America and North Korea: Seeking Plausible Nuclear Objectives

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

March 31, 2021

“Deterrence is concerned with influencing the choices that another party will make, and doing it by influencing his expectations of how we will behave.”

Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960)

Though America’s current president began on a meaningfully higher analytic plane than did his predecessor, Joe Biden still seeks “denuclearization” for North Korea. The problem with such a stubbornly ambitious objective should be easy to recognize: Getting Pyongyang to agree to a process of its own conspicuous power diminution is naïve and fanciful. Prima facie, a nuclear force represents the celebrated core of Kim Jong Un’s claim to global influence and international status. Why, then, should Kim be expected to surrender such an indispensable force for inherently less valuable national assets?

On North Korea, it is high time for major US policy changes. Here, Washington will need to systematically re-fashion its pertinent strategies. But what should President Biden actually do about fixing such an urgent and seemingly intractable problem? More precisely, what should represent his feasible but still reasonable goals in managing this unsteady theatre of possible nuclear war?

There is a convincing answer. In essence, immediately, the United States should more explicitly embrace the cumulatively realistic and gainful expectations of stable nuclear deterrence. To be sure, such an embrace could appear distressingly less than triumphant, but appearances are not what will prove genuinely important.

During the last week of March 2021, Kim Jong Un test-fired North Korea’s latest round of ballistic missiles. While Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and infrastructures are patently less powerful than America’s, they are nonetheless capable of bringing grievously unacceptable harms to other countries. These prospectively vulnerable states include not only American allies Japan and South Korea, but also the United States itself.

Prudence will have manifolds expressions. For one thing, US President Joe Biden should avoid any exaggerations of America’s military power advantage and/or risk-taking calculus. Such forms of bravado could gratuitously undermine rather than augment this country’s relevant deterrence posture.

There will be additional difficulties. American military planners will likely remain limited in their capacity to learn from historical precedent. Even in the vastly more rational and fact-driven “Biden era,” preventing a nuclear war with North Korea should never again become a narrowly visceral political process. To make a point that was never understood by former US President Donald J. Trump, the primary battlefield of any future war, especially a nuclear war, will have to be intellectual.

For President Joe Biden, on all nuclear fronts, caution should become the dominant watchword. There are no “go to” experts on the subject of a nuclear war, Ipso facto, because there has never been such a war, there can be no objective way for American planners to ever ascertain the mathematical probabilities of any US-North Korea nuclear conflict. Similar observations could be made about the expected harms or disutilities of such a conflict.

Assuredly, for the United States, this is not the time for any overweening pride or hubris. When a potentially belligerent path has never been taken before, it is incumbent for the “traveler” (here the United States) to advance purposefully and deliberatively. Deterrence of Pyongyang will need to be enhanced, and bravado could only weaken deterrence.

There is more. In these strategic matters, genuine erudition should again assume its proper place in Washington. Instead of the previous American administration’s con men and mountebanks, Joe Biden should follow the intellectual lead of only serious thinkers and accomplished scholars

The new US president will also have to continuously bear in mind that many strategic developments throughout Asia will be impacted by “Cold War II.” This sobering image references an ongoing and primary oppositional stance with Russia, and – more or less derivatively – with China. Ironically, up until now, at least with particular reference to Russia, Cold War II has proved to be less of a determinative factor. This is because Donald J. Trump generally behaved not as an independent American leader, but as the all-too witting lapdog and subordinate of Vladimir Putin.

The calculable risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang (or between Pyongyang and South Korea) will depend upon many different factors. Of absolutely primary significance will be whether such a conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental. It is with this precise tri-furcation that US analysts should promptly begin their strategic inquiries and applications.

Whatever the particular cause, tangible calculations will have to include presumed North Korean conflict orientations to regional American allies, not just to the United States. Such inclusion, in turn, will have to factor in China. Focus should not be on the crude scapegoating favored by Donald Trump, but on suitably verifiable expressions of Beijing’s global power position.

And what about an accidental nuclear war? By definition, any such conflict between the US and North Korea would be unintentional or inadvertent, but – reciprocally – not all unintentional nuclear wars would be the consequence of accident. Inter alia, an unintentional nuclear war could sometime be the result of decisional miscalculation or irrationality, and be committed by either one or both of the two contending sides.

There is more.  Facing future North Korean moves and negotiations, it will become increasingly necessary that competent US policy analysts examine various dynamic configurations of all foreseeable nuclear risk. When expressed in the standard game-theoretic accents of formal military planning, these shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time. They might also arise suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent diffusiveness and in multiple or overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

Always, these examinations must be handled as intellectual tasks, not political ones. To understand variously determinative “cascades” will require carefully-honed and formidable analytic skills. All this will require manifestly rare combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and variously demonstrated capacities to perform advanced dialectical thinking. This points to a task that will require thinkers who are as comfortable elucidating assorted prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with the more expressly technical aspects of modern strategic planning.

