Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Micro Deterrence Signaling

| Apr. 04, 2022

Policy Innovation During the 2017 Korean Missile Crisis

Setting the Stage: Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin Strategy Tests the Trump Administration

During the transition in Washington in January 2017, departing President Barack Obama warned President-elect Donald Trump that North Korea would be his first test in office. Obama highlighted that the North Koreans had been rapidly developing their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and that sanctions did not appear to be slowing them down. The conventional standoff between North Korea and the United States—under the Armistice since 1953—still held, but new weapons and cyberattacks had started to reveal an inadequacy in U.S. and Alliance policy.

Kim Jong Un, the third generation of North Korea’s ruling family, sought to make major leaps forward with North Korea’s missile program, starting with a series of remarkable steps in 2012 following his father Kim Jong Il’s death. These steps culminated in a demonstration of a space launch vehicle that placed an earth observation satellite into orbit. From these steps, it became clear that Kim Jong Un was no longer the underestimated third son of the late North Korean leader. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un made no overtures to the United States to explore a missile testing moratorium-for-cash deal. He instead focused primarily on acquiring a viable nuclear deterrent capability that could decisively counter the United States’ “hostile policy” by holding the U.S. mainland at risk.

Despite his explicit pronouncements about advancing the regime’s Byungjin strategy—the simultaneous development of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal and an expansion of North Korea’s economy—many analysts initially dismissed Kim Jong Un as the heir to a weakened and withering family-run regime that kept bungling diplomatic opportunities. Previously, when his father Kim Jong Il launched a multi-stage rocket in April 2009, President Obama received a clear response to his earlier offer to “extend a hand to those willing to unclench their fist” in his January 2009 inauguration speech. With North Korea “breaking the rules once again,” the Obama administration adopted an approach of “strategic patience.”

Following the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, his son accelerated the pace of the Byungjin strategy.

The second Obama administration (January 2013–January 2017) saw the greatest number of annual ballistic missile tests to date in 2014, 2015, and 2016, including three large nuclear tests in February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016 (see Figure 1: North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Tests). Kim Jong Un swiftly advanced the nuclear weapons programs initiated by his grandfather and continued by his father.

As warned, President Trump soon witnessed a dramatic escalation in the quantity and quality of North Korea’s ballistic missile tests during the Korean Missile Crisis of 2017, including a test launch of its first ICBM on July 4—the Hwasong-14—with another on July 28. This development cycle culminated in North Korea’s test launch of its longest-range ICBM at that time—the Hwasong-15—on November 29.

On the frontline of dealing with this rapidly expanding threat stood the U.S.- Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance and its interwoven commands—U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC), and United Nations Command (UNC)—with U.S. General Vincent Brooks at the helm of each in his multi-hatted leadership role. The crisis presented General Brooks with a unique opportunity to rethink deterrence and develop a dynamic playbook to change Kim Jong Un’s calculus. The result he called “micro deterrence signaling.”

The PDF of the full report is here. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Brooks, Vincent K. and John S. Park. “Micro Deterrence Signaling.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 4, 2022.