After Donald Trump assumed the US presidency a year ago Washington and Pyongyang have been trading bellicose rhetoric regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons program. Many people, including some of my friends, have expressed concern about the possibility of a Korean war.
This article, however, argues that peace in Northeast Asia in fact depends on North Korea ultimately achieving the capability to launch nuclear strike on the continental US, in that the nuclear deterrence will dissuade both sides from launching an all-out war.
North Korea’s program and the US responses
In 2017, North Korea made significant strides in its nuclear weapons program, including one hydrogen bomb test and three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Although experts said the North Korean warheads have yet to demonstrate the ability to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, they believe the regime would crack this last hurdle at some point this year. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced in his New Year speech that the entire US territory is now within range of his nuclear weapons.
The US has so far responded to the weapon program through various means, including selling missile defense system to allies, holding military drills and slapping multiple rounds of sanctions against North Korea. Trump has also repeatedly exchanged bellicose words with North Korea, including threatening to meet Pyongyang’s threats with “fire and fury” and even to “totally destroy” the country. In response, North Korea has threatened to launch a missile strike against Guam.
However, the US’ counter measures and warmongering stand seem to have backfired, encouraging North Korea to accelerate the nuclear weapons program for self-preservation. With little sign of retreat on both sides, the public is concerned about the prospect of a Korean war.
A brief discussion on nuclear deterrence
In contrast to the public perceptions, North Korean nuclear weapons will in fact bring stability to Northeast Asia, because the weapon system reduces miscalculations and limits the scale of a conflict should it break out.
According to the late Kenneth Waltz, a celebrated scholar in the field of international relations, nuclear weapon reduces military miscalculations. Countries enter into wars with conventional weapons expecting a victory at a reasonable cost, but unfortunately they miscalculate sometimes. In contrast, nuclear weapon allows very limited room for miscalculations because unacceptable costs are guaranteed, brought by a nuclear retaliation.
During the Cold War, for instance, the military doctrine of mutual assured destruction between the US and the Soviet Union was an important factor to keep the two super powers from an all-out war, in that the two nuclear weapon possessors could not take the risk of own annihilation from the opponent’s nuclear retaliations.
That said, nuclear-armed countries did fight militarily once. Between May and July 1995, India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, briefly fought over the Kargil district of Kashmir. Notably though, when facing the acute prospect of widening conflicts with India, Pakistan eagerly sought the US help to defuse tensions. This brings out another argument of Waltz, that nuclear weapons lessen the intensity of wars between their possessors, who will try their best to avoid escalation into a potential devastating nuclear fallout.
North Korea just wants to survive
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is in fact defensive in nature, with the ultimate goal to preserve the Kim family regime. Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, once commented that Kim Jong-un “is a rational actor” who “wants to rule for a long time and die in his own bed”.
With this in mind, North Korea has little reasons to first use nuclear weapons against the US and its allies, who will certainly counter-attack with overwhelmingly superior conventional and nuclear capabilities. In other words, the nuclear strike, should it happen, will likely bring an end to the Kim regime. Equally, North Korea is unlikely to treat its nuclear arsenal as the strategic guarantee for starting a conventional war, because – as stated above – a nuclear-armed country will always be cautious of escalating a conflict into a nuclear fallout.
In fact, achievements on the nuclear weapon front appear to have boosted North Korea’s confidence that the US “cannot declare war” against it. This newfound sense of security seems to have encouraged Pyongyang to lower the military tensions in the Korean peninsula by agreeing to hold official talks with South Korea – the first time in two years. Some experts believe the move is part of Kim’s agenda to roll back the sanctions. Be that as it may, at least Pyongyang has sought to achieve this goal through diplomacy, despite being nuclear-armed.
America’s dwindling options
The US has run out of effective measures to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Sanctions have so far failed, while Trump’s threats of military solutions appear to have backfired by speeding up the program. Before long, the US will be forced to, publicly or not, acknowledge a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking the continental US, and as such to abandon any plans to engage with the regime militarily.
For the US, preventive warfare, launched to prevent an adversarial power from acquiring a capability to attack, against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is no longer practical. An example of preventive warfare was in 1981, when Israel successfully launched an air strike which destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor under construction, dashing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear dream.
The US, however, could hardly do the same against North Korea. Surgical air strikes against North Korea’s fairly matured nuclear weapons program are unlikely to completely destroy the arsenal because the US does not have full intelligence on the locations of all nuclear weapons, which some experts put the number at around 60. In this regard, the US Joints Chief of Staff has suggested that the only way to wipe out Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons is through a ground invasion. However, both options would likely bring grave retaliations from North Korea, inflicting unacceptable human and economic costs to the region, including the 100,000 Americans living there.
Notably, costs of fighting against North Korea will only be calculated increasingly in favor of Pyongyang, alongside its nuclear weapons program progressing further, which makes this potential conflict unthinkable. With Pyongyang’s missiles able to bring nuclear warheads to the US west coast, the calculation would become whether the US is willing to trade San Francisco for Pyongyang.
Under the Trump administration, however, people may believe the US may well act in defiance of what have been predicted above. In fact, North Korea probably shares the same concern as it once called Trump “incurably mentally deranged”. That said, although some of Trump’s policies may be deemed “unconventional”, we have not seen his use of the US military forces significantly more aggressively than his predecessors.
A nuclear-armed North Korea – better
Here is what would likely unfold in Northeast Asia this year: North Korea, as widely expected, will make additional missile tests to finally prove the atmosphere re-entry capability. Following this, the US would probably respond with still more sanctions and verbal threats. Commentators would then discuss, again, the possibility of a war.
However, we have argued that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will actually bring peace to Northeast Asia, due to the grave costs associated with an all-out war between nuclear powers. In other words, however counter-intuitive it may sound, we can actually feel relieved when we see the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
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