The North Korean Crisis as Competitive Risk Taking

On increasingly urgent matters concerning North Korean nuclear weapons and corresponding missile development, the US and its pertinent allies should focus not on proliferating ordnance per se, but rather on underlying analytic and intellectual orientations to effective control. Opinion

The launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in North Korea (Photo: AP)

"... it remains true that the highest achievements of the art of war are more to be found in the triumph of mind over mind, than in the triumph of mind over matter." (F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War)

At some point in the still-expanding northeast Asia crisis, when all traditional emphases on economic sanctions and supposed Chinese leverage have finally been put to rest, President Trump's senior military planners and negotiators will require more serious policy guidance. Among other things, these designated deputies will need to understand that core security problems in the region are not issues of comparative weaponry, but instead, complex analytic challenges of comparative strategy.

By definition, these challenges, though tied most conspicuously to readily visible matters of ordnance, are fundamentally intellectual in nature.

To begin, there will be needed certain remediations of orientation and language. The US administration's unhidden inclination to treat military strategy as an expression of partisan politics will have to end. As Mr. Trump's advisors may learn quickly from rudimentary rules of reason, the particular level of cruelty displayed by any adversarial political regime toward its citizens or political prisoners has no plausible correlation with that regime's expected tolerance of existential risk.

Although the leadership in Pyongyang is unambiguously inhumane, as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley pointed out correctly at a recent UN Security Council special session, it might still be unwilling to commit personal or national suicide.

Looking ahead, this prospective unwillingness should represent all that matters in the fashioning of pertinent American defense and deterrence strategies.

Strategic planning takes no sharp corners. In all such analytic investigations, logic deserves absolute pride of place. Rather than generate gratuitous non-sequiturs in public speeches concerning North Korea, our principal security planners and negotiators should be looking elsewhere. Above all, they ought to be analyzing actual substantive evidence regarding our specific adversary's national risk tolerance.

This is because their gathered results could effectively determine the best direction for America's considered strategies of negotiation, confrontation, and deterrence.

Ultimately, for both the United States and its allies, including Israel, the North Korea struggle will be one of "mind over mind," and not just mind over matter. During this daunting intellectual struggle, each side, as long as it remains recognizably rational, will be seeking "escalation dominance" without endangering its own national survival. Significantly, if the American side should sometime calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, the apparent incentives to undertake far-reaching military preemptions could instantly become overwhelming.

This is the case even if the American calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be incorrect. Also relevant here would be certain understandably anticipated prospects of North Korean plans to "preempt the preemption," cautionary prospects that could make genuine strategic sense in Pyongyang. Predictably, President Kim's closest military counselors will sometimes seek to clarify for their "great leader" that the United States would have considerable damage-limiting advantages to striking-first, especially while North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile assets were in early stages of development, and still relatively few in number.

There is more. In such literally unprecedented circumstances, any considerations of law would be subordinated to more presumptively urgent considerations of strategic bargaining and brinksmanship. Nonetheless, any US-led defensive first strike or preemption could be defended by the lawyers as "anticipatory self-defense." This is because, jurisprudentially, the post-attack right to self-defense that is formally codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter is augmented by a parallel and longstanding customary right to strike first "whenever the danger posed is imminent in point of time."

Article 38 of the UN's authoritative Statute of the International Court of Justice expressly includes "international custom" as a proper source of international law.

Sometime, if push comes to shove, US President Donald Trump could decide to undertake selective military action against North Korea. In response, Pyongyang – then having no realistic option to launching certain forms of armed reprisal – could strike American military forces in the region, and/or certain other carefully chosen targets in Japan or South Korea. Whatever North Korea's preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jong-un's retaliatory blow would likely be designed not to elicit any unacceptably massive (possibly even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

This carefully-reasoned conclusion is by no means self-evident. It would depend, inter alia, upon the Korean dictator's own willing adherence to rational decision-making, and also on certain largely unpredictable synergies between President Kim's determined level of rationality, and the reciprocally rational calculations of President Trump. Such synergies – or what the generals would probably prefer to call "force multipliers" – could produce resounding instability outcomes.

Conceivably, these deleterious outcomes would be even greater than the calculable sum of their additive "parts."

If, for example, Mr. Trump should decide to launch a defensive first-strike, the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be "disproportionate." In that inherently unstable case, one evidently rife with potential for a more continuously unfettered competition in risk-taking, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the already-volatile mix might not always be dismissed out-of-hand.

Nor would such an introduction have to originate on the American side. This sobering inference is unassailable, or "true by definition," in part because North Korea has previously displayed certain readily-verifiable forms of nuclear weapons/ballistic missile capability. According to sources within the South Korean intelligence services, North Korea maintains approximately one hundred nuclear-related sites, including thirteen specific "Research Institutes." The same sources estimate thirteen to eighteen enriched uranium warheads, and at least thirteen different kinds of missiles.

The Pukguksong-1and 2; and Hwasong-12, 13, and 14, can allegedly reach targets up to 12,000 kilometers from the launch site.

