North Korean Nukes are almost Certainly for Deterrence and Defense

8114998_origThis is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this week.

I feel like a broken record. I keep saying this – they’re not going to use them offensively, we don’t need to airstrike (at least not yet), we have learned to live with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nuclear missilization, the North Korean leadership is rational enough to know that using these things against a democracy would bring extraordinary retaliation. So yes, it really, really sucks that North Korea has these weapons, but we can adapt, as we have to other countries’ nuclear missilization. We don’t HAVE to start a potentially huge regional war over them right now. If we must, we always can. But let’s not get carried away that North Korea is going to nuke the US out of the blue, so we should airstrike them right now. That is HIGHLY unlikely.

But journalists keep asking me if we’re going to/should bomb North Korea, and US officials keep saying stuff like this. So here we go again:

Since the launch of a North Korean medium- to long-range intercontinental missile this month, there has been much anxiety about North Korea’s ability to strike US cities. It seems likely that North Korea can strike Anchorage at least, Alaska’s largest city. Some analysts have suggested North Korea already has the capability to strike the east coast of the United States. Skepticism may be warranted. North Korea may have trouble with missile re-entry, guidance, warhead miniaturization, and other technical issues. But nonetheless, it appears quite likely that if Pyongyang does not yet have the ability to strike the lower forty-eight American states, it will soon. Last month, I suggested the US is on countdown of sorts. North Korea is rushing toward a nuclear ICBM, and the Americans will soon be forced to adapt to it, or fight. It appears that decision fork is coming sooner than many expected.

Striking North Korea would be incredibly risky, and the United States has learned to live with other states’ nuclear missilization. Russia, China, and Pakistan are nuclear powers whom the US would almost certainly prefer did not have these weapons. Yet the US has adjusted. Each of those three, including Pakistan, has treated its weapons reasonably carefully. There has not been the much-feared accidental launch or hand-off to terrorist groups. All appear to consider their nuclear weapons as defensive for deterrence purposes. Indeed, the offensive potential of nuclear weapons is curiously constrained. They would so devastate an enemy that conquering that enemy would be pointless – who wants to take-over an irradiated wasteland? Plus, nuclear use would likely bring nuclear retaliation on the attacker, in which case any war benefit would be lost to the huge costs of nuclear destruction in the homeland.

This logic would seem to apply to North Korea as well. In the most extreme possible scenario, where North Korea used nuclear weapons against the South to facilitate a successful invasion of it, the devastation in the South would be so awful, that one wonders why North Korea would want to invade at all. Due to the peninsula’s mountainous terrain, only a few areas of South Korea are easily habitable for large numbers of people. Something like 75% of the population lives on 30% of the landmass. Those small areas – basically the South biggest cities – would be targets of Northern nuclear weapons in any such war. If North Korea were to win that conflict, it would then inherit those irradiated, blasted population zones, plus all those scarcely usable mountains. What would be the point of winning then? Of fighting at all?

Similarly, North Korean nuclear use against the South – or Japan or the US – would bring devastating American nuclear retaliation against the North. South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the US for decades. These relationships are about as robust as any in the US alliance network. Countless secretaries of state and defense have pledged to protect Seoul and Tokyo. So American nuclear retaliation would almost certainly follow any Northern offensive nuclear strike. North Korea would inherit an apocalyptic wasteland in the South, while absorbing punishing nuclear retaliation at home – so punishing in fact, the regime itself might collapse under the weight of the social chaos unleashed by American nuclear strikes.

And if that were not bad enough, one could easily see China attacking North Korea if it were to offensively use nuclear weapons. China may maddeningly tolerate North Korea’s nuclearization, but it is hard to imagine Beijing tolerating a North Korea using those weapons offensively. Beijing might well then be the next target. It is easy to foresee the US and China working together to destroy North Korea if it aggressively used nuclear weapons.

Some fear North Korea might ‘hand off’ a weapon to rogue groups, but no states have yet done that. Other suggest nuclear weapons might be a method to bully South Korea into subservience or permanent subsidization. But so long as South Korea remains allied to the United States, it is not clear why North Korean nuclear blackmail would succeed. North Korean nuclear weapons level the nuclear playing field in the peninsula rather than shift it against South Korea.

In short, North Korea’s possible use of its nuclear arsenal is highly constrained. It fits the profile of other state’s nuclear weapons – great as an ultimate guarantee of national defense and sovereignty, great for national prestige, hugely risky for offense. It is not clear that North Korea can escape the same problem of practical use which so many other nuclear powers have tried to figure out. There is simply no way to use these weapons for gain that would not immediately provoke massive counter-costs.

