This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest this week.
I feel like a broken record. I keep saying this – they’re not going to use them offensively, we don’t need to airstrike (at least not yet), we have learned to live with Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nuclear missilization, the North Korean leadership is rational enough to know that using these things against a democracy would bring extraordinary retaliation. So yes, it really, really sucks that North Korea has these weapons, but we can adapt, as we have to other countries’ nuclear missilization. We don’t HAVE to start a potentially huge regional war over them right now. If we must, we always can. But let’s not get carried away that North Korea is going to nuke the US out of the blue, so we should airstrike them right now. That is HIGHLY unlikely.
But journalists keep asking me if we’re going to/should bomb North Korea, and US officials keep saying stuff like this. So here we go again:
Since the launch of a North Korean medium- to long-range intercontinental missile this month, there has been much anxiety about North Korea’s ability to strike US cities. It seems likely that North Korea can strike Anchorage at least, Alaska’s largest city. Some analysts have suggested North Korea already has the capability to strike the east coast of the United States. Skepticism may be warranted. North Korea may have trouble with missile re-entry, guidance, warhead miniaturization, and other technical issues. But nonetheless, it appears quite likely that if Pyongyang does not yet have the ability to strike the lower forty-eight American states, it will soon. Last month, I suggested the US is on countdown of sorts. North Korea is rushing toward a nuclear ICBM, and the Americans will soon be forced to adapt to it, or fight. It appears that decision fork is coming sooner than many expected.
Striking North Korea would be incredibly risky, and the United States has learned to live with other states’ nuclear missilization. Russia, China, and Pakistan are nuclear powers whom the US would almost certainly prefer did not have these weapons. Yet the US has adjusted. Each of those three, including Pakistan, has treated its weapons reasonably carefully. There has not been the much-feared accidental launch or hand-off to terrorist groups. All appear to consider their nuclear weapons as defensive for deterrence purposes. Indeed, the offensive potential of nuclear weapons is curiously constrained. They would so devastate an enemy that conquering that enemy would be pointless – who wants to take-over an irradiated wasteland? Plus, nuclear use would likely bring nuclear retaliation on the attacker, in which case any war benefit would be lost to the huge costs of nuclear destruction in the homeland.
This logic would seem to apply to North Korea as well. In the most extreme possible scenario, where North Korea used nuclear weapons against the South to facilitate a successful invasion of it, the devastation in the South would be so awful, that one wonders why North Korea would want to invade at all. Due to the peninsula’s mountainous terrain, only a few areas of South Korea are easily habitable for large numbers of people. Something like 75% of the population lives on 30% of the landmass. Those small areas – basically the South biggest cities – would be targets of Northern nuclear weapons in any such war. If North Korea were to win that conflict, it would then inherit those irradiated, blasted population zones, plus all those scarcely usable mountains. What would be the point of winning then? Of fighting at all?
Similarly, North Korean nuclear use against the South – or Japan or the US – would bring devastating American nuclear retaliation against the North. South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the US for decades. These relationships are about as robust as any in the US alliance network. Countless secretaries of state and defense have pledged to protect Seoul and Tokyo. So American nuclear retaliation would almost certainly follow any Northern offensive nuclear strike. North Korea would inherit an apocalyptic wasteland in the South, while absorbing punishing nuclear retaliation at home – so punishing in fact, the regime itself might collapse under the weight of the social chaos unleashed by American nuclear strikes.
And if that were not bad enough, one could easily see China attacking North Korea if it were to offensively use nuclear weapons. China may maddeningly tolerate North Korea’s nuclearization, but it is hard to imagine Beijing tolerating a North Korea using those weapons offensively. Beijing might well then be the next target. It is easy to foresee the US and China working together to destroy North Korea if it aggressively used nuclear weapons.
Some fear North Korea might ‘hand off’ a weapon to rogue groups, but no states have yet done that. Other suggest nuclear weapons might be a method to bully South Korea into subservience or permanent subsidization. But so long as South Korea remains allied to the United States, it is not clear why North Korean nuclear blackmail would succeed. North Korean nuclear weapons level the nuclear playing field in the peninsula rather than shift it against South Korea.
In short, North Korea’s possible use of its nuclear arsenal is highly constrained. It fits the profile of other state’s nuclear weapons – great as an ultimate guarantee of national defense and sovereignty, great for national prestige, hugely risky for offense. It is not clear that North Korea can escape the same problem of practical use which so many other nuclear powers have tried to figure out. There is simply no way to use these weapons for gain that would not immediately provoke massive counter-costs.
Yet we seem to have a hard time transferring this logic to North Korea. Americans are deeply worried about war with North Korea, and our pop culture routinely portrays Pyongyang as aggressive toward the United States. Yet North Korea’s decrepit, neofeudal, gangster state probably could not even absorb a South Korean population twice its size and long accustomed to democracy and freedom, even if it could win a war.
So yes, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are unsettling, even frightening. But nuclear weapons have not been used for offense to date (barring WWII), and there is little to suggest North Korea can escape the same ‘unusability’ trap other nuclear powers find themselves in. These weapons are almost certainly for defense and deterrence, so we should respond in kind with missile defense. That, not airstrikes and a consequent huge risk of Asian regional war, is the way forward.