US Decision-Making and North Korea's Nuclear Threat: The Role of China and Resource Allocation

Why the US Did Not Strike a Preemptive Attack on North Korea 

Looking back at history when Saddam Hussein were suspected to have nuclear weapon, the US invaded Iraq. You would assume the same thing would have happened when North Korea did its nuclear test. Like Iraq, North Korea is an autocracy country; and North Korea is weaker to the United States in terms of military power. According to Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith’s theories, democracies are more likely to fight with autocracies because democracies tend to put more resources and efforts into wars while autocracies are not; and democracies are willing to fight weaker countries because they have higher certainty of winning. North Korea meets both the autocracy and weaker criteria. Based on their theories, the US have a high certainty of winning and is willing to fight North Korea, but the US did not strike an attack. Why the US didn’t strike a preemptive attack when facing an autocracy and weaker country with nuclear threat? According to Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith, “First, leaders with large winning coalitions typically try hard during conflict, dedicating additional resources to the war effort, which allows them to overwhelm other states. Second, democratic leaders with large winning coalitions need to be more certain of victory than their autocratic counterparts before initiating conflict” (p.802). I argue that the US would not strike an preemptive attack on North Korea for two reasons: winning certainty changes with China’s involvement, and inability to allocate additional resources into the war.

The Role of China in Shifting the Balance of Power and Its Impact on US Winning Certainty 

North Korea meets the autocracy and weaker criteria that a democracy willing to attack, but the game changes when China involves. Let’s take look at the history when the US had a war with North Korea back in 1950. The conditions between North Korea and the US are the same, North Korea was autocracy and weaker to the US. But the US didn’t win in that war because of the involvement of China. In 1950 when the US tried to invade North Korea, China helped North Korea to fight back the US because of geopolitical reasons. North Korea is right next to the northeast part of China, there is only a Yalu River between China and North Korea. If the US invaded and occupied North Korea, it would be a threat to China to have the US army right next to its boarder. Therefore, to some extent, China defending North Korea from the US is defending itself from the US. Back to 2017, this logic doesn’t change. Even though China also condemned North Korea’s nuclear test and it is also a threat to China, it is better for China to deal with a weaker threat than stronger threat if the US occupied North Korea. So the relationship between China and North Korea didn’t change. If the US attacked North Korea in 2017, China would still have to defend North Korea for its own boarder security. If President Trump looks back in the past experience, he know he has to think carefully when he decides whether or not to go to war with North Korea. The probability of the US winning the war changes from most certain to not so sure when China involves. Even if  the US wins the war if would a costly and long-lasting war, and it is a bad public policy for Trump if he wants to get reelected. According to Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith (1999), “Since the survival of democratic leaders depends upon public policy success, they typically want to avoid long and costly wars” (p.803). Trump can also look at what happened to Truman after he lost the war with North Korea. Based on resource of Britannica:

Truman’s popularity began to plummet. In March 1952 he announced he was not going to run for reelection. By the time he left the White House in January 1953, his approval rating was just 31 percent; it had peaked at 87 percent in July 1945.   

Given the past experience Trump should know well that he can’t strike an attack against North Korea if he wants to get reelected.

Trump's Political Base: The Dilemma of Resource Allocation and Meeting Expectations 

Trump can’t put additional resource into the war which lower the probability of winning the war. When Trump decides to go to war the first thing he has to do is to reallocate all the resources into war to make sure a high certainty of winning the war. However, he can’t do that due to his voter demographics. Trump has a specific winning coalition demographics.  A big portion of Trump’s voter are farmer and factory workers who lost their jobs due to global competition. They expect Trump can give help to them and make their lives better when they vote for Trump. Therefore, we can see one of Trump’s political goal is to increase the economy and lower the unemployment rate. He needs to show these his winning coalition that with his leading, their lives will be better. On top of that, he also gives a lot aid to the farmers. If there was war, he would have to withdraw all the resources from the business market and his voter to put into war. This will make his voter’s lives worse than before which is not the reason why his voters vote for him. So he cannot withdraw resources from his voter. However, based on the theory democracy is more likely to win the war because they tend to put more resource into it. Trump’s inability to allocate resources into war further decreases the probability of winning the war.

Conclusion: Understanding US Decision-Making Through the Lens of International Relations Theories 

Trump has to decide whether to put his resources into a war which is uncertain to win and might lead to his failure in getting reelected or keeping the resources to his winning coalition that are certain likely to sustain the votes from his voters. Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith stated “a democratic leader with failed policies is potentially bellicose. This, of course, is the gambling for resurrection idea inherent in the diversionary war theory literature”(Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith, 1999, p.803). Trump’s public policies were not failing at that time so he didn’t have to take a gamble to go into war with North Korea when he had a better option. Based on the analysis above the US’s probability of winning the war with North Korea is deeply decreased with China’s involvement and the inability of Trump to reallocate his resources into war. Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith(1999) argued, “When the outcome of the war is less certain, democracies prefer negotiated settlements” (p.803). Therefore, I would say that Trump prefers negotiation with North Korea more than having a war with North Korea.

de Mesquita, B. B., Morrow, J. D., Siverson, R. M., & Smith, A. (1999). An Institutional Explanation of the Democratic Peace. The American Political Science Review, 93(4), 791–807.

 Steinberg, A. (2021, May 4). Harry S. Truman. Encyclopedia Britannica.