Make no mistake: after more than two decades of tedious maneuvering that have led many of our best experts to surrender to a false sense of eternal recurrence and essential stability, the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula is now hurtling towards an actual showdown. A year or two from now, the DPRK will be either an established (if not formally accepted) nuclear power with a small but largely undisputed intercontinental capability, an active conflict zone, or conceivably – and with no unnecessary drama intended – an irradiated wasteland, the likes of which the world has never seen before. In its quest for the ultimate guarantee of regime survival, the DPRK government has on balance proven itself more determined, more tenacious, and far more resourceful than the United States and its allies. It now stands ready to claim its prize – the ability to deter the United States not just by proxy, but by holding hostage a substantial portion of the American populace itself.
Against this backdrop, the denuclearization of North Korea by any means short of a massive military campaign has become an exceedingly unlikely outcome. What does the United States have to offer the DPRK regime in return for giving up the only security assurance that it is likely to trust in a world that it sees, with some justification, as uncompromisingly hostile to the North Korean “experiment”? Why would Kim Jong-Un let the hated “imperialists” and “pirates” snatch victory from the jaws of their abject failure to impose their will through years upon years of fruitless coercive diplomacy? Would the proud nationalists in the White House accede to such a humiliating outcome, if the roles were reversed?
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Irrespective of the simple and increasingly uncontroversial fact that North Korea has come out on top in its quest for an operationally viable, long-range nuclear capability, the Trump administration continues to adhere to the dangerous fiction of denuclearization and appears to be slowly inching towards military action. It does so at a time when the world at large could scarcely be more skeptical of Washington’s ability to set forth anything resembling coherent strategy, and when the recourse to force on the peninsula is more likely to go catastrophically wrong than at any other time in the past twenty-odd years. While a majority of the U.S. population continues to oppose immediate military action, nearly half of Republican respondents supported it in one recent poll. And even though the administration’s preferred mode of locomotion on its potential path to war has thus far been characteristically inelegant and uncoordinated, the rhetoric is getting more trenchant by the day.
While some on the right continue to harbor feverish fantasies of intervention and – perhaps – decisive war on the United States’ terms, the reality is quite different. Whatever windows may have existed for halfway-sensible military action on the peninsula have closed long ago; a fact that the likes of SECDEF James N. Mattis and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster are well aware of. North Korea has been a nuclear power since at least 2009, has expanded its arsenal to up to 30 weapons, and is likely to make significant strides in the size of its stockpile in the next few years. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, if the risks of action against the DPRK far outweighed the risks of inaction during the tenure of the interventionist Clinton administration, how much larger do they loom today? If not only the Bush administration, but also the Israeli government, with its even richer tradition of military prevention, decided that the risks of decisive action against Iran far outweighed the risks of settling for an imperfect diplomatic process, will we seriously have to debate the merits of unleashing the “the fire and fury, and frankly power” of the U.S. against an actual, rather than a potential, nuclear state? Or, to put it in terms that the incumbent in the White House may appreciate: Another helping of actual American carnage, anyone? (Not you, John Bolton.)
Deterrence and You Should Get Back Together
The concept and practice of nuclear deterrence have long been under attack from several vectors. On the one hand, a well-meaning group of nations believes it is about time we left reality behind and is dead set to rid the world of nukes by committing its magical thinking to paper, in a stunt that does Frank B. Kellogg and Aristide Briand proud. (If you have some spare time this coming autumn, the rest of the world may need your help in picking up the pieces of a non-proliferation regime that kind of worked.)
On the other hand, since the mid-1990s, a group of somewhat sophisticated theorists and rather less sophisticated practitioners has been vigorously straining its credibility muscles to impugn the validity of deterrence as a means of countering “irrational” or “unreasonable” actors in the international system. As the most recent resurfacing of the debate about a “preventive” war against the DPRK would seem to illustrate, they have at least partially succeeded in doing so, with fairly long-lasting consequences. For this particular generation of (largely) American thinkers, national survival was not expected to be a sufficient motive for Shia clerics and Stalinist relics to refrain from attacking the United States and its allies with weapons of mass destruction. The United States famously acted on a version this theory in during 2002-2003, achieving successes so spectacular that they continue to tie down a significant portion of the U.S. armed forces to this day.
As a latter-day exponent of the strategic studies tradition by inclination and training, I would strongly propose a different view: namely, that the U.S. and DPRK governments can and – if the temperamentally challenged on both sides manage to hold their fire just a little longer – will settle into a steady pattern of mutual deterrence that will closely resemble U.S. nuclear relationships with freshly nuclearized adversaries in the past. If anything, this particular relationship will be even more lopsidedly in the United States’ favor, and thus probably stable enough, even if your preference is for some “maximum” version of deterrence.
Before they can do so, however, the two governments must pass through a period of maximum danger, as was the case vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and, less famously, vis-à-vis China. To get through this phase without escalating to major war, it is incumbent upon the Trump administration to dispel with the potentially devastating option of pursuing denuclearization at any cost and instead settle for an initially uncomfortable alternative that will soon begin to feel distinctly familiar. There is no need to pretend that this latter option, which would finally put an end to the United States’ denuclearization fantasies, would amount to a happy outcome all around. The DPRK will remain an extremely burdensome actor to deal with. The potential for a deterrence failure can be managed, but never ruled out. And North Koreans will continue to endure the most stifling oppression for as long as the regime is able to hold on without opening itself up to the outside world. All of this was true of the Soviet Union and the PRC as well, and yet the serious analysts who retrospectively argue that forcible denuclearization should have been attempted appear to be few and far between.
For the U.S. to find itself in an escalating military confrontation with the DPRK – be it by design, or through an accumulation of the kind of miscalculations the Trump White House seems to have an unshakable predilection for – is now a more plausible scenario than at any time in the recent past. The most likely, and simultaneously the very worst, reasons to enter into such a confrontation flow from the dubious assumption that a regime that cares about very little besides its own survival must inevitably be denuclearized, because it is somehow beyond deterrence. Before it further muses about getting all fiery and furious on North Korea, the Trump administration would do well to ask itself this one simple question: What do you need the world’s most powerful nuclear deterrent for, if you are too jittery to let your submariners, missileers and pilots get on with the job of not waging a nuclear war any time soon?
Michael Carl Haas is a researcher with the Global Security team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. His main research interests include in the impact of advanced conventional weapons on military stability, and developments in air and naval forces. The views expressed here are purely his own.