How Do We Know Deterrence Works Against North Korea? Because It Already Does.

Yonhap News/Newscom via ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

I want to make a quick point that’s pretty obvious, I guess, but that hasn’t been getting much attention. It’s this: North Korea and the United States have been successfully practicing mutually assured destruction against each other for more than half a century. It’s not the same as MAD between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, in which the threat on both sides was the same—nuclear armageddon—but it’s been effective nonetheless:

  • South Korea. The United States keeps about 30,000 troops along the North-South Korea border. This is not because South Korea needs the extra manpower. They have 600,000 active troops and several million more reserves. Our troops are there as a tripwire. If North Korea ever launched an attack, it would kill lots of American troops, guaranteeing that America would respond and North Korea would be wiped off the map.
  • North Korea. The DPRK maintains an immense amount of artillery along its border with South Korea. Since Seoul and other large cities are only 30 miles from the border, North Korea can immediately inflict tremendous loss of life on South Korea if it’s ever attacked.

So: North Korea can’t attack because they risk being destroyed by an American response. South Korea can’t attack because they risk losing thousands or millions of lives in a North Korean response.

This is a ghoulish standoff. But despite the alleged madness of North Korea’s leaders, it’s worked. Since 1953 there have been hundreds of fracases and dozens of more serious incidents along the border, but thanks to the grisly logic of deterrence none of them have turned into anything more serious. If North Korea develops the means to launch nuclear missiles at the United States, there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to work. The weapons are different, but the fundamental calculus isn’t.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend