In just a few days the world might be as close to seeing the intentional use of nuclear weapons as it was in 1962. Of course, the stakes are not nearly so high now as they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rest easy, readers of The Board, a global scale exchange is simply not going to happen. But things could still get horrifyingly messy even in a small exchange. Another big difference between now and ’62 is that back during the Crisis, both nations involved had reasonable, well-informed, and strong leadership. Today, I’m not so sure either side in the current crisis in North Korea is playing with a full deck.
As things stand as of this Thursday night, North Korea is looking like the more reasonable party in this dispute. North Korea has issued three official threats, each of which is consistent with sound policy concerning the use of nuclear weapons for deterrence and self-defense. These threats began with vague statements about general nuclear policy and then moved to more specific threats as the situation has developed over the last few days. Let’s take a look at some official statements in the order they were made.
On 9 April the Foreign Ministry issued an official report commenting on the recent US missile strike against Syria. Quote comes from this source:
Some forces are loud-mouthed that the recent U.S. military attack on Syria is an action of warning us but we are not frightened by it,” the report said, adding that the North’s “tremendous military muscle with a nuclear force as its pivot” will foil any aggression by the U.S.
“We will bolster up in every way our capability for self-defense to cope with the U.S. evermore reckless moves for a war and defend ourselves with our own force
OK, that sounds reasonable enough. North Korea is simply pointing out that this kind of intervention is exactly the kind of reason that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons. Whatever you think of North Korea, and I’m certainly no fan, this statement is simply classic deterrence theory.
This threat is non-specific, a general statement of capabilities. There no statements about how North Korea might respond to any specific US actions. This would change very soon.
By 12 April after the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike force was well underway to Korean waters to bolster US, South Korean, and Japanese forces already engaged in scheduled joint training exercises North Korea added some clarifications. The government emphasized the statement in the earlier Foreign Ministry report that North Korea will respond with “whatever methods the US wants to take.”
Again, this is quite sound policy. North Korea is suggesting that they will not use nuclear weapons. This places the US in the less politically favorable position. It assigns responsibility for outcomes to the US.
Of course, things were made much more complicated by the release of commercial satellite images that showed large amounts of concealed equipment being moved to North Korea’s Punggye-ri Test Site. This activity has been going on since late March. Here’s how the site looked yesterday.
Also, information has been leaked that the US is considering a conventional strike to disrupt potential nuclear tests. I do not know whether these leaks are intentional or not. Probably not.
The Board’s Assessment:
North Korea now has the stronger position. North Korea has not attacked anyone in any way and is not threatening to do so unless attacked. The US can’t bomb North Korea simply out of disapproval and maintain a strong political position internationally. And remember, if the US really is going to bomb Punggye-ri, it needs to hit hard. Recent experience in Syria has shown that safely lobbing in a few tens of cruise missiles doesn’t always work. There are plenty US conventional assets in the area to completely level Punggye-ri, but this would require using many aircraft, putting pilots at risk of being taken prisoner. The US cannot afford a POW crisis over such low stakes.
Of course, such risks could be lessened with an all out attack on North Korea’s air defenses, but this would surely prompt a robust response from North Korea. Again, the US should not take such risks merely to register what amounts to disapproval.
And remember, North Korea is acting in a very reasonable and consistent way, but we really don’t have any idea what North Korea’s internal command structure is like. The “whatever methods” statement in “Threat #2” sound’s like North Korea would not use nuclear weapons unless attacked with them. However, the last time there was a buildup of US forces in South Korea and a joint training exercise around the same time as a North Korean nuclear test, which was just last October, North Korean officials warned that they would respond with nuclear weapons if they had intelligence that the US was preparing for an immediate nuclear strike. This is called “Launch on Warning” in the study of nuclear strategy, and is not an unreasonable policy. Most nuclear armed nations, including the US, have had a launch on warning policy. However, it’s clear that while launch on warning is not wrong, it is certainly very dangerous. Given how little is known about North Korea’s command and control procedures, an accidental nuclear exchange is somewhat likely.
If there’s a nuclear exchange in the upcoming days, it will be an accidental blunder rather than an intentional blunder. Sure, we’re dealing with Kim and Trump, which ups the odds on intentional actions, but The Board always bets on accidents.
Any readers have any scenarios they are concerned about? The comment section is here for you.