North Korea’s Still-Expanding Nuclearization: The Challenge For President-Elect Joseph Biden

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

December 16, 2020

The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature, no matter whom….

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man  (1955)

By the time Donald J. Trump  leaves office next month, the United States will have become more seriously imperiled on at least two primary fronts, pathologic/biologic (pandemic disease) and strategic. At the forefront of America’ still-advancing strategic vulnerabilities will be those risks associated more-or-less directly with North Korean nuclearization. During the generally dissembling Trump  presidency, these serious risks did not diminish.

Continuously, they increased or accelerated.

The perils are plain. In essence, for incoming US president Joseph Biden, the  nuclear crisis with North Korea is stubbornly persistent and anything but over. Before the new American  leader could successfully limit Pyongyang’s determined capacity to expand even more aggressively with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs –  a capacity unhindered by his predecessor’s undisguised policy incoherence –  Mr. Biden’s presumptively more capable advisors will need to “save the day.”

What exactly shall be required of these newly-appointed counselors and officials? To begin, any now eleventh-hour rescue would need to be based upon a much greater presidential appreciation of political and military complexities, including multiple “synergies” that were conspicuously overlooked by Donald J. Trump.  Though Mr. Trump seemingly believed that he had miraculously solved the North Korea problem by “falling in love” with Kim Jung Un (and, reciprocally, Kim with him), this “romantic” solution was never the product of any genuine thought.

In all synergistic intersections, by definition, the “whole” of any particular outcome must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” In such challenging analytic matters, US policy-making must be kept suitably distant from any distracting considerations founded upon wishful thinking or extravagant hope. To recall the Greek historian Thucydides’ summary assessment of the Peloponnesian War: “Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on just one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined….”

How should the Biden administration proceed on these intersecting fronts? The ancient Greeks had a coherent view. They always regarded war and war-planning as a daunting challenge of “mind over mind.” Effectively anticipating the much later writings of Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz (On War), they typically based both their tactical and operational policies upon a coherent body of  dialectical “conversations.” Here, it was already understood, the primary and preeminent battlefield would have to be carefully conceptualized before the onset of actual troop movements/engagements.

Correspondingly, or reciprocally, any foreseeable victory in such anticipated engagements would have to follow a mind-based articulation of strategic doctrine.

In  such matters, theory is indispensable. Always, the world, like the myriad individual human bodies who comprise it, must be recognized as a system. Among the most tangible implications of this elucidating metaphor, any more-or-less major conventional conflict in northeast Asia could heighten the destabilizing prospects of  international conflicts elsewhere, whether immediately or incrementally.

These prospects could include even a regional nuclear war.

There is more. Distressingly salient risks could sometime be enlarged by assorted American searches for a no-longer plausible outcome. An example of such a sorely mistaken search would be one directed toward some meaningful forms of  “victory.”

Though non-traditional, there is good reason for such a timely warning. This observation about “victory” is persuasive, at least in part, because the core meanings of victory and defeat have been changing dramatically. These are no longer the same meanings as those famously offered by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’ classic On War (1832).

In most prospectively identifiable wars between nation-states, there are no longer any readily confirmable criteria of demarcation between victory and defeat. Even a so-called “victory” on an actual field of battle might not in any tangible  or calculable way reduce worrisome security threats to the American homeland. More precisely, such grave threats, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could conceivably include various sub-state aggressions (terrorism) and/or widening attacks upon regional and/or non-regional US allies.

Once acknowledged as distinct foreign-policy objective, any declared US search for “victory” over North Korea could create a corrosively lethal escalatory dynamic with Pyongyang, one from which Washington could no longer expect any derivative military advantages. This expectedly injurious creation could take place in unanticipated increments, or instead, quite suddenly, or as an unexpected “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attack. In the foreseeable worst case, this unwitting US forfeiture of “escalation dominance” would signify irreversible American losses, including chaotic conditions that would create tens or even hundreds of thousands of prompt fatalities and still larger numbers of latent cancer deaths.

It follows, inter alia, that a great deal of specificity must be examined and taken into account  by incoming US President Joe Biden’s pertinent senior counselors. In a world where history and science could somehow regain their proper pride of place, an American president could usefully acknowledge that because nation-states no longer declare wars formally, or generally enter into any legally binding war-termination agreements , the application of traditional criteria of  “war winning” to interstate conflicts would no longer make legal sense. Plausibly, too, in the vastly complicated matters at hand for America’s new president, ascertainable benefits might not necessarily lie in traditional forms of military expertise.

