Past Events


On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies hosted Dr. Keir Lieber and Dr. Daryl Press to present their research on the factors that lead to coercive nuclear escalation during conventional wartime and how to manage them. Applying their theoretical analyses to the case of North Korea, they sought to explain the best prevention and response methods to a coercive nuclear escalation by the DPRK.

Lieber and Press began their presentation by rationalizing a weaker adversary’s choice to escalate by paralleling its “total” war with a stronger opponent’s “limited” war scenario. Accordingly, they outlined three instances when a weak power such as North Korea would be incentivized to use nuclear weapon as a means of coercive escalation: 1) stronger adversaries pursue deliberate regime change; 2) weaker (i.e. North Korea) perceives regime change; and 3) consequences necessarily motivate regime change. Lieber and Press then introduced three approaches for reducing the risks to coercive escalation: 1) formulating war plans that reduce the probability of escalation; 2) increasing WMD defeat capabilities to reduce consequences; and 3) strengthening alliance force structures to support the previous two efforts. The prescriptive options in the case of coercive escalation are as follows. 1) South Korea and the allies could accept a cease-fire and, consequently, set a dangerous precedent that encourages proliferation. 2) South Korea and allies can continue conventional operations using only missile defenses and subject allied territories to possible nuclear war attacks, which would sever the global alliance network. 3) The United States could conduct a nuclear strike on Pyongyang leadership and ensure regime collapse; however, the United States will be targeting a major population center and risks incurring additional nuclear attacks on allies, in the case that North Korea disperses retaliatory nuclear weapons. 4) The United States could carry out conventional or nuclear strikes to degrade North Korea’s nuclear weapons with the risk of not getting them all and incurring many noncombatant deaths.

Dr. Stephen Haggard, Professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, UC San Diego, questioned Lieber and Press’s application of nuclear deterrent theory to North Korea. The fundamental problem at hand was the possibility of a conventional war between South Korea and North Korea. Given that anything that pushes the Korean Peninsula out of its armistice would be escalatory in nature, the region would already be embroiled in an escalated situation. In bringing up this observation, Dr. Haggard further inquired about the differentiation between provocations and war-worthy attacks: “How does one objectively measure retaliation?” Because of the historical tensions on the Korean Peninsula, perceptions of threats and what are the appropriate responses differ for South and North Korea. According to Dr. Haggard, this ambiguity undermines Leiber and Press’s theories for mitigating the risk of nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula.

While James Kim, Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, raised similar questions as Haggard, he was supportive of the idea of formulating appropriate response(s) to a possible coercive nuclear escalation by weaker powers such as the DPRK.

Date/Time: Wednesday, December 10, 2014 / 14:00 – 15:30
Place: Conference Room (2F), The Asan Institute for Policy Studies



Keir A. Lieber is Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Lieber’s research and teaching interests include the causes of war; nuclear weapons, deterrence, and strategy; U.S. foreign policy; and international relations theory. He is author of War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology (Cornell University Press, 2005, 2008) and editor of War, Peace, and International Political Realism (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). His articles have appeared in leading scholarly and foreign policy publications – most recently in International Security, Foreign Affairs, and the Atlantic Monthly. He has been awarded fellowships from the Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, Earhart Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Smith Richardson Foundation. He is currently writing a book (with Daryl Press, Dartmouth College) on nuclear weapons and international relations. Lieber received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a proud product of the D.C. public schools.


Daryl G. Press is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Professor Press is the author of Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, a book on decision-making during crises (Cornell University Press, 2005). He has published scholarly articles in International Security, Security Studies, and China Security, as well as articles for a wider audience in Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times. Professor Press has worked as a consultant for the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Department of Defense, and is a research affiliate at the Security Studies Program at MIT. He also serves as an Associate Editor at the journal International Security. Professor Press is currently writing a book (with Keir Lieber, Georgetown University) on nuclear deterrence – during the Cold War and the future – as well as a series of articles (with Eugene Gholz, UT Austin) on energy and security. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.A. from the University of Chicago.