Why nu­clear war with N. Korea is less likely

The Manica Post - - Sport/World News -

LAST Tues­day night, in re­sponse to Kim Jong Un’s claim to have a nu­clear but­ton on his desk, Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted, “I too have a Nu­clear But­ton, but it is a much big­ger & more pow­er­ful one than his, and my But­ton works!”

This is not the first time that things have got­ten per­sonal in the US-North Korea stand-off. Much of the rhetoric be­tween the two lead­ers and me­dia com­men­tary on the risk of war fo­cuses on the lead­er­ship of Trump and Kim (pic­tured right) — or “Lit­tle Rocket Man”, as Trump has called the North Korean leader.

But how much could these two sin­gu­lar lead­ers re­ally pro­pel us to a nu­clear war? Trump’s tweets and other ac­tions cer­tainly can in­crease the risk of con­flict — con­sis­tent with our re­search on how the de­ci­sions of in­di­vid­ual lead­ers af­fect mil­i­tary con­flict.

How­ever, in this case, other fac­tors, in­clud­ing ge­og­ra­phy and mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, will mat­ter more than tweets or the char­ac­ter­is­tics of lead­ers. And these fac­tors re­duce the like­li­hood of war.

For the past few gen­er­a­tions, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists who write about the out­break of con­flict mainly ar­gued that lead­ers were ir­rel­e­vant, fo­cus­ing in­stead on in­ter­na­tional fac­tors such as great power re­la­tions or do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal fac­tors such as whether the two coun­tries in­volved had demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

But more and more schol­ar­ship sug­gest that lead­ers make a large dif­fer­ence in de­ter­min­ing whether and how coun­tries go to war. And it’s not just in dic­ta­tor­ships such as North Korea; even more con­strained lead­ers, such as US pres­i­dents, mat­ter. Lead­ers’ be­liefs and ex­pe­ri­ences be­fore com­ing into of­fice can be crit­i­cal in de­ter­min­ing whether a coun­try goes to war and what mil­i­tary strat­egy will be used in the event of war.

Even if lead­ers have dis­cre­tion, they are con­strained by ma­te­rial and sit­u­a­tional con­straints. No US or North Korean leader can re­al­is­ti­cally change or avoid some of these con­straints.

One con­straint stems from the two sides’ for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, which mean that a gen­eral war with North Korea would be dev­as­tat­ing, as Barry Posen ar­gued last year. Even be­fore it ac­quired a nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, North Korea’s ar­tillery put tremen­dous pres­sure on South Korea. Add to that its mis­sile arse­nal — which, as nu­clear ex­perts have chron­i­cled, can now prob­a­bly de­liver an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile armed with a nu­clear war­head against the United States.

A sec­ond un­avoid­able con­straint is ge­og­ra­phy, which may make war less likely. North Korean ar­tillery points di­rectly at Seoul, just 45km from the de­mil­i­tarised zone (DMZ). South Korea may op­pose a war, which could in­flu­ence US be­hav­iour. North Korea also bor­ders China, a pow­er­ful coun­try whose eco­nomic sup­port keeps North Korea afloat.

But China faces its own ge­o­graphic re­al­ity with re­spect to North Korea, and China is in­creas­ingly frus­trated with North Korea’s be­hav­iour. In the event of war, China does not want refugees flood­ing across the bor­der into China. Yet China also does not want a uni­fied Korean Penin­sula with US troops on its bor­der.

In­deed, in the Korean War, the United States tested ge­o­graphic con­straints by push­ing be­yond the pre­war di­vid­ing line, the 38th par­al­lel, in an at­tempt to unify Korea. China in­ter­vened to pre­vent such an out­come, and the con­flict stopped where it started.

All sides know that a war would be a huge and dif­fi­cult mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal prob­lem. So there are strong in­cen­tives to try to de­ter the other side, rather than es­ca­late.

Although the fo­cus on Trump and Kim al­most al­ways sug­gests that their be­hav­ior in­creases the risk of war, they ac­tu­ally have strong in­cen­tives to re­duce the prospect of war.

De­spite rhetoric about North Korea’s ir­ra­tional­ity, Kim’s pur­suit of nu­clear weapons and long range mis­siles was ra­tio­nal. He wants to stay in power, and nu­clear weapons con­sti­tute in­va­sion in­sur­ance. But a war would prob­a­bly spell the end of the regime, giv­ing North Korea lit­tle rea­son to start a war.

On the US side, few wars have prob­a­bly been war-gamed more than a con­flict on the Korean Penin­sula. US de­ci­sion-mak­ers know how costly a war might be. Knowl­edge of these costs makes war less likely.

If “lead­ers mat­ter” for mil­i­tary de­ci­sion-mak­ing, then with dif­fer­ent lead­ers, we might get a dif­fer­ent out­come. So what about Trump and Kim might lead to con­flict?

One fac­tor from Trump’s side could be risk ac­cep­tance. Trump could de­cide that he wants to start a war de­spite the costs, and count on US mis­sile de­fenses to shoot down North Korean ICBM launches and pro­tect the home­land (an aw­fully big gam­ble). In the­ory, Trump’s lack of ex­pe­ri­ence also could make him less cog­nizant of the costs of war and less able to draw on his more ex­pe­ri­enced ad­vis­ers.

From Kim’s side, stud­ies sug­gest that dic­ta­tors — who face fewer checks and bal­ances — are more risk-ac­cep­tant. With fewer peo­ple to tell them no, they are more likely to es­ca­late in gen­eral.

If war oc­curs, one path­way is through a mis­read­ing of one side’s in­cen­tives by the other. For ex­am­ple, Kim’s de­sire to stay in power could lead Trump to be­lieve that, even in the face of lim­ited U.S. strikes against North Korean nu­clear and mis­sile fa­cil­i­ties, Kim will back down in­stead of es­ca­late. But it would be hard to cred­i­bly sig­nal that those strikes would be lim­ited, and if Kim be­lieves the United States is com­ing af­ter him, es­ca­la­tion be­comes more likely.

Of course, war could also come via mis­cal­cu­la­tion and, even­tu­ally, some kind of pre­emp­tive strike. But re­search sug­gests that war in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and his­tory boil down to this: Do in­di­vid­u­als or struc­tural forces shape events?

Although re­cent ev­i­dence in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions schol­ar­ship points to the im­por­tance of lead­ers, the North Korean stand­off re­minds us of the power of struc­tural fac­tors. That may pro­vide some com­fort to those who read the pres­i­dent’s tweet last night and wor­ried about the risk of war.

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