Thomas Nichols

Thomas Nichols


In a recent article for your blog The War Room you noted how deterrence in the classical sense when it comes to North Korea seems like a failure. You offer a different, more personal approach in your article: “The message will be clear: if something happens, we are not going to hold millions of innocent people responsible for your crimes. We will hold you responsible.” You go on to explain, “Kim and his generals may not fear war, they may not even fear the deaths of millions of their own citizens. But I’d bet — and am betting, big — that they value their own comfortable lives. That’s what has to be placed under threat, or we’ll never get their attention.” In reading the piece, you seem to advocate for a much more…shall we say… personal type of deterrence. If you could, please explain to our readers how you  would seek to deter North Korea using such an approach.

Let’s start with what I always need to say: I’m not speaking for the U.S. government, any other institution I’m affiliated with, or anyone else but myself here.

The problem I detail in my forthcoming book has to do with the fact that regimes like North Korea don’t value the lives of their citizens. Look at Saddam Hussein: he was willing to grind up hundreds of thousands of his own people (and kill more than a few of them himself) in endless wars and conflicts with Iran and the West. Even as the U.S.-led coalition was on its way into Baghdad in 2003, he still didn’t believe that his own life was in any danger. And that’s the key: these leaders use their people as human shields. Threatening to kill a lot of their people doesn’t scare them, because they’re willing to do it on a daily basis anyway. North Korea, after all, is a regime that’s turned its 22 million people into starving, half-dead, psychologically paralyzed zombies.

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Combine this with the additional problem that brutal dictatorships like North Korea think that democracies, which do value human life, may be militarily strong but are fundamentally weak-willed. That’s why nuclear threats won’t get very far: these regimes don’t believe we’ll massacre thousands, or even millions of people to defeat them. And they’re almost certainly right.

So the only thing that’s left to threaten is the only thing that rogue leaders care about: their own lives. You saw some of this thinking when the U.S. started talking about “tailoring” deterrence in the 1990s, and in American attempts to put embargoes in place that would specifically hurt the leaders of North Korea (trying to ban luxury items like the late Kim Jong-il’s favorite cognac, for example) without increasing the suffering of the North Korean people, who are innocent victims in all this.

That’s why we finally have to let go of threats of major nuclear retaliation. This isn’t like fighting the USSR for our national survival. We’re not going to drop a half-dozen bombs on Korea or Iran and irradiate huge swaths of East Asia or the Middle East. Our own allies and other innocent nations would suffer almost as much as the target. (The advocates of nuclear force claim we can limit that with earth-penetrating nukes, but we don’t have those systems, and in any case they’d have to be designed to drill down a lot farther than we ever thought before we could really limit the fallout.)

Look at the panic that ensued from the Fukushima fire, with just one crippled nuclear plant in Japan. That disaster turned out to be a lot less horrible than it could have been, and yet people around the world were so freaked out that there was a run on iodine tablets from California to Finland. Now multiply that times five or six nuclear strikes, and you can see where we’re drifting into crazy talk. I’m not alone in this: high-ranking U.S. military officers like former NORAD commander Chuck Horner and STRATCOM chiefs like Lee Butler and James Cartwright have cautioned that we really need to stop talking like this.

Instead, I think the most credible threat is to say to any of these rogue leaders: “We don’t know how any of this will end, but the one thing we can say for certain is that if you use a nuclear weapon, your life is forfeit. Period.” That’s credible because it’s a threat we’ve made and fulfilled before, in recent memory. We haven’t dropped a nuclear weapon on anyone since 1945, and there’s no reason to think we’re eager to do it again.

But we have gone after a series of people and removed them from power: Manuel Noriega has served prison terms in the U.S., France, and Panama, and will likely die in prison. Slobodan Milosevic died in jail in the Hague. Hussein was executed in Iraq. Moammar Qaddafi, with NATO assistance, was toppled and then literally almost torn to pieces by his own people. Osama Bin Laden breathed his last breath on the floor of a dirty, crummy little house in Pakistan with a Navy SEAL’s bullet in his head. So I think it’s pretty clear that if the United States and its allies say they’re going to get you for doing something horrible, you can be fairly sure your days are numbered, no matter how long it takes. And that’s a lot more credible than saying: “We’ll kill five million of you and poison all your innocent neighbors for decades to come.”

They need a threat their narcissistic, violent minds can understand.

Looking at non-state actors, there was fears after 9/11 that a terrorist group would gain control of nuclear materials and detonate what has been dubbed a “dirty bomb.” How credible is such a threat?

I’m not a nuclear engineer, so I don’t know how easy it is or isn’t to get nuclear waste. But I think it’s fair to say that this is a lot more credible, and lot easier to do, than to build an actual working nuclear device. Back around 1990, I was at a conference in the then-Soviet Union, and I remember Soviet officers worrying about loose nukes — not because they were worried anyone could make one explode, but because they figured someone might wrap some dynamite around one and explode the gunk inside it all over Red Square.

I still worry about that. As you might remember, I always tell my students that nuclear weapons are like toddlers: they need a lot of care and attention or they go bad. A Soviet nuclear weapon from the 1980s is not going to explode today (or at least that’s what the people who know this kind of stuff have told me). It’s just too old and too corroded. But that’s not to say that someone can’t get the innards of one, or a barrel of waste from a nuclear plant, and just tie a brick of explosives to it.

Now, it’s still not that easy. You don’t just stick plutonium in your pocket and walk around with it. (About 20 years ago, some Russian smugglers stored some under their sink once, which kind of freaked out the German and Russian agents who busted them. Never discount the dangerous reality that people are dumb.) I think it’s possible, even likely, that someone’s going to figure out a way to pull off a dirty bomb attack, but I wouldn’t give odds on it, because I just don’t know how hard it is to get that stuff.

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