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The US Must Maintain Nuclear Deterrence, Not Try to Disarm North Korea

avatar by Louis René Beres

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The Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea. Photo: Screenshot /

“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)

President Donald Trump’s latest national security adviser, John Bolton, urges that the US accept nothing less than “complete denuclearization” of North Korea. While an impressively tough-sounding demand, it is, by its very nature, destined to fail. Indeed, one need not be a disciplined nuclear strategist or law professor to recognize any such demand as wholly unrealistic.

Why? Because it simply makes no sense.

Instead, Mr. Trump, when he meets with Kim Jong-un, should focus only on reasonable goals. This means, in essence, those identifiable concessions that his opposite number in Pyongyang might still be expected to consider. To continue to expect that Kim will somehow surrender his only residually meaningful source of national and international power is foolhardy by any serious measure.

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Ultimately, for America and for its several affected allies, upcoming negotiations with North Korea must be oriented toward struggles of “mind over mind,” not merely of mind over matter.

During these diplomatic struggles, which ought to be less about curtailing any specific North Korean weapons systems than about diminishing overall enemy threats, each side, at least as long as it remains recognizably rational, will be seeking “escalation dominance.” Simultaneously, Washington and Pyongyang will each strive for this key objective without needlessly  endangering its own prospects for national security — and (ultimately) for survival.

If the American side should sometime calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, various incentives to undertake a military preemption could become compelling. This is the case even if the anticipated costs of any such defensive first-strike would be overwhelming. At the same time, allowing the United States to ever actually reach such an “all or nothing” set of choices would reveal exceedingly marginal American  diplomacy.

Although it is plausible that a US preemption against North Korean hard targets might be correctly claimed by certain American lawyers as “anticipatory self-defense,” any such claim would be narrowly legalistic and substantively moot.

After all, what could it mean to be “correct” at the vastly more tangible cost of unimaginably high fatalities? Of what conceivable benefit could it be for the United States to correctly claim that its defensive first strike was fully lawful, but then suffer grievously destructive enemy retaliations?

It’s a rhetorical question. What is needed, going forward, is the creation of a predictably stable nuclear deterrence regime between Washington and Pyongyang, one that would take into proper account the presumptive expectations of both Moscow and Beijing.

Should this deterrence regime be allowed to fail — and should Trump sometime still decide to undertake certain selective military actions against North Korea — the general contours of  Kim’s response would be easy to project. Pyongyang, having no conceivably logical alternative to launching several possible forms of armed reprisal, could strike (a) the American homeland; (b) American military forces in the region; and/or (c) assorted other targets in Guam, Japan, or South Korea.

Whatever North Korea’s preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim’s retaliatory blow would likely be designed so as not to elicit any unacceptably massive (possibly even nuclear) American counter-retaliations. But any such carefully-reasoned conclusion by Kim would depend, upon (1) the Korean dictator’s own willing adherence to rational decision-making; and (2) the largely unpredictable synergies between Kim’s determined level of rationality and the reciprocally rational calculations of Trump. By definition, such synergies — or what the generals would prefer to call “force multipliers” — could produce instability outcomes that are substantially more insidious than the mere additive sum of their respective “parts.”

If, perhaps on Bolton’s express recommendation, President Trump should ever decide to launch a conventional preemptive attack — a non-nuclear defensive first-strike — the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be “disproportionate.” In that prospectively chaotic case, one deeply rife with unprecedented potential for accelerating competitions in participant risk-taking, the introduction of nuclear weapons into an already-volatile mix might not be excluded.

If, on the other hand, President Trump’s defensive first strike against North Korea were non-nuclear and dramatically less than massive, a rational  adversary in Pyongyang might then determine that his chosen reprisal should be correspondingly “limited.” But if  Mr. Trump’s consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the expected response from Kim could still be some form of all out retaliation.

Any such unanticipated North Korean response, whether nuclear or  non-nuclear, would be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of US, South Korean, and/or Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, of course, it could inflict enormous harms.

Even if it is being played by only rational adversaries, any advancing strategic “game” between Washington and Pyongyang will demand each player to strive relentlessly for “escalation dominance.” Moreover, in the manifestly unpracticed dynamics of  any such rivalry, the daunting prospect of a mutual catastrophe could quite suddenly emerge. Looking ahead, this mutually unwanted outcome could be produced in more-or-less unexpected increments of escalation by one or both of the two national players.

These are serious and challenging intellectual problems — not just fodder for shallow propagandists or marketing specialists in Washington. To be sure, it’s all bewilderingly complex, and unprecedented. It follows, in facing off against each other for “escalation dominance,” and even under the most reassuring assumptions of  bilateral rationality, both Trump and Kim would have to prepare themselves with endlessly possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and literally measureless nuances of cyber-defense/cyber-war.

Is such scrupulous preparation something we should realistically expect?

There is one final reminder for the American president and his national security adviser. Both will need to bear in mind that it is always scientific nonsense to assign mathematical probabilities to unique events. Because an authentic nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States would represent precisely such a singular event — one with utterly unforeseeable intersections, interactions, and synergies — no one can predict with any serious degrees of accuracy whether such a conflict (even such a seemingly asymmetrical conflict) would be more or less likely.

Should President Trump ever decide to strike North Korea preemptively on the erroneously optimistic assumption that his generals have “got everything covered,” he would need to be reminded of the classic warning offered by Carl von Clausewitz. Long before military planners could ever even have imagined a nuclear war, the insightful Prussian general and strategist had cautioned leaders in his classic — On War — about “friction,” or “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.” Accordingly, nuclear brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang would necessarily take place in uncharted waters, and require both participating leaders to steer a consistently steady course between escalation dominance and national survival.

Whether this hideously difficult requirement could actually be met is still anyone’s guess.

Nuclear diplomacy is not a casino game. It’s not about bluffing in real estate transactions. It is a game that America’s president must sometime be prepared to play with North Korean leaders; inevitably, it must be a complex contest of strategy, and never one of mere chance.

In any such game where there exists certain overriding common interests between the players (most notably, here, national survival), choosing the best course of action will  ultimately depend upon what Mr. Trump can expect from the other side. In this bewildering game of interdependent decision-making — a largely unpredictable clash of private wills that obligates a continuous recalculation of pertinent risks — it would be delusionary (1) to expect North Korean denuclearization to mean anything more than a willingness to halt nuclear testing; or (2) to seriously consider an American preemption against an already-nuclear foe.

Going forward, American security interests should be focused on more modest but still-realistic movements toward stable nuclear deterrence. Such intelligence-based initiatives would need to take into close account the presumed expectations of Russia and China. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with the United States getting ready to “play” nuclear strategy when it comes to North Korea, but the game must always be played at multiple intersecting levels, and with more than  a modicum of serious intellect.

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