N. Korea nu­clear risk to US could help Kim sur­vive show­down

The West Australian - - NEWS - Anal­y­sis

Con­ven­tional wis­dom says if North Korea were ever to use its nu­clear weapons, it would be an act of sui­cide.

But brace for what de­ter­rence ex­perts call the “the­ory of vic­tory”.

To many who have stud­ied how nu­clear strate­gies ac­tu­ally work, it is con­ceiv­able North Korea could es­ca­late to a nu­clear war and still sur­vive. Tues­day’s missile test sug­gests once again it may be rac­ing to pre­pare it­self to do just that — but only if forced into a cor­ner.

When Kim Jong Un or­ders his strate­gic forces to launch, it is safe to as­sume it is a move cal­cu­lated to achieve max­i­mum po­lit­i­cal, tech­ni­cal and train­ing value.

North Korea has never sug­gested it would use its nu­clear weapons to at­tack the US or its al­lies com­pletely out of the blue. But, like Wash­ing­ton, it has stated quite ex­plic­itly that if it is ei­ther at­tacked or has rea­son to be­lieve an at­tack is im­mi­nent, it has the right to launch a re­tal­ia­tory or even a pre-emp­tive first strike.

The trig­ger for North Korea could be un­usual troop move­ments in South Korea, sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity at US bases in Japan or flights near its airspace by US bombers.

If Kim deemed any of those an im­mi­nent at­tack, one North Korean strat­egy would be to im­me­di­ately target US bases in Japan. A more vi­o­lent move would be to at­tack a Ja­panese city, though that would prob­a­bly be un­nec­es­sary since at this point the ob­jec­tive would be to weaken the US mil­i­tary’s com­mand and con­trol.

Go­ing nu­clear would send the strong­est mes­sage but chem­i­cal weapons would be an al­ter­na­tive. North Korea’s abil­ity to next hit the US main­land with nu­clear-tipped mis­siles is the key to how it would sur­vive in this sce­nario. And that’s why Kim has been rush­ing to per­fect and show them off to the world.

“The whole rea­son they de­vel­oped the ICBM was to de­ter Amer­i­can nu­clear re­tal­i­a­tion, be­cause if you can hold an Amer­i­can city or cities at risk the Amer­i­can cal­cu­la­tion al­ways changes,” Vipin Narang, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and a nu­clear strat­egy spe­cial­ist, said.

“Are we re­ally will­ing to risk Los An­ge­les or Chicago in re­tal­i­a­tion for an at­tack on a US mil­i­tary base in the re­gion?” he asks. “Prob­a­bly not.”

That is Kim’s big wa­ger. If “no” is the an­swer, then North Korea has a chance, though slim and risky, of staving off a full-scale con­ven­tional at­tack by the US to sur­vive an­other day. Kim has good rea­son to fear an at­tack by the US.

It is highly un­likely Wash­ing­ton would uni­lat­er­ally start a war. But if it did, North Korea would face a far stronger and bet­ter equipped en­emy. A suc­cess­ful US first strike could within hours or days take out North Korea’s lead­er­ship. So it has a strong in­cen­tive to es­ca­late fast, be­fore all is lost.

Kim, fear­ing “de­cap­i­ta­tion strikes”, has brought mis­siles and nukes into the mix for an added layer of pro­tec­tion.

His strat­egy is to neu­tralise Wash­ing­ton’s mil­i­tary op­tion by hold­ing Seoul and an Amer­i­can city hostage while build­ing up his own abil­ity to with­stand a first strike or a mas­sive wave of re­tal­i­a­tion.

In any con­fronta­tion, it is best that an op­po­nent knows bet­ter than to cross the line but not to know ex­actly where that line is. That fosters cau­tion. Con­fu­sion, on the other hand, cre­ates the in­cen­tive to make a move ei­ther out of fright­ened self-de­fence or con­fi­dent op­por­tunism. That is what North Korea ap­pears to be do­ing now, though it’s not clear whether the mo­tive is fear or ar­ro­gance.

North Korea has a strong in­cen­tive to es­ca­late fast.

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