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Diagnosing the North Korean Pathology

JURIST Guest Columnist Louis René Beres of Purdue University, critically analyzes Trump's "America First" foreign policy...

Instead of exchanging corrosive epithets with Kim Jung Un, President Trump should focus on creating a better understanding of the North Korean dictator's personal pattern of crisis decision. This would best be accomplished by more express thinking along the traditional medical science orientations of diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy.

In medicine, it has long been understood that proper therapy must be based solidly upon prior diagnosis. Such diagnosis, moreover, must always be consciously founded upon appropriate and verifiable science, and not merely represent the physician's own personal seat-of-the-pants intuition. Oddly enough, although precisely the same pattern of scientific analysis and "healing" should be followed in diplomatic crisis management, U.S. President Donald Trump's orientation to North Korea has been singularly detached from any pertinent sorts of assessment.

Going forward, there is nothing to be gained for the United States by publically demeaning and taunting the North Korean leader, especially if he really is as "crazy" as President Trump alleges. Even if he is not "crazy" or "deranