Years ago Bernard Brodie wrote about how war will be like after the induction of nuclear weapons. With the evolution of the concepts of deterrence and compellance, war strategies accounted for this “absolute weapon” as a mean to deter and compel the adversary.
Thankfully, a nuclear clash has remained hypothetical at best despite simmering nuclear rivalries. But it could all just change anytime. The Korean Peninsula is at a tipping point where a nuclear Armageddon cannot be ruled out.
Kim Jong Un, the feisty and boisterous young leader of DPRK organized a celebration on Sunday to laud the scientists and engineers who carried out the Hydrogen-Bomb test last week. The laudatory references came amid mounting pressure on the regime.
The test was followed by customary threats from President Trump; he was joined in by General Mattis and US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley. However, President Trump and China warned against ramping up pressure on the reclusive state, though the latter has agreed to sanctions. But much to the chagrin of the US and its allies, the 32-year old is unfazed or to put in the jargon of nuclear strategy, he is undeterred.
As the Security Council plans on ratifying punitive sanctions on the regime, Pyongyang has warned the US against doing it. “The DPRK is ready and willing to use any form of ultimate means. The forthcoming measures to be taken by the DPRK will cause the US the greatest pain and suffering, it had ever gone through in its entire history,” the statement released by KCNA read.
But why is this weaker and beleaguered nuclear state becoming more brazen, that too in front of a mammoth power? The answer lies in the correct understanding of nuclear strategy and DPRK. Ever since the Korean War, the Kim dynasty has developed a state where power is reposed in the military. It would be befitting to say that the military is perhaps the only sinew of Pyongyang’s national power. But given the fact that its southern half was bolstered by the US, its paranoia could not have been done away with only by conventional means. Hence a nuclear deterrent was vigorously and insidiously acquired.
This happened much to the dismay of the US and its allies. However, a nuclear state has to follow up the production of warheads by actions that can make the threat of a nuclear use credible in the eyes of the adversary. Over the past decade, DPRK has not only made delivery vehicles to include the dreaded ICBM but has shown the ability to mount a warhead onto it. Even if these are mere claims, for the purpose of deterrence, the H-Test was a big milestone.
It has effectively deterred South Korea from even mulling over a conventional military operation against DPRK. The test has also changed the entire dynamics of DPRK’s equation with the US. After Trump’s fire and fury tweet, Kim threatened to hit Guam, something which many thought was a bluff. However, the ICBM test over Japanese territory had dispelled that impression. Indeed, the threat to Guam, Japan, the US and South Korea is credible.
This means that a nuclear North Korea is a pariah and the world is bent upon denuclearizing the country. However, Kim cannot afford it; the nukes are a crutch to his state; it is a matter of prestige and it is Kim’s only chance of a possible reunification of the Peninsula. Yes, Kim will take any risks to thwart attempts to denuclearize his regime.
The US’ only option is to pluck out the warheads in a counterforce first strike. However, if Kim is sure that he will lose them, he is more likely to “use” them, for he is beset with what we call the “lose or use” dilemma. Kim cannot carry out counterforce strikes so he will have to resort to counter value strikes, which puts innocent citizens of CONUS, Japan and ROK in jeopardy. This puts the US in a real quandary.
One that Kim has effectively decoupled US and its allies as the US cannot afford to lose Los Angeles in a bid to save Tokyo. The US finds itself in a predicament. If it ramps-up pressure, Kim might press the button causing damage to cities and innocent people. If the US backs off, Kim will continue to bolster its nuclear forces, something exactly what the US does not want.
For obvious reasons neither China nor a series of sanctions can deter or compel North Korea from expanding its nuclear program, let alone rolling it back. The US has to dispel the image that Kim’s warheads will be taken out in a counterforce first strike. If Kim becomes sure of such an eventuality, he will feel that it is better ‘using’ them than ‘losing’ them. Weaker nuclear states should not be provoked, especially those who bank upon these weapons instead of other elements of power.
The chances of Kim surviving after going first are more than innocent US citizens doing so if the US strikes first, either by conventional or unconventional means. Thus far the smart young boy is sitting pretty.
Syed Ali Zia Jafery