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[Letters] Linking extended deterrence and cyber warfare

Oct 18,2011
Over the past 60 years, the United States has relied on extended deterrence to discourage North Korea from initiating a high-end conflict on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, the United States has leveraged extended deterrence to discourage its allies, Japan and South Korea, from pursuing the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons.

In the post-cold war era, many experts argue that extended deterrence has played a key role in sustaining status quo peace and stability in the region in spite of numerous small-scale provocations from North Korea.

Nevertheless, following the attack on the Cheonan last year, some experts began to openly question the continued effectiveness of extended deterrence. They point to the attack as a clear example of the inability of the United States to dissuade North Korea from prosecuting midrange violence that risks escalation into high-end conflict with nuclear weapons.

They also illustrate that lingering support for nuclear weapons by important constituent groups in both Japan and South Korea, coupled with an increasingly volatile regional threat environment, could instigate nuclear proliferation across Northeast Asia.

In my opinion, these experts are right to conclude that extended deterrence, as it currently exists on the Korean Peninsula, cannot prevent small-scale provocations that could escalate into a high-end nuclear conflict. However, this fails to acknowledge that the allies also now face non-nuclear threats that risk immediate high-end conflict, which undermines the credibility of expanded deterrence far more than incidents like the Cheonan.

For this reason, it is critically important that experts reframe the debate over expanded deterrence in Northeast Asia. Instead of asking whether the existing form of extended deterrence (i.e. extended nuclear deterrence) has failed to discourage North Korean small-scale provocations, experts need to ask whether extended deterrence remains relevant in preventing mid- and high-end conflicts.

Such analysis would require experts to address at least two key questions: What threats does the United States and its allies need to deter to prevent high-end conflict? And what constitutes the spectrum of responses required to properly mitigate these threats?

These questions would force the United States to consider whether North Korea’s emerging and evolving warfare capabilities, particularly cyber warfare, represents a high-end threat to the United States and its allies. They also would require the United States to assess whether conventional forces, a nuclear umbrella and missile defense are sufficient means of legitimizing extended deterrence for all high-end threats. Finally, they would push the United States to align its broader spectrum of responses against possible mid- and high-end provocations. In the aftermath of the Stuxnet attack that affected Iranian computers, it is clear that the United States and its allies need to assess whether external deterrence remains legitimate given the existing threat landscape. This includes accounting for possible need for new forms of deterrence as well as new capabilities.


Eddie Walsh, a nonresident WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS



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