In any such escalating circumstances, Mr. Trump, in view of his own generally favored argumentum ad bacculum stance, could settle upon using a "mad dog" strategy vis-à-vis President Kim. Here, the American leader could render himself dependent upon an untested strategy of pretended irrationality, or what I have called in my own books and monographs (published over the past half-century) the "rationality of pretended irrationality."Any such belligerent dependence, while intuitively sensible and compelling to Mr. Trump, could still backfire, thereby opening up an irreversible path to potentially unstoppable escalations.

If, on the other hand, President Donald Trump's defensive first strike against North Korea were recognizably less than massive, a fully rational adversary in Pyongyang might then determine that his own 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 response from Kim Jong-un could then be an "all out" retaliation. Such a presumptively unanticipated response, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, would be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of US, South Korean, and Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, this sort of response could inflict very substantial or even catastrophic harms. North Korea's unconventional weapons already include biological agents (Pyongyang maintains three Biological Research Institutes within the country's National Academy of Sciences) and chemical ordnance (currently estimated at 5,000 tons of weaponized material). Of course, even a perfectly rational North Korean leadership could sometime calculate that all-out retaliations would make perfectly good sense.

For the moment, at least, any North Korean missile attack against US interests and personnel, whether launched as a first-strike (perhaps to preempt an expected American preemption), or as reprisal, would seemingly have to exclude the American homeland. This same limiting prediction, however, cannot be made in reference to any considered South Korean or Japanese targets, including US military personnel and bases located in those two countries. Any North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan would likely target primarily those countries' vulnerable military assets, and/or related US military elements, but could also comprise a meaningful number of "soft" civilian populations and various corollary infrastructures.

Always, even if it should be played only by fully rational adversaries, any advancing strategic "game" between Washington and Pyongyang would demand that each player strives relentlessly for "escalation dominance." Then, it would be within the manifestly unpracticed interstices of zero-sum rivalry that the palpable prospect of mutual catastrophe could sometime arise. Looking forward, this mutually-unwanted outcome could be produced either in unexpected increments of escalation by one or both of the two national players, or by some sudden quantum leap in destructiveness undertaken by North Korea and/or the United States.

In world politics, chaos may have its own discernible "geometry." Everything about this prospective "game" is notably complex, and is also unprecedented. But needed answers will still lie in determinedly capable dialectical analyses.

In facing off against each other for escalation dominance, even under the most ideal assumptions of  mutual rationality, both President Trump and President Kim Jong-un would have to scrupulously concern themselves with possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and many assorted nuances of cyber-defense/cyber-war. Such threats do carry prospective chaos within themselves – especially in the form of myriad unseen synergies – but they can also be countered in proper "mind over mind" calculations.

Long before any military planners could have ever even imagined a nuclear war, the legendary Prussian general and strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, cautioned insightfully about "friction." In essence, this key concept from On War identifies the profound differences "between war on paper, and war as it actually is." Accordingly, any nuclear brinksmanship between Washington and Pyongyang would necessarily take place in uncharted waters, and could proceed inexorably toward starkly unpredictable outcomes.

Regarding unpredictability, it is also worth noting that North Korea has a verifiable history of cooperation with Iran; therefore, nuclear warfare developments on the Korean peninsula could even have certain "spillover" effects in the Middle East.

All things considered, while requiring both participating presidents to steer an unalterably steady course between escalation dominance and national survival, the bewildering conflict process in Asia could carry no reassurances of success for either party, and absolutely no compelling promises of regional "containment."

None at all.

In other words, even if both President Trump and President Kim were abundantly capable, humane and suitably focused – a magnanimous assumption, to be sure – the unstable region in northeast Asia might still descend rapidly toward some form or other of uncontrollable nuclear war.

It follows from all this that now, at this already late date, the United States would not likely benefit from any residual efforts at a military preemption, or from any starkly alternative policies of regional withdrawal and alliance capitulation. Whether we like it or not, this means preparing for a posture of long-term nuclear deterrence with North Korea. Such a less-than-ideal condition is apt to resemble what eventually comes to pass vis-à-vis Iran in the Middle East, and also what had once obtained during the Cold War as "mutual assured destruction."

Then, to identify one vital difference, the Cold War rivalry was between two more-or-less "symmetrical" adversaries.

For the United States, a calculated preference for any available and asymmetrical variant of MAD could be "cost-effective" only to the extent that the North Korean enemy were expected to remain rational. In principle, of course, diplomacy is always preferable to war, and there might still be defensible hopes for long-term patterns of negotiation leading toward North Korean denuclearization. More concretely, this would mean a "dual-track" approach, one joining traditional threat-system dynamics with equally-traditional diplomatic processes.

For now, whether such processes could meaningfully count upon Chinese and/or Russian cooperation must remain problematic. Arguably, we are already in the midst of "Cold War II," although this time, the more purely polar forms of an earlier antagonism might be mitigated by the American president's oddly craven obeisance to President Putin.

In any event, if our intellectual calculations could prove correctly on-the-mark, US war preparedness and enhanced diplomacy need not be mutually exclusive.

The primary contest with North Korea is not about that country's nuclear weapons/ballistic missile developments per se. Rather, it centers squarely on the probable outcomes of antecedent analytic struggle. These vital outcomes must ultimately be determined by appropriately dialectical reasoning, and by the corresponding intellectual conquests of "mind over mind."


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. 


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