un that if he ever attacks the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, his regime will cease to exist.”
• While extended deterrence remains open to criticism among U.S. allies, Dr. Betts states that “it’s the best we can do.” “The U.S. has made huge efforts on behalf of those allies for many years ... and has been committed militarily to defend Japan and South Korea.”
• Dr. Betts considers “integrated deterrence ... as a slogan and a buzzword.” While it does signal that the U.S. is in search for “instruments besides purely military capabilities, ... it’s more a rhetorical device than some signal about a change in policy.”
IV. Suggestions for South Korea’s North Korea Policy
• Regarding controversies on the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, Dr. Betts emphasizes that the only alternative for China is to “lean on North Korea to eliminate the threat.” He explains that “the THAAD system is not designed primarily against China, but it is the obvious response to North Korea.”
• Dr. Betts provides two suggestions for South Korea regarding the North Korean threat. The first is to promise Pyongyang that “Korean unification will not be brought about by military aggression.” The second is to “try to find a conventional arms control solution ... and trade that for a relief from sanctions for North Korea. ■
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■ Richard K. Betts_ Leo A. Shifrin Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He was Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations for four years and is now an adjunct Senior Fellow there. Betts was a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution until 1990 and adjunct Lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He also served at different times on the Harvard faculty as Lecturer in Government and as Visiting Professor of Government. Born in 1947, he received his BA, MA, and PhD in Government from Harvard University.
■ Typeset by Seung Yeon Lee, Research Associate
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Security and External Relations
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