Book Reviews

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Becoming Kim Jong Un

In piecing together Kim’s wholly unique life, Dr. Pak (now Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs) argues that his personality, perceptions, and preferences are underestimated by Washington “policy wonks,” who assume he sees the world as they do. As the North Korean nuclear threat grows, Becoming Kim Jong Un gives readers an authoritative and important behind-the-scenes look at Kim’s character and motivations, creating an insightful biography of the enigmatic man who could rule the hermit kingdom for decades—and has already left an indelible imprint on world history.


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Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents

The book Tempting Fate puts forth a simple but meaningful question: why do states who do not have nuclear weapons pick fights with states who do? The puzzle is straightforward and casual observers might posit simple answers — e.g those non-nuclear states don’t think nuclear weapons would ever actually be used. Paul Avey pushes beyond that most simple answer to flesh out a more complex strategic calculus on the part of non-nuclear countries. Assessing the strategic situation, the weaker, non-nuclear state will calculate — dependent on the exact circumstances — where red lines are that might escalate a conflict beyond conventional weapons and act to stay below the nuclear threshold. The author uses four case studies to support his argument, each rich and built on primary sources.


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Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea

Because authoritarian regimes like North Korea can impose the costs of sanctions on their citizens, these regimes constitute “hard targets.” Yet authoritarian regimes may also be immune and even hostile to economic inducements if such inducements imply reform and opening. This book captures the effects of sanctions and inducements on North Korea and provides a detailed reconstruction of the role of economic incentives in the bargaining around the country's nuclear program. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland draw on an array of evidence to show the reluctance of the North Korean leadership to weaken its grip on foreign economic activity. They argue that inducements have limited effect on the regime, and instead urge policymakers to think in terms of gradual strategies. Hard Target connects economic statecraft to the marketization process to understand North Korea and addresses a larger debate over the merits and demerits of “engagement” with adversaries.


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The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters

For decades, the reigning scholarly wisdom about nuclear weapons policy has been that the United States only needs the ability to absorb an enemy nuclear attack and still be able to respond with a devastating counterattack. So long as the US, or any other nation, retains such an assured retaliation capability, no sane leader would intentionally launch a nuclear attack against it, and nuclear deterrence will hold. According to this theory, possessing more weapons than necessary for a second-strike capability is illogical. This argument is reasonable, but, when compared to the empirical record, it raises an important puzzle. Empirically, we see that the United States has always maintained a nuclear posture that is much more robust than a mere second-strike capability. In The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, Matthew Kroenig challenges the conventional wisdom and explains why a robust nuclear posture, above and beyond a mere second-strike capability, contributes to a state's national security goals. In fact, when a state has a robust nuclear weapons force, such a capability reduces its expected costs in a war, provides it with bargaining leverage, and ultimately enhances nuclear deterrence. This book provides a novel theoretical explanation for why military nuclear advantages translate into geopolitical advantages. In so doing, it helps resolve one of the most-intractable puzzles in international security studies.