Yet we seem to have a hard time transferring this logic to North Korea. Americans are deeply worried about war with North Korea, and our pop culture routinely portrays Pyongyang as aggressive toward the United States. Yet North Korea’s decrepit, neofeudal, gangster state probably could not even absorb a South Korean population twice its size and long accustomed to democracy and freedom, even if it could win a war.

So yes, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are unsettling, even frightening. But nuclear weapons have not been used for offense to date (barring WWII), and there is little to suggest North Korea can escape the same ‘unusability’ trap other nuclear powers find themselves in. These weapons are almost certainly for defense and deterrence, so we should respond in kind with missile defense. That, not airstrikes and a consequent huge risk of Asian regional war, is the way forward.

18 thoughts on “North Korean Nukes are almost Certainly for Deterrence and Defense

  1. In what universe is mere security from US attack described as “marching toward the final victory?” You note that we can’t bomb North Korea because it can hit the US now but what is to stop them from stopping us from defending South Korea in war by the same logic? Kim Jong Un’s sense of restraint? Please.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Deterrence is based off belief and signaling and credibility. I the US makes them think we will retaliate for an attack on their neighbors, that’s an effective strategy


      • I don’t think we make them think that at all. No matter what we say we are not going to risk a nuclear strike upon Chicago, from which I sit this evening, to defend South Korea or Japan from a nuclear attack. It’s not going to happen. That’s the long and the short of it.


      • …I think you missed a step, because that’s exactly the point–that’s how MAD works. We won’t risk a strike on the continental US by attacking the DPRK preemptively for the same reason that the DPRK won’t risk a strike on itself by preemptively attacking us. In either case, any strategic edge the attacker gaines by acting offensively is outweighed by the price paid in the corresponding retaliation by the “attackee”.

        That’s exactly the point being made here–a reiteration of one of the most important strategic lessons of the Cold War.


      • They would never attack us of course. But South Korea? You really believe we would defend South Korea with our own cities in range?


      • The same questions was asked in the early 1950s, when Soviet nuclear forces could reach western Europe but not North America.

        The answer to “Would the USSR be nuked if they bombed Paris and London?” is an emphatic yes. Just like it is yes if the DPRK nuked Seoul and Tokyo.

        You’ll note that the answer was no less adamant when the USSR obtained a credible capability to reach the US in the late 50s and early 60s.

        The situation with N.Korea is analoguous.

        The possibility of North Korean ICBMs do not change the fundamental strategic situation, in terms of mutual deterrence; just as Soviet ICBMs did not the balance between the USA and the USSR.

        Indeed, the most dangerous aspect of the situation is the US gov’t will do something rash, just because of the perceived increase vulnerability, like the JFK administration could have done something rash during the Cuba Crisis (of course the N.Koreans could also do something rash, for their own reasons, like Kruschtchev could have done).

        But some might be harbour some ever slight doubts that the current administration might be as well suited as Kennedy and his inner circle to handle a nuclear explosive situation.

        So it is vitally important to understand that as unfortunate as the DPRK having a serious nuclear arsenal is, especially from a proliferation point of view, that should not necessitate a panic reaction whose author might find himself with the blood of millions on his hands, because he could fathom the intricacies of strategic balance.


      • North Korea is not a Marxist-Leninist state committed to “socialism in one country.” It is a militaristic one committed to the “independent reunification,” of Korea. Hence, comparing North Korea to the Soviet Union is not apt. A comparison to Nazi Germany is more apt. Each preaches or preached racial supremacism to its people. Each maintained the militarization of society in peace time. Unlike the Nazis however the North Korean nuclear program has succeeded putting the United States in a situation without historical precedent: having a far-right nuclear-armed enemy.


      • Further if North Korea believed as the majority of the American commentariat seems to think that the ICBM does not change the strategic balance why would they go through the trouble of building it?


      • It completely changes the strategic balance . They are building it to give themselves a level playing field. Now they are vulnerable because they know they can’t retaliate. They rely on China for that, but they see China as unreliable. They don’t want to rely on anyone for their security. Case in point of realism: Kim sees the nuclear weapon as a guarantor of his regime’s survival.


  2. Sir. I think you are over reacting to the statement by the US commander.
    The US commander has to say ‘There is always military option against North Korea,’ even if they are not going to do that at this point. They have to say it otherwise they inevitably invite a war. That’s how it works.
    In 1950, Dean Acheson said the US does not defend Korean peninsula, the North invaded.
    So, the U.S. has to keep saying the US is willing to use Military power if necessary to protect the allies again and again to assure Japan and South Korea.
    That’s how it works.


