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Reinforcing Deterrence: The U.S. Military Response to North Korean Provocations
Published February 29, 2016
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When speaking to a Korean audience, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) invariably inserts the Korean phrase katchi kapshida ( 같이 갑시다), “we go together,” at some point in his remarks. U.S. responses to North Korean provocations have been grounded in its alliance with the Republic of Korea, a commitment of extended deterrence that has been in place since the signing of the Mutual Security Treaty in 1953. The USFK commander also often speaks of being able to “fight tonight,” whereby the alliance seeks to deter an attack on the South but should this fail, the alliance is ready to defend the ROK on short notice. Since the end of the Korean War, deterrence at the strategic level has held firm. Pyongyang has never tried to repeat the large-scale invasion it launched in 1950 to reunify the peninsula. However, it has never stopped conducting numerous smaller-scale operations to disrupt regional stability or destabilize the South, including the Blue House Raid (1968), the seizure of the USS Pueblo (1968), the Rangoon Bombing (1983), the downing of Korean Air 858 (1987), and submarine infiltrations along the East Coast (1996, 1998), among many others. Despite these numerous provocative and antagonizing actions, ROK and U.S. leaders were restrained in their responses, in large part, for fear that retaliation would start a dangerous escalation spiral, a prospect that put Seoul, only 35 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), in harm’s way.

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