Why nuclear deterrence can work on North Korea

The same logic that kept a nuclear war from breaking out between the United States and former Soviet Union is the best strategy to now pursue with North Korea, several scholars said Tuesday at Stanford.

The panel, convened at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), included political scientist Scott D. Sagan of CISAC; political scientist Mira Rapp-Hooper  of Yale University; and political scientist Vipin Narang of MIT. The moderator was  James D. Fearon , a political scientist at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The event was titled "Can the U.S. Deter a Nuclear North Korea" and held in the William J. Perry Conference Room in Encina Hall.

Nuclear decision-making

The discussion revolved around whether North Korea will have the ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear warheads, and can the U.S. depend on a deterrence strategy like it did during the Cold War?

Deterrence theory holds that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear weapons, through the promise of retaliation and possibly mutually assured destruction 

Sagan, who recently wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine on the North Korea nuclear crisis, said he has come to decide deterrence is the best approach to the issue.

"I am not one who gladly listens to the siren song of nuclear deterrence," he said, noting that while he is a self-described dove on disarmament issues, he is more hawkish on allowing countries to obtain nuclear weapons, which deterrence implies. "I accept deterrence reluctantly."

In North Korea, he said, no military alternatives exist to solve the problem. For example, even if a decapitation strike were successful - and several U.S. attempts have failed in the past with regard to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi - there’s no way to know if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already given his generals the green light to unleash nuclear or powerful conventional attacks in the case of his demise.

For Sagan, deterrence is a more complicated issue today than during the Cold War when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were rational actors with thousands of nuclear weapons. He is especially concerned with the rhetoric and the preventive war suggestions emanating from the Trump Administration.

Senior U.S. military leaders, Sagan said, have a duty not to follow "impaired-decision making" that might come from the president. He invoked the prospect of using the Cabinet and the 25th Amendment to halt such an order and remove the president from office. Currently, he belives the nuclear decision process is problematic, as the president alone can directly order the Strategic Air Command to launch nuclear weapons.

Sagan advises that a revised nuclear chain of command should include both the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Attorney General. A U.S. Senate hearing, led by Sen. Bob Corker, is actually studying the nuclear authorization process due to concerns with Trump’s rhetoric and escalation of the North Korean issue.

"We need more checks on how we decide to use nuclear weapons," said Sagan, who studies nuclear strategy, ethics and war, public opinion about the use of force, and nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.

He noted that U.S. National Security Advisor H.R McMaster recently criticized his predecessor, Susan Rice, for saying the U.S. could "tolerate" nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way we tolerated nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union.

He quoted McMaster: "’A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gas in a public airport?’"

But Sagan said we have long tolerated such authoritarian regimes that have nuclear weapons. 

Stumbling accidentally into war with North Korea also seems like a rising risk. On Sept. 27, several U.S. service members and their families received a fraudulent "noncombatant evacuation operation" order via text and social media, he said. The fake notices were quickly reported up the chain of command and the U.S. issued a statement denouncing their validity - the perpetrators have not been found. But Sagan says it illustrates how easy it is to create a situation where North Korea felt a U.S. invasion and attack is imminent - and as a result, could choose to unleash a nuclear first strike.

’Western fantasy’

Narang, who was once a CISAC visiting assistant professor, studies nuclear proliferation and strategy, South Asian security, and general security studies.

"Deterrence is your friend," he said in explaining why it can work with North Korea. If the U.S. believes North Korea seeks to preserve its regime - a status quo intention - then deterrence theory works much like it did with the former Soviet Union.

On the other hand, if the U.S. believes North Korea has darker motives, such as reunifying the Korean peninsula through an invasion, then that perspective could lead to a U.S. first strike. Also, the existing U.S. demand of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program - "denuclearization" - is a "Western fantasy." They will not give up nuclear weapons, he said.

He said the U.S. does not like to be deterred from making a first strike - as in preventive war - but that is what it must accept if it decides to follow the deterrence course. North Korea, once it possesses an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, would pose such a deterrence in the balance of power between the two countries.

"The good news is that deterrence can work, coupled with coercive diplomacy," Narang said. "We know how to play this game."

He believes Jong-un is a rational actor, though a cruel dictator. "There’s nothing to suggest he’s crazy." Ultimately, he said, an effective deterrence policy depends on clarity, consistency, coherence and communications.

U.S. nuclear shield, alliances

An expert on security in the Asia-Pacific region and alliance politics, Rapp-Hooper talked about the U.S. relationships, especially with Japan and South Korea, and the "nuclear shield" over these countries that those agreements offer. As a result, neither country has developed nuclear weapons.

This dynamic, however, could change if a North Korean missile could reach the U.S., said Rapp-Hooper, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford.

"North Korea is eroding U.S. security guarantees over time," she said, adding that once those missiles are capable of hitting a U.S. city, would the U.S. government still protect Seoul from attack and let an American city be hit?

The Korean situation, Rapp-Hooper said, is much different than Europe in the Cold War, when such an American nuclear shield existed against a Soviet invasion. Many different U.S. agreements exist now than during that time; no U.S. nuclear weapons are forwardly deployed in northeast Asia, like in Europe then; and the unilateral threats coming from the Trump Administration are unprecedented in nuclear diplomacy.

On the latter point, she called it the "Trump multiplier" effect. "That’s the most exacerbating thing of all," she said, noting that elements of the White staff are pushing a "better-use-it-now" or preventive attack approach, whereas Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson see North Korea as more concerned with preserving its regime.

Sagan also pointed out how President Trump’s speech at the United Nations in September led to a realization among the North Koreans that they had no choice but to continue to develop nuclear weapons.

That’s when the president said, "’Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,’" Sagan noted.

He then recalled Kim Jong Un’s response to Trump’s speech, quoting the North Korean leader: "’His remarks which described the U.S. option through straightforward expression of his will have convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last.’"