Exactly how much applicable experience could Mr. Biden’s generals have garnered in starting, managing or ending a nuclear war? How much might the president and his senior commanders simply see what they would want to see, including perhaps a promising prospect of military preemption.  Here they should recall the ancient but still relevant observation of Julius Caesar at Chapter 18 of Caesar’s Gallic War: “…men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe….”

In these nuclear times, especially, any such selective perceptions could prove markedly and irremediably mistaken. Nonetheless, at least in principle, an American president could still benefit from a preemption against an already nuclear North Korea in certain circumstances: To wit, there are identifiably conceivable circumstances where refraining from striking first would allow North Korea to implement certain additional protective measures. Expressly designed to guard against preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of various “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with recognizable pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, increasingly, that the US could find itself incrementally endangered by certain steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a preemption. Optimally, the United States under President Biden would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks launched against its own or allied armaments/ populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington could still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective.

This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes    strikes likely occasioned by the antecedent failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

All things considered, it is certainly reasonable to expect that President Biden’s generals would have no genuinely better understanding than their commander-in-chief about what precise security issues are ultimately at stake or exactly how pertinent major goals should be maximized. This candid but incontestable expectation by no means represents any ad hominem or narrowly gratuitous criticism of  “the generals,” but rather a dispassionate analytic reflection on the military uniqueness of nuclear conflict. In brief, there have been no nuclear wars, and there exist no experts on nuclear warfare.


This sobering conclusion is most urgently compelling in regard to the myriad complexities of any still-impending two-power nuclear competition: (1) where there would exist substantial asymmetries in relative military power position; and (2) where the “weaker” (North Korean) side could still maintain a verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” (American) side.

America’s incoming president, unlike his predecessor, ought to be sufficiently well-grounded in science and logic. Although rarely acknowledged, no truly reliable probability estimations can ever be undertaken in regard to unprecedented situations. In science, authentic probability judgments must be based upon the carefully calculated frequency of relevant past events. Incontrovertibly (and fortunately, of course), regarding a nuclear war, there have been no such past events.

These events would be unique or sui generis. The American bombings of Japan in August 1945 did not constitute a nuclear war. They were “only” examples of atomic weapons use during a conventional war.

President Biden’s strategic advisors must take heed. This sort of “behind-the-news” analytic assessment is not reasonably controversial. Not only has there never been a nuclear war, there have never been the future sorts of asymmetrical nuclear standoffs most apt to arise sometime between Washington and Pyongyang. 

Because there can never be any foreseeable or informed scientific assessments of probable war outcomes in this particular and volatile Asian “theatre,” US President Joe Biden should approach any pertinent war scenarios very soberly, with recognizable humility (the ancient Greek philosophers would be warning here against “hubris”) and especially with considerable war-reluctance.

Recalling the “good old days,” which extend well into the twentieth-century, nation-states have generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon a relevant adversary’s cities and infrastructures. In those earlier days of more traditional doctrinal arrangements concerning war and peace, any individual country’s demonstrated capacity to “win” was necessarily and understandably prior to achieving a needed capacity to destroy. An appropriate and well-known example to US military thinkers at such venerable institutions as the US Army War College or West Point would be the case of Persia and Greece at the long-studied 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae. Today, unlike what seemingly took place at Thermopylae, a state enemy needn’t first be able to defeat American armies in order to inflict grievous harms on the United States. At a minimum, such an enemy could enlist variously destructive proxy forces, such as  bio-terrorist surrogates.

For President Biden and his counselors, there is still some prospectively “good news.” Accordingly, the United States needn’t be able to win a particular conflict in order to credibly threaten  a significant foe (deterrence) or to inflict upon such an enemy considerable retaliatory harms. What this “good news” means today, inter alia, is that the capacity to deter is not necessarily identical to the capacity to win. Reciprocally, for the new American president’s defense counselors, the principal war-planning or war-deterring lesson of any such ongoing transformations warrants serious study.

What will matter here is not “attitude” (previous President Donald Trump’s self-described “ace in the hole”),  but intellectual preparation.

What matters most, going forward, will be a capacity to win bewilderingly complex struggles of “mind over mind,” not just ad hoc or visceral contests of “mind over matter.”

In time, critical strategy lessons could apply beyond the specifically North Korean nuclear issue.

There are also various relevant points of law. This is because jurisprudence has its own proper place in all such strategic calculations. Specifically, in terms of applicable law, winning and losing may  no longer mean very much for successful strategic planning. This consequential devaluation of victory and defeat should also be  increasingly obvious with regard to America’s seemingly-latent wars on terror. More precisely, the pertinent conflict issues will need to be examined within continuously transforming US military plans and objectives regarding Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and other places.

Involved here would be assorted changes in Israel’s nuclear strategy and also that country’s still-expanding concerns with Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian statehood.”

