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