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Sizing Up the North Korea Showdown

Are North Korea’s recent missile tests—and President Trump’s outspoken response to Kim Jong Un—moving us closer to war? For insight, MIT Technology Review spoke with Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science, author of Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, and a leading analyst of the nuclear tactics of smaller states.
December 19, 2017
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What do we know about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?

The good thing about North Korea is, they very effectively signal their capabilities and intentions. This past year we’ve seen a rapid expansion of the missile types that North Korea has developed. They’ve tested a whole suite of short-range, medium-range, intermediate-range, and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. They’ve tested the fission bomb, and in September they tested what we believe to be a thermonuclear device. We don’t yet know whether they can fit the thermonuclear device in a warhead and mount it on an ICBM. We have to assume if they can’t today, they will be able to do it soon.

What is the strategic thinking behind this arsenal?

This fits into a strategy that Kim Jong Un has telegraphed: they’ve acquired nuclear weapons to deter an invasion, regime change, disarmament, or all of that coupled together. The nuclear weapons are largely for defensive purposes. Kim Jong Un has no chance of surviving a war if he doesn’t use nuclear weapons. His best chance of survivingand it’s maybe not even a great chance, but his best chanceis using the regional missiles with fission devices to slow down America’s ability, and our allies’ ability, to sustain a conventional attack against him. So they’ve very clearly signaled that the regional bases of the U.S. and its allies in Asia would be the first target for nuclear weapons.

Well, then the question is, how does North Korea avoid nuclear annihilation in retaliation? That’s where the ICBM comes in, and why the ICBM is so important in North Korean strategy. It’s not to use the ICBM first but to hold it in reserve to deter American nuclear retaliation. Because the theory would be, if America retaliated, then Kim would be able to retaliate, himself, against a U.S. city. And every time a U.S. population in the homeland is at risk, our deterrence calculation changes. And this is the not-so-irrational strategy Kim Jong Un has.

I think for the next couple years at least, he won’t have sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to really guarantee survivability, so the temptation is to go early and massively with everything. While he faces this use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, we’re in a particularly dangerous phase. New nuclear states, with small, vulnerable arsenals, can have itchy trigger fingers. And it’s not irrational for them.

What are your immediate concerns about potential nuclear use?

The biggest risk today is war by miscalculation. We have these shows of strength with B-1 bombers to reassure South Korea and Japan that we have their backs, so to speak. But that’s how a surprise attack would start, and Kim Jong Un knows that. So every time we run a B-1 flight, he has to worry that’s a prelude to a surprise attack. The worst-case scenario right now is that a flight that has no intention of being a surprise attack is mistaken for a potential surprise attack. So right now I think we’re in a very, very dangerous phase. The war of words is not helping.

But doesn’t the fact that North Korea is developing missiles with different ranges, to fit a plausible strategy, offer a kind of stability in the future?

In the long term, I think that’s right. Because you get to a point where you know he’s not worried about survivability, so the regime can be more relaxed about employment of missiles. Pakistan took this from NATO’s playbook, and North Korea took it straight from Pakistan and NATO. We’re familiar with this strategy. It’s exactly where we ended up.

If the war of words is not helping, who is there to take a more measured approach?

Defense Secretary Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster are all familiar with the North Korea problem set. Secretary Mattis in particular has signaled, in a Wall Street Journal article with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that they basically took regime change off the table; now the mind-set has shifted from nonproliferation to deterrence. The problem is, if the president isn’t on board, it’s not a strategy, it’s just a proposal. And it seems like there are contradictory messages coming from the president and his cabinet on this. Because President Trump seems like he’s still in the mind-set of “We’re going to de-nuclearize them.” Well, that horse has left the barn. They have nuclear weapons, and we know how to practice deterrence, along with diplomacy and dialogue. It worked with China, it worked with the Soviet Union, and there’s no reason it can’t work with North Korea. We know how to do this.

What would happen if we attempted a first strike on North Korea’s nuclear assets?

At this point if you’re thinking about a surprise attack, you have to be 1,000 percent confident in your ability to find, fix, and destroy all of North Korea’s missiles at the very least, and that your missile defense can intercept any that you miss, and I don’t know that anyone can really be that confident.

Or let’s say you get Kim Jong Un in a surprise attack. We’re assuming that if you kill Kim Jong Un, that the nuclear system won’t be used. But you don’t know that.

So to fully evaluate nuclear security on the Korean peninsula, wouldn’t we have to know how Kim Jong Un thinks about some of these hypothetical scenarios?

And the unsatisfying answer to that is that we don’t know. And if you’re thinking about a surprise attack, what risks are you willing to tolerate? I think that the consequences are so grim. This is why the U.S. has spent so much time and effort on nonproliferation. We don’t want other states acquiring nuclear weapons, precisely for this reason: because it limits our freedom of action. Once a state acquires nuclear weapons, the reality is, a regime change and invasion are pretty much off the table.

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