Prima facie, the U.S. can never meaningfully “win” any wars with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc., in part because its leaders could never know for certain whether a presumptively zero-sum conflict with virulent sub-state or “hybrid” adversaries was verifiably “over.” In this specific connection, a “hybrid” enemy would  refer to any adversary of Israel that combines state and sub-state elements in variously changing ratios of composition.

There is still more for the incoming American president to consider.  Operationally, winning and losing are now either fully extraneous to America’s indispensable collective interests, or, in those foreseeable cases where “victory” might still be expressed as a high-priority national objective, overwhelmingly harmful. In principle, and also ironically, a narrowly static orientation to “winning” could sometime lead the United States toward demonstrably huge and irreversible losses via critical American misjudgments on “escalation dominance.”Above all, under President Joe Biden, U.S. military posture should cease being shaped according to the starkly barren expectations of clamorous clichés or irrelevant analogies. 

This calculated posture ought always be based upon the most expressly disciplined theses and antitheses of dialectical strategic thought, a proven pattern of analysis that goes discernibly back to Plato and his illustrative dialogues.

Finally, America’s new president and his military planners could look usefully to the East. Long ago, famed Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had reasoned simply: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current U.S. national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea and also other potential nuclear adversaries, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now openly emphasize deterrence rather than victory. Moreover, this is not a time to continue presidential threats about the size of national “buttons.” President Trump, we may recall, once said of Kim Jung Un, “He also has a button, but my button is bigger than his button.”

At the same time, any such necessary discontinuance should remain self-consciously connected to the most stringent requirements of conducting (maintaining control over) military escalations.

If, going forward, these requirements were somehow minimized or disregarded, a resultant regional conflict could have decisive “spillover” implications for other nation-states and for other parts of the wider world. Once again, assorted elements of chaos notwithstanding, world politics and world military processes are always expressive of an underlying system. This elucidating characterization must lie continuously at the core of any coherent US strategic doctrine. 

Before these systemic connections can be understood and assessed, however, the new US president must realize fully that the complicated logic of strategic nuclear calculations demands a discrete and capably nuanced genre of decision-making, one that calls for very considerable intellectual refinement in extremis atomicum. As an example, casually expecting an American president to convincingly leverage Chinese and Russian sanctions on behalf of the United States will miss at least two vital and intersecting points: (1) the regime in Pyongyang will never back down on its overall plan for nuclearization, however severe such sanctions might seemingly become; and (2) counting upon meaningful sanctions from Beijing or Moscow would become inherently problematic for President Biden, as both China and Russia remain more substantially worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about any possible future dangers arising from Pyongyang.

In world politics, as in law, truth is exculpatory.  Like it or not, a nuclear North Korea is a fait accompli. Soon, President Biden should focus instead upon creating stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea (a) for the obvious benefit of the United States; (b) for the benefit of its directly vulnerable allies in South Korea and Japan; and (c) for the benefit of its indirectly vulnerable allies elsewhere, including Israel in the still-dissembling Middle East.

However inconspicuous, these important allies remain an integral component of the same organic world system; they can never be helpfully separated from expectedly palpable consequences of an American geopolitical posture.

“The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says the 20th century French Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….” Nowhere is this core interrelatedness more obvious or more potentially consequential than in the continuing matter of nuclear North Korea and US foreign policy decision-making. This urgent threat will not subside or disappear on its own. Immediately, it will be the new US president’s continuing responsibility to understand all relevant American security obligations and also their ensuing complications.

In accepting this grave responsibility, it would prove especially wise for the new US president to bear in mind the ancient Funeral Speech warning of Pericles. As recalled most famously by Thucydides: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies are our own mistakes.” In the best of all possible worlds, an American president could finally prepare to go beyond Realpoliitk and its endlessly belligerent nationalism – a perpetually futile dynamic that has never succeeded – but the world is not yet ready for any such indispensable transformation.

If, however, that time should arrive sometime in the future, President Biden’s key task will be to focus upon the essential interrelatedness or “oneness” of all world politics. Just as each individual human being, the microcosm, is necessarily comprised of interlocking biological systems, world politics, the macrocosm, is made up of variously constituent national and sub-national systems. In both examples, microcosm and macrocosm, survival will require more reliable and generalized patterns of “cooperation” between systems. Such patterns are already discoverable, to be sure, but not until there  has first been a more pronounced US presidential embrace of Reason, Science, History and Law.

Featured photo of the Monument to Party Founding (당창건기념탑), Pyongyang, North Korea.


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue.  He is the author of twelve major books in the field, most recently:  Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) (2nd. ed., 2018).