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The Peninsula

Why the U.S. Strike on Syria Won’t Deter North Korea

Published April 18, 2018
Category: North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

In the aftermath of the U.S., French, and British strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities in response to Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people some have suggested that the strike sends a signal to North Korea that it must take seriously the United States’ threat of military force against Pyongyang’s weapons programs and that the strike could strengthen President Donald Trump’s hand in talks with Kim Jong-un. In reality, the strike is likely to have little impact on North Korea’s calculus in talks with the United States.

The lessons of the strike on Syria are more complicated than the United States being willing to enforce a red line against the use of chemical weapons. The strike targeted three suspected chemical facilities and was designed to minimize the possibility of a retaliation by either Russia or Iran, who are supporting the Assad regime in Syria, against U.S. allies or interests. The strike itself is acknowledged by U.S. military officials as not eliminating Syria’s ability to conduct future strikes on its own people, while Israeli intelligence officials are also skeptical that the strike will have any real impact on Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again in the future.

It is also unclear that U.S. military strikes have deterred Syria itself, let alone North Korea. The strike was the second in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The first having come in April, 2017. In both cases, Syria faced minimal consequences for its actions.

The North Korean situation is also different from the case of Syria. As was the case in Syria, the United States could not be assured of destroying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea also has a much more significant ability to retaliate against the United States, South Korea, and Japan should the U.S. strike North Korea. While the recent joint U.S. and U.K. warning against potential Russian cyberattacks was not related to the recent strike on Syria, it echoes North Korea’s own ability to retaliate through the use of cyber, as well as conventional means and weapons of mass destruction.

Additionally, if the United States was reluctant to engage in a wider conflict with Russia, something which is prudent, the strike likely validates North Korea’s recent efforts to improve ties with China to deter the United States from taking significant military action against it.

If Syria had paid a stronger price for its actions, North Korea might have to reconsider its options. Instead, both strikes have been more symbolic than substantive to this point. As a result, those suggesting that North Korea took lessons from the United States strike on Syria are correct, just those lessons are likely not what they have been suggesting.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Navy Live, the Official Blog of the U.S. Navy.

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