  3. I read all of your posts with great respect and always look forward to new posts. You have previously proposed that North Korea is not ‘insane’ and is quite ‘rational’. I believe that North Korea is generally insane, but possesses a kind of rudimentary situational rationale, but only when it comes to narrow goals related to self preservation. Even this ‘rationality’ is probably not authentic, but rather some kind of lizard-brain survival instinct holdover that allows them to override their default mode of insanity in situations where survival depends on it, kind of how an insane or irrational person is able to avoid walking in front of oncoming traffic, while in general, conducting themselves with a great deal of insanity.


    • Its a basic tenet of realism. Any behavior taken to ensure survival is rational. Kim’s ICBMs and nuclear weapons are merely to guarantee his regime’s survival. From the realist viewpoint, Kim is completely rational.


      • We have to get away from calling North Korea rational because when we do the subtext always is that North Korea is not a threat. Or that North Korea simply wants to survive as it is and in its present form. North Korean propaganda asserts that Kim Il Sung is the greatest man to have ever lived and that the South Korean public keenly supports Northern-led unification. Yet the South Korean public shows no interest in North Korea or unification and as more outside information gets into the country more and more people there are aware of this subversive truth.

        At the same time, North Korea has always asserted that the only obstacle to unification is the American troop presence. Hence, the goal of the development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs is to force American withdrawal from Korea. Thus, with South Korea disarmed because of American abandonment and military first Korea armed to the teeth as its nuclear project races to the finish line, South Korea would have no choice to assent to unification on the form of a confederation, something Pyongyang has been demanding for decades. With a pan-Korean parliament composed of Northern MPs who are exclusively loyalists to Kim Jong Un and with a Southern fringe of Pyongyang loyalists, North Korea would gain functional supremacy over all of Korea. (Remember one of Pyongyang’s demands in any peace negotiation would be the repeal of the National Security Law.)


      • Aidan, there are a lot of generalizations and misunderstandings in your reply. 1) calling North Korea rational does not give the subtext that they are not a threat. 2) South Koreans are very much interested in unification and are keenly aware of the NK threat.


      • Whenever a commentator emphasizes that North Korea is rational, the next thing out of their mouth usually is that they only want the survival of the present state of things. That is, they think (but never really come out and say) that Pyongyang thinks it can survive for the long term as the economically poorer backwards Korea that you cannot see from space at night.

        See for example Susan Rice’s column today in the New York Times. Kim Jong Un is rational and wants only regime survival. The real problem, she implies, is that Trump might not be rational.

        Whenever tensions with the military-first regime escalate as they are now, we are hit with a deluge of thinly veiled op-ed pieces telling us that South Koreans are not worried. The Chosun Ilbo in an editorial decried the South Korean people’s lack of concern the other day.

        And the South Korean people are interested in reunification if it’s some gradual coming together over twenty years or so. They see quite rightly reunification tomorrow as a bottomless money pit. Remember the controversy over Lee’s reunification tax?


  4. The last time there were nuclear tensions, it was between India & Pakistan. A dispute over Kashmir. On August 7, 2017 India killed 5 militants trying to enter Kashmir from Pakistan. So this isn’t over.

    Mowing the lawn. If Iran did what NK does to the U.S. by making death threats, but was Israel instead, just use your imagination.

    Kim isn’t just the leader of NK, he’s a cult leader. Kim killed his uncle, father’s generals and had his own brother assassinated with VX nerve agent. Not just a dictator but a cult leader is a deadly combination. The question is, is it time to mow the lawn?


  5. Like to share this music tune “Big Iron”

    A stranger rode into town one fine day. No one dared to ask his business. He was an Arizona Ranger after outlaw Texas Red. He had a big iron his hip. Folks were watching from their windows and everybody held their breath. The outlaw tried to out match the Arizona Ranger with a big iron on his hip. It was over in a moment and the outlaw lay dead.


  6. Look back at the NK & U.S. negotiations & ask yourself why there was no fruit to bare
    Examine the polices of former Secretaries of State:

    1. Henry A. (Heinz Alfred) Kissinger (1973-1977)
    2. Cyrus Roberts Vance (1977-1980)
    3. Edmund Sixtus Muskie (1980-1981)
    4. Alexander Meigs Haig (1981-1982)
    5. George Pratt Shultz (1982-1989)
    6. James Addison Baker (1989-1992)
    7. Lawrence Sidney Eagleburger (1992-1993)
    8. Warren Minor Christopher (1993-1997)
    9. Madeleine Korbel Albright (1997-2001)
    10. Colin Luther Powell (2001-2005)
    11. Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009)
    12. Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009-2013)
    13. John Kerry (2013-2017)

    Just one other observation. 13 Secretaries of State is an unlucky number!


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