This is a re-post of something I wrote last month for The National Interest on US adaption to other countries’ nuclearization. In short, we adapted badly at first – Cuba – and then learned to live with proliferation even though we didn’t like it and did the best we could to halt it.
A repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis over North Korea is what I fear most from the US toward North Korea in the next five or ten years. We will decide that North Korea is too batty and gangsterish to trust with nuclear weapons, and we’ll pick a fight. How the North Koreans will react – will they believe China will stand with them? – nobody knows. The Soviets felt that missilizing Cuba evened the score with the US which could easily strike the USSR at the time. The North will think the same – that they are entitled to nuclear deterrence for national security, which perception a Cuban-style crisis will reinforce in them. Then will come a showdown.
But most people agree North Korea will never give up its nukes, and most people also agree that North Korea is quite rational. So it is quite unlikely that North Korea will launch a nuclear ICBM at the US without provocation. It sucks that North Korea has nukes, but we have learned to live with Soviet/Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nukes. The big question is can we live with NK nukes when so many Americans seem to think the North Koreans are insane.
The full essay follows the jump:
It is increasingly clear that North Korea is driving toward a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which could strike the America homeland. A central question for war and peace in East Asia then, is how the Americans will respond if or, more likely at this point, when North Korea achieves this capability.
America’s Tough Historical Reactions
History suggests a tough American response. Major strategic changes tend to provoke an American effort. In 1962, the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the US response brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Rather than reading the Cuban missiles as Soviet equality with the US ability to strike the Soviet homeland (as the Kremlin read the move), the Kennedy administration read the emplacement as a major challenge which even war would be worth risking to roll back.
It is easy to imagine a similar American response to a North Korean nuclear ICBM. The North is practically a comic book villain in American popular opinion and culture. In the last few years, North Korea invaded the United States (twice), captured the White House, and produced a take-over-world Bond villain. In the war-scare of this spring, 53% of Americans supported striking North Korea to stop its nuclear program, even though it does not even have the ability to hit the US now. It is easy to see that already-majoritarian number rising as a North Korean ICBM comes into view.
Two other examples leap to mind: In 1941, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor ignited a massive American military effort that ended with nuclear attack on Japan. Similarly, the 9/11 surprise attack lead to enormous, still continuing American military exertion in the Middle East. A North Korean nuclear capability to strike the US homeland might well be read as giving it just such a surprise attack capability given how dismally Americans view North Korea (86% unfavorability). A North Korea capable of nuking the US homeland would almost certainly be read by hawks in Congress, neoconservatives, and much of the public as a major threat, possibly justifying preventative attack.
Learning to Live with a North Korean Nuclear Weapon
I have argued before in these pages that North Korea probably does not want to attack the United States. Its officials have repeatedly told the world that it seeks nuclear weapons to prevent American-led regime change on the model of Iraq or Libya. And indeed, the US is a pretty obvious threat to the North Korean leadership. The US has sought to isolate North Korea for decades, threatened it with a major war in 1994, placed it on an ‘axis of evil’ in 2001, lead the sanctions charge in the ensuing years, and so on. It is not therefore surprising that North Korea has sought nuclear weapons, just as various other rogues – Hussein’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, Kaddifi’s Libya, apartheid South Africa – have.
In each case, an isolated, beleaguered regime considered the world’s ultimate weapons in pursuit of ultimate security: no country will attack you, no matter how awful you are, if you can credibly threaten nuclear retaliation. That logic is practically unassailable, however loathsome we find the states pursuing these weapons. The difference between North Korea and these other horribles is that Pyongyang has actually gotten to a nuke. No other rogue has; only nine states – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea – have hurdled this high bar.
So nuclear weapons are a wise choice for North Korea’s elite, no matter what we think of the regime. It seeks them for the same reason all rogues do – regime security. We can insist, as we do, that we will never recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. But it is, whether we like it or not. We also probably cannot stop the North Korean march to a nuclear ICBM, barring a huge, risky air campaign that might not even work and would be practically indistinguishable from a war.
The US-North Korea Countdown
So we are facing a countdown, a ticking clock of sorts, that ends with a verified North Korean ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, possibly a hydrogen bomb, atop an ICBM. No really knows when the North Koreans will get there. They lie so much that I am loathe to believe their claims that this is imminent. Other, more credible numbers thrown around suggest five to ten years. But whenever it might be, it is almost certainly coming. Constant nuclear and missile testing, plus the regime’s own words, suggest it is aiming for a nuclear ICBM with the explicit purpose of threatening the US homeland.
So what to do? Hopefully we can delay the program. Cyber action might slow it, as it did the Iranian program. Missile defense helps too. And China might finally take this seriously and realize that clamping down on North Korea is wiser than risking a panicked American over-reaction when North Korea breaches this barrier. But given China’s almost willful obtuseness on North Korea, this is unlikely.
The choice then will be to either adapt or fight (air strikes). The US did adapt, post-Cuba, to a Soviet ability to nuke the US homeland, and more generally, it has lived with Soviet/Russian and Chinse nuclear deterrence for decades. And South Korea and Japan have adapted to the Northern threat already (although not enough). But the US seems to me more prone to anxiety if not hysteria regarding North Korea. President Trump himself insisted that he will not permit the North to achieve such a weapon – and the only way to do that is a major conflict. This choice is coming soon.