Deep understandings will demand crucial bifurcations. Currently most worrisome is that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is likely paying sufficient attention to the abundant risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point in their ongoing bilateral relations, each president would seem to assume the other’s decision-making rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual assumption, it would make no calculable sense for either side to negotiate any further nuclear security accommodations with the other.

For President Biden, stable and viable deterrence, not Pyongyang’s “denuclearization,” must become the overriding US strategic goal vis-à-vis North Korea. This complex goal remains contingent upon certain basic assumptions regarding enemy rationality. To this point, even more directly, viable nuclear deterrence will require observably rational decision-makers on both sides.

There is more. Deterrence credibility is not automatically linked to the presumed severity of any promised retaliatory harms. In the past, as part of his escalating bravado detached from any secure intellectual moorings, Donald Trump favored such meaningless threats as “complete annihilation” or “total destruction.” Significantly, no such shallow preference ever stood a chance of meeting America’s many-sided security goals. What might once have sounded reasonable or “tough” to an irremediably anti-intellectual American president could only have reduced US nuclear deterrent persuasiveness.

At some point, of course, American national security could come to depend once again on presumptively viable combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. But settling upon any such untested combinations would lack decisional input from any tangible or quantifiable historical evidence, and could be existentially risky. In the conceivably worst case, the offensive military element would entail a narrowly situational preemption – that is, a defensive first strike.

At that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would have become moot.

At that portentous point, there could remain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a nuclear North Korea could still be rational.

In Washington’s nuclear relations with Pyongyang, none of these decisions should be made casually or without substantive intellectual foundations. More precisely, with the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, determining optimal US policy combinations from one crisis to another could very quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive, the fact that the United States is recognizably “more powerful” than North Korea could prove to be largely irrelevant.

Even worse, it could sometime become the underlying cause of actual military nuclear engagement between the two countries.

Several years ago, Donald Trump bragged that though both he and Kim had a nuclear “button,” his carried a tangible advantage: “My button is bigger than his button.” In such complex matters of national nuclear strategy, however, size might not matter. In certain conceivable matters of strategic nuclear deterrence, even a seemingly “weaker” nuclear force could still inflict unacceptable harms. In these circumstances, the weaker party could remain fully capable of wreaking “assuredly destructive” retaliations.

In all such foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain various overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law, the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” This juridical correctness would apply only if the American side could argue persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was recognizably “imminent in point of time.”

 “Imminence” is required by the authoritative standards of international law – that is, by criteria established and codified after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.” Today, in the infinitely perplexing nuclear age, precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract or densely problematic. What then?

For the time being, it seems plausible that Kim Jong Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, moreover, Kim is assumed to be technically rational, and remains subject to US nuclear deterrence. But it could still become important for any negotiating American president to distinguish accurately between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and other instances of pretended irrationality.

 Although neither side would ever likely seek a shooting war, especially if both adversaries were fully rational, either or both heads of state could still commit catastrophic errors in rendering strategic choices. Plausibly, such errors would represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these sorts of prospectively crucial errors are more apt to occur in circumstances where one or both presidents had mistakenly chosen to reignite gratuitous exclamations of belligerent  bravado.

An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of misunderstandings or miscalculations between rational national leaders, but as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistic) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions, or of certain “hacking”-type interventions. Ominously, going forward, these interventions could include unprecedented intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

What essential “nuclear bargaining” dynamics now need to be studied? In any crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will expectedly strive to maximize two overriding goals at the same time. These objectives are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired levels of “escalation dominance” without sacrificing any vital national security obligations.

This second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or existential harms.

What is the strategic “bottom line” for Joe Biden? All underlying issues of adversarial contention between Washington and Pyongyang are enormously complicated and subject to irremediable failure. Faced with such daunting complexities – both operational and legal- each side must proceed warily. Any aggressive over-confidence by President Biden and/or President Kim ought to be consciously avoided. Above all, Biden policies should point convincingly to realistic or still-achievable goals. Although it would be ideal were Kim to accept fully non-nuclear status, this is not yet a world for ideal solutions.

Whatever Joe Biden’s in-principle preferences, this country’s core goals should never include North Korean denuclearization. Soon, for this president, creating and sustaining stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea will represent the only reasonable game in town. It follows that preparing to play this “game” effectively and expeditiously is now an overriding US national priority.

In his great classic, Gallic War, Julius Caesar comments: “Men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe.” Understood in terms of current US foreign policy toward North Korean nuclearization, this observation suggests the futility of believing that Pyongyang would ever exchange some portion of its nuclear armaments for sanctions relief or monetary reward. To respond realistically and capably to Kim Jong Un’s accelerating expansion of ballistic missile capabilities, Washington’s correct response should now be based upon a harsh reality that Americans generally don’t “want to believe.” This reality is that superficial Trump-type focusing on leadership personalities or “attitude” inevitably “miss the point.”

This “point” is that US strategic policies vis-à-vis North Korea should emphasize the centrality of stable nuclear deterrence, not “denuclearization.”  Only such American policies could point the way toward realistic nuclear power management in northeast Asia. In the end, these are all fundamentally intellectual issues, and must be handled accordingly.