North Korea’s Nukes: Time for The Pentagon’s Philosopher-in-Chief to Step In?
Cropped version of Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates (1787).

North Korea’s Nukes: Time for The Pentagon’s Philosopher-in-Chief to Step In?


Here’s a truth when it comes to analyzing North Korea’s military capability and strategy: It is frequently an educated guessing game. There are a number of relatively known knowns, mostly based on technical data as a result of North Korean nuclear and missile tests; probably a greater number of known unknowns, truer for Pyongyang’s conventional military forces and biological and chemical warfare programs; and a huge amount of unknown unknowns (no state has ever fought a nuclear war) to paraphrase former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Based on various data points, analysts (yours truly included), have been trying to construct models and theories to explain the rationale behind Kim Jong Un’s confrontational behavior and his quest for nuclear weapons. A lot of this discussion is conducted in Wittgensteinean political-science talk given that some debates, particularly when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear strategy, are influenced by academics partially due to the academic origins of modern deterrence theory.

Without indulging in political-science talk, it suffices to say that the general consensus of opinion among the majority of experts is that Kim Jong Un’s primary concern is the survival of his regime and that this objective is best secured by the possession of a large and diverse arsenal of nuclear weapons and a large standing army that can threaten South Korea. This quest for regime security entails deploying a powerful nuclear weapon capable of hitting the continental United States, which it almost certainly will succeed in developing.

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Conversely, the United States, an Asia-Pacific power, has been trying various means to stop the North Korean nuclear missile program, while simultaneously reassuring South Korea and Japan that it will stand by their regional allies’ side no matter what, including sacrificing American lives for their defense and attacking North Korea with conventional and nuclear weapons. These U.S. reassurances to Tokyo and Seoul are meant to deter North Korea from behaving recklessly and initiate a military conflict, although neither side has any incentive to initiate hostilities.

One danger with current public debates on North Korea is that, given our ongoing obsession (again, yours truly included) with the country’s burgeoning military capabilities, it risks distracting us from thinking how to best solve this rather dangerous international crisis. Most evidence points to the fact that North Korea will most likely field a nuclear weapon that can accurately hit military installations and urban population centers across continents. Furthermore, it appears that current technical defenses against nuclear strikes will not be able to intercept all North Korean nuclear missiles once launched. Consequently, the news media’s obsession with new capabilities gives the false impression that a nuclear North Korea capable of hitting the United States territory can still be prevented. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

A second danger that arises for analysts when they dig too deeply into social-science models based on established social-science theories and maxims is that we become too sure of our ability to predict the behavior of an opponent. The logical fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this)” is an important caveat. Mistaken causality has been a consistent problem throughout military history (just think of the Domino Theory and the Vietnam War), and there is no reason to believe that we can escape this logical misconception, especially when our arguments are dressed up in scientific language that describes a neat theory. Nuclear deterrence theory especially is a “slippery intellectual construct,” to quote a former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, that can lead to false intellectual complacency ( e.g., “Mutually Assured Destruction”).

Furthermore, even a cursory review of peer-reviewed academic journals on international relations illustrates that analysts trained in social science often miss the wood for the trees. The atomization of social research produces narrow expertise that is often not very useful to policy makers and the real world. An expertise on South Korean or Japanese bureaucratic decision-making might prove useful at some point, but it might not serve the immediate needs of policy makers in a crisis. Atomization also makes it easier for the analyst community to collectively deny developments that run contrary to conclusions drawn from social science research.

A third related danger is that “outside the box thinking” –particularly pertinent in the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula–is made difficult by established social-science constructs. Analysts tend to mentally organize new information, consciously or subconsciously, to fit existing theories and established ways of thinking. Again, this is an old problem prevalent throughout military history. For example, the German military leadership ignored the insurgency and war of attrition that followed the defeat of the French Army during the Franco-Prussia War because it did not fit the German military thinking that wars are won by decisive battle and not attrition.

My main point is that dangers in military history have more often arisen from what we think we know rather than simply admitting to ourselves what we don’t know. As a result, the North Korean crisis prompts the need for a philosopher in chief at the Pentagon, whose job would be to ask simple questions, e.g., What is the United States’ endgame in North Korea? As I stated last year, “Like Socrates, he/she would identify and question sophistry” (much of Plato’s writing is a critique of intellectuals who promote and capitalize on the ‘truth’), including our underlying assumptions about, for example, nuclear deterrence or North Korea as a whole. There is a reason why Jean Jacques Rousseau prefaced his bold critique of Enlightenment (and science) with a mythological illustration and the following warning: “Satyr, you do not know it.” Indeed, ignorance is often a blessing and a goad.

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