Is North Korea win­ning de­ter­rence war with US?

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - AP news anal­y­sis Eric Tal­madge has been the AP’s Py­ongyang bureau chief since 2013.

TOKYO — Con­ven­tional wis­dom says if North Korea were ever to use its nu­clear weapons, it would be an act of sui­cide. But brace your­self for what de­ter­rence ex­perts call the “the­ory of vic­tory.”

To many who have stud­ied how nu­clear strate­gies ac­tu­ally work, it’s 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.

Ev­ery mis­sile North Korean leader Kim Jong Un launches comes at a high cost. North Korea doesn’t have an unlimited sup­ply, and they aren’t easy or cheap to build.

So when Kim or­ders his strate­gic forces to launch, it’s safe to as­sume it’s a move cal­cu­lated to achieve max­i­mum po­lit­i­cal, tech­ni­cal and train­ing value. Tues­day’s launch of a bal­lis­tic mis­sile over Ja­pan and into the open Pa­cific Ocean, once again blow­ing past warn­ings from the United States and its al­lies, is a prime ex­am­ple.

There is a solid strat­egy hid­den in each launch. From Kim’s per­spec­tive, here’s what it looks like:

• North Korea has never sug­gested it would use its nu­clear weapons to at­tack the United States 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 U.S. bases in Ja­pan or — as the North has re­cently warned — flights near its airspace by U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers out of their home base on the is­land of Guam.

If Kim deemed any of those an im­mi­nent at­tack, one North Korean strat­egy would be to im­me­di­ately tar­get U.S. bases in Ja­pan. A more vi­o­lent move would be to at­tack a Ja­panese city, such as Tokyo, though that would prob­a­bly be un­nec­es­sary since at this point the ob­jec­tive would be to weaken the U.S. 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 U.S. 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,” said Vipin Narang, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and a nu­clear strat­egy spe­cial­ist.

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

That, right there, is Kim’s big wa­ger.

If “no” ac­tu­ally is the an­swer, then North Korea has a chance — though slim and risky — of staving off a full-scale con­ven­tional at­tack by the United States to sur­vive another day.

• Kim isn’t para­noid. He has good rea­son to fear an at­tack by the United States.

It’s highly un­likely Wash­ing­ton would uni­lat­er­ally start a war. But if it did, North Korea would face a far stronger and bet­ter equipped enemy able to — lit­er­ally — bring the fight right to Kim’s front door. A suc­cess­ful U.S. first strike could within hours or days take out North Korea’s lead­er­ship, or at least se­ri­ously dis­rupt its chain of com­mand, and de­stroy a good por­tion of the coun­try’s fight­ing power.

So North Korea has a very strong in­cen­tive to es­ca­late fast, be­fore all is lost.

Un­der Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — Kim’s grand­fa­ther and fa­ther — North Korea re­lied on con­ven­tional ar­tillery just north of the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone to keep Wash­ing­ton at bay, fig­ur­ing the U.S. wouldn’t make any moves that might risk an at­tack on South Korea’s cap­i­tal, Seoul, and the tremen­dous ca­su­al­ties and de­struc­tion that would bring.

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

His strat­egy is to neu­tral­ize Wash­ing­ton’s mil­i­tary op­tion by hold­ing both Seoul and an Amer­i­can city hostage while build­ing up his own abil­ity to with­stand a first strike or a mas­sive wave of re­tal­i­a­tion. To do that, North Korea is de­vel­op­ing an ar­ray of mis­siles that can be launched by land or from sub­marines and eas­ily hid­den and trans­ported to re­mote, hard-to-de­tect sites.

Rea­son­ably enough, coun­tries with big ar­se­nals are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered less likely to feel the need to use them or lose them.

North Korea is be­lieved to have an ar­se­nal of per­haps sev­eral dozen nu­clear weapons, grow­ing by maybe a dozen or so each year. That’s a lot, but some an­a­lysts be­lieve it may take a few hun­dred to cure Kim of the itchy trig­ger fin­ger syn­drome.

• In de­ter­rence cir­cles, am­bi­gu­ity is con­sid­ered a must. But con­fu­sion can be deadly.

In any con­fronta­tion, it’s 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-de­fense or con­fi­dent op­por­tunism.

That’s what North Korea ap­pears to be do­ing now, though it’s not clear whether the mo­tive is fear or ar­ro­gance.

Over the past sev­eral weeks, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has promised fire, fury and power like the world has never seen should North Korea is­sue even a vo­cal threat — which it did al­most im­me­di­ately, with no ma­jor con­se­quences. Trump’s Cab­i­net mem­bers walked that back, but in the process set or seemed to erase red lines of their own.

Some have sug­gested this is a de­lib­er­ate “mad­man strat­egy.”

In­spired by the writ­ings of Machi­avelli, Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon gave this ploy a go against Viet­nam in the late 1960s. His idea was to make the Viet­namese and their Com­mu­nist al­lies think Nixon would do any­thing, in­clud­ing use his nu­clear weapons, to end the war.

But if Trump is do­ing the same, he isn’t do­ing it very well, Narang said.

While Kim’s gov­ern­ment speaks with one voice and main­tains con­sis­tency, which is what gives the mad­man ap­proach its cred­i­bil­ity, it’s “re­ally hard for Trump to make these crazy state­ments and not have them walked back by some­one in his ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

“At some point,” Narang said, “the blur­ri­ness goes away and we just look in­co­her­ent.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.