Playing Chicken: Game Theory and Deterrence

A substantial attack against Pyongyang will be conceived by Kim Jong-un as his personal demise and the destruction of his country – so he would have nothing to lose. Between Game Theory and the deterrence between Washington and Pyongyang

Photo: AP

Pursuant to the launching of two intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching the West Coast of the USA, it seemed that North Korea had crossed a technological, consciousness and deterrence threshold. The direct threat to the USA evolved from a bleak forecast by the US intelligence agencies and a handful of experts around the world into a reality and a fact of life with which the President of the USA will have to deal directly.

But if someone thought that by crossing that threshold Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, has accomplished his objective, the pace at which events unfolded immediately following the launches of June 2017 only became faster: a visit by Kim Jong-un to a composite material plant and the revelation of highly advanced technological capabilities in the field of missile structure manufacturing; North Korean threatens to simultaneously launch four ballistic missiles in the direction of Guam; North Korea launches two medium-range missiles over Japan – a move that has not been made for many years, and even then the missiles launched were satellite carrying vehicles, not ballistic missiles;  North Korea reveals a thermonuclear warhead for the Hwasong-14 ICBM, and just a few hours later – the sixth nuclear test by North Korea, this time involving a hydrogen bomb whose magnitude far exceeds anything demonstrated by Pyongyang thus far – and all of that accomplished within the span of just five weeks!

In the background of those events: increasingly stronger condemnations by the international committee, accompanied by yet another round of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, and hints by members of the top echelon of the US Government, from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, through Secretary of Defense James Mattis to US President Donald Trump.

Apparently, the only party that has not been overly impressed by these threats is Kin Jong-un himself, who presses on with his daily routine – which includes hate articles in the North Korean press, threats voiced by the North Korean single-channel national TV, visits to launching sites and military exercises of various types.

While the war cries in the west are growing louder, many in the analyst community still think that a nuclear deal with North Korea is a realistic possibility. Is it indeed? If we were to examine past cases of countries that relinquished their nuclear capability – whether it was basic or more advanced, we would realize that these moves were not beneficial to the rulers of those countries: this was the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and even with regard to South Africa in the final days of apartheid – where the government had kept six finished nuclear devices and preferred to be disarmed of them rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of a new, black-dominated regime. Even the cases when the end to nuclear aspirations was brought about by a military attack – Iraq in 1981, Syria in 2007 – made it clear to the North Korean leadership that "no one messes" with an actual nuclear country, and that they should promptly develop a credible deterrence capability vis-à-vis the USA, and possibly also vis-à-vis other countries, including Russia and China.

First and foremost, Kim Jong-un had to credibly demonstrate his technical ability to threaten the USA. He accomplished that since 2016, a year of frequent rocket tests and revelations of various missile models, as well as the first detonation of a thermonuclear weapon – a hydrogen bomb. Subsequently, and even more intensively in 2017, new missiles, much more advanced than past models and possessing increasingly longer ranges, have been gradually presented to the world. Moreover, contrary to the thesis prevalent among many statesmen, commentators and reporters, according to which a long time (up to years) will pass between a North Korean nuclear detonation and the adaptation of the bomb for carrying inside the warhead of a ballistic missile, North Korea has demonstrated that it already possesses at least two types of nuclear warheads for missiles – one for a fission bomb and the other for a hydrogen fusion bomb.

The introduction of the hydrogen bomb adapted to the ballistic missile capable of hitting the USA should be regarded as the final nail in the coffin of the so-called peaceful theses regarding North Korea, namely – that it would be possible not just to sit down to the negotiating table with this country, but also to reach agreements on the banning of nuclear tests and missile launches, to be followed by a process of voluntary disarming of these capabilities – for which the citizens of North Korea have paid and are still paying a terrible price of poverty, hunger, deprivation, and death.

One of the key questions is "What does Kim Jong-un want?" Evidently, his actions demonstrate this very clearly: firstly, he regards nuclear weapons and the technical ability to launch them or imagined – as a measure for ensuring his personal survival and the continued ruling by the Kim dynasty. Secondly, these weapons give him prestige – internally, opposite the military and party elites, and externally, namely – North Korea is a regional player possessing numerous and powerful capabilities. Thirdly, Kim Jong-un is interested in the respect of the international community.

Apparently, anyone refusing to accept these basic truths will be denying the truth and misleading – mainly themselves. North Korea has learned the lessons and the responses of the world to the nuclear arming of India and Pakistan, and it is reasonable to assume that in discussions held at the highest strategic level in Pyongyang, the prevalent line is the one supporting the development of a credible, substantial and diversified nuclear power – and even the development of a 'second strike' capability. This is the only way that would allow the classic deterrence equation we have known since the early days of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR to exist. Ironically, a powerful and credible nuclear capability, of all things, will eventually contribute to stability – from the establishment of a "hot line" to arms control and disarmament agreements.

The military planners of the USA will be well advised to engage in a profound, sincere and realistic deliberation among themselves, and subsequently explain to their supreme National Command Authority (NCA), better known as the President of the USA, a few unpleasant basic truths in the fields of nuclear strategy, game theory and deterrence. Evidently, the USA should realize that disarming the nuclear arms of Kim Jong-un by force will lead to massive destruction in Korea as well as in Japan and the USA itself. A substantial attack against Pyongyang will be conceived by Kim Jong-un as his personal demise – so he would have nothing to lose.

On the other hand, mutual nuclear deterrence and negotiations conducted with Kim Jong-un, perhaps not as an equal among equals, but definitely more seriously than the manner of treating him as a madman or as a small child who has his finger on the nuclear pushbutton, could lead to an improvement in regional and global stability. 


Tal Inbar is Head of the Space & UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies


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