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Interview with Dr. Van Jackson - "Deviant Cases and Near-Miss Crises"

The North Korean Review recently spoke with Dr. Van Jackson about his article Deviant Cases and Near-Miss Crises: Locating North Korea in the Asian Peace, published in the Fall 2021 issue of NKR. Acting as a bridge between Asian-peace and security studies research, Dr. Jackson’s deviant-case approach to North Korea’s experience holds illustrative cases and was of comparing competing claims about the sources of the “Asian peace.” In this interview, Dr. Jackson was willing to help answer questions on what a deviant case analysis is, the importance of understanding The United States paradoxical role in “Asian Peace”, and his personal outlook on “Asian Peace” in near future.


Q1: In your most recent writing for NKR, Deviant Cases and Near-Miss Crises: Locating North Korea in the Asian Peace, you argue for the need of analyzing North Korea as a “deviant case” regarding its role in the discussion on Asian Peace. For people unfamiliar with this type of analysis and reasoning, how would you explain what a Deviant Case analysis is, and why you believed North Korea should be looked at as such for better understanding the discussion on Asian Peace?

Historians and international-relations (IR) scholars both examine historical events. The difference though is not just in the way they explain events (thick versus thin descriptions of what happened), but the reasons for explaining events too. For IR scholars, your research method should ideally guide the kind of historical cases you examine. You evaluate something like North Korean history because you believe it helps test existing theories about how the world works, or because it helps build new theories to explain how the world works, or because it challenges what we think we know about how the world works. Deviant cases are basically historical observations that defy expectations of some proposed explanation for how the world works even though the hypothesis should apply to the historical event(s) in question. So in the Asian IR literature--where scholars like me come up with "middle-range" theories to explain how IR works in Asia--there's this research program around the so-called "East Asian peace" that tries to explain why Asia has avoided interstate wars since 1979.

Scholars have tested different theoretical explanations for this real-world observation--economic interdependence, developmental capitalism, the "ASEAN way" of peaceful norms, regional institutions, democratization. These are the dominant ways to account for the Asian peace. Yet if we narrow the question to just one part of Asia--focusing on why North Korea hasn't gone to war since 1979--we find that none of these explanations are relevant. North Korea's not economically interdependent, it's more cutoff from capitalism than any other society in the world, it's an outlier compared to regional norms, and it's not a democracy. So something that Asia-peace scholars aren't focusing on is "causing" the absence of war in the North Korea case, and since North Korea is obviously part of Asia, whatever that "cause" is has to at least be a partial answer to the larger Asian-peace puzzle.

Well, in US foreign policy, and in security studies generally, deterrence and alliances loom very large as explanations for the absence of war. And when we examine the "near misses" with North Korea--those key moments when North Korea and the US could've ended up in war but didn't--we find deterrence playing an outsized role in keeping the peace, albeit precariously. This may seem obvious, but it means that deterrence is playing an insufficiently examined role in keeping the Asian peace alive. How important deterrence is, well, that's a separate question that needs to be investigated. But it clearly needs to be part of how we understand stability in Asia. And we can only see that with clarity thanks to our close calls on the Korean Peninsula.

Q2: During your article, you looked at three examples of “near-miss” crises where war in Korea was elevated above normal, The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis in 1994, The Twin Attacks of 2010, and On the Brink in 2017. Across these cases, you stated that the “United States may have decisively saved the Asian peace with one hand, but it directly threatened it with the other”. Can you explain more on how this understanding of the United States’ paradoxical embrittlement of Asian peace is important for Asian-peace and security studies research to take note of moving forward?

So this observation is an offshoot from a forthcoming book I have with Yale University Press. It'll hopefully be out late in 2022, and it's tentatively called Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace. And the larger point that you highlight here is also a central purpose of that book--to confront America's paradoxical role in both upholding and holding at risk the Asian peace. One of the limitations of coercion and deterrence studies is the myopic way it frames its analysis. If you're looking at the use of threats in something like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the North Korean nuclear crisis, your gaze is necessarily very narrow, and your judgment about the effects of threats will be limited to that narrow window of time. This is tragic, and it makes the way we think about deterrence something of a trap, because it allows the analyst to avoid thinking about how historical context shapes interests, the balance of resolve, willingness to take risks, etc. Most importantly, it blinkers us to root-cause analysis.

One of the things the US has done for decades is make deterrence and coercion the tools of choice in American foreign policy. Threat-making and pressure are how we deal with things we don't like. What I wanted to show--in dealings with North Korea and the broader Asia-Pacific--is that playing with deterrence may allow you to keep things stable in the short-term, but it accrues costs and risks over time, making the situation more precarious. A theme that appears repeatedly in the Pacific Power Paradox book is that relying so heavily on deterrence and military power has really atrophied America's ability to use public policy to advance American (and Asian) interests. The United States has actively opposed attempts by Asian governments to build deeper forms of peace even while it presents itself as the region's savior. And over time, the US has diminished its own ability to influence the shape of the region using non-military means. That's the paradox.

Q3: At the end of your article, you articulate that “Goals can change when reality changes…and deterrence is not an end-state but rather a stopgap”. With this in mind, how do you envision this current state of organized peacelessness evolving in the near future?

I'm pretty worried about Asia's future. The Asian-peace will come to an end eventually; to believe otherwise is to believe that human civilization has changed in some fundamental way. What's uncertain is not whether the Asian peace will survive, but rather when war will come to Asia, who its belligerents will be, and how severe it will be. Without predicting the future, I see a lot of accumulating risks against the preservation of peace that have gotten worse the past ten years, and the trajectory looks as if they will only continue. Regional institutions are under-performing at a moment when they're needed most, Sino-US detente has been overtaken by great-power rivalry, economic interdependence is showing signs of fray both because of wariness about China and the constraints of the pandemic, democratization is on the back foot, weapons proliferation is increasing. It's a bleak picture. When will the structure break? Who knows, but given that deterrence is at best a time-buying strategy, counting on deterrence to save us is a recipe guaranteed to fail.

Dr. Jackson’s article is featured in our Fall 2021 issue. For more information about our publication and how to access it, please click the “Subscriptions” tab at the top of this webpage.


*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


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