A System for Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Threat

September 7, 2017

4 min read

Louis Rene Beres

In Washington, the North Korean nuclear threat should not be approached off-handedly, peppered with throwaway lines and blatantly empty witticisms.

Rather, to suitably prepare for any impending nuclear eventuality in northeast Asia, the United States must determinedly approach the multi-layered problem from a systematic and disciplined perspective. This means, among other things, factoring into any properly coherent assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of principal decision-makers in Pyongyang and Washington; and (b) the intentional or unintentional intra-war behaviors of these same decision-makers.

More precisely, if a very basic “dichotomous” distinction is made regarding the rationality and intentionality variables, four logically possible and analytically useful scenarios will result. These scenarios could prove indispensable to U.S. policy and should be closely examined by President Donald Trump‘s most senior military planners and strategists.

Significantly, all four narratives or models could subsequently be nuanced or finessed by the introduction of certain presumptively important additional factors:

  1. Rational/Intentional  

This assumes that both Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un are fully rational (i.e., each values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences), and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of fully deliberate decision choices by one or both of them;

  1. Rational/Unintentional

Both Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un are fully rational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of certain unintended decision choices made by one or both of them;

  1. Irrational/Intentional

Either Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un, or both, are irrational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of still fully deliberate decision choices by one or both; and

  1. Irrational/Unintentional

Either Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un, or both, are irrational, and any nuclear exchange between the two leaders would necessarily be the outcome of certain unintended decisions made by one or both adversarial heads of state.

Nothing is more practical here than a good theory. Such comprehensive policy models could help guide President Trump and his counselors beyond otherwise vague or “seat-of-the-pants” appraisals of North Korean nuclear conflict possibilities.

In essence, the overwhelmingly complex security issues facing the United States should never be dealt with as matters of mere bombast (e.g., non-specific threats of “fire and fury“). At the same time, though this proposed pattern of more systematic inquiry suggests the most promising American approach to any North Korean nuclear crisis, nothing strictly scientific could ever be said concerning the probabilities of war.

The reason is textbook-simple. Science-based probabilities must always be drawn from the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. Here, clearly, there are no pertinent past events. Any nuclear crisis between these two asymmetrical enemy states (in size and power) would be unprecedented, or sui generis. It follows that President Trump and his advisors ought never become too confident about any expected North Korea crisis outcomes, or about their own relevant expertise.

By definition, no one at the Pentagon or the White House or anywhere else on earth is an expert on nuclear war. The significance of this cautionary observation simply cannot be overestimated.

There is more.

Capable U.S. strategic analysts must enhance their investigations by identifying an utter core distinction between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks ensuing from these two very different types of conflict are apt to vary considerably. Those analysts who would remain too completely focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could then vastly underestimate the cumulative nuclear threat to the United States from North Korea, and to its prospectively impacted allies.

One additional conceptual distinction must be mentioned and inserted into the American analytic “mix.” This is the tangible difference between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there remain certain identifiable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental.

Most critical here are those errors in calculation committed by either one or both sides — errors that could lead directly and inexorably to a nuclear conflict. The most blatant example would be misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that could emerge during the course of any particular crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would likely stem from the expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage during any foreseeable competition in risk-taking.

For a start in this indispensable theorizing, American analysts will need to pinpoint and conceptualize all vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear war, inadvertent nuclear war, and accidental nuclear war.

There will then need to be related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s core decision-making structure. Correspondingly, a potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a visible strategy of “feigned irrationality” that backfires. A pretending Kim Jung-Un who had to “successfully” convinced American counterparts of his irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable U.S. military preemption.

“Played” in the other direction, a North Korean leadership that begins to take seriously US President Trump’s self-praising unpredictability could sometimes be frightened into striking first itself. In this connection, all U.S. strategists charged with fashioning an optimal American posture vis-à-vis North Korea should carefully recall Carl von Clausewitz’s classical caution (in “On War”) concerning “friction.” This is, of course, the unerringly vital difference between “war on paper,” and “war as it actually is.”

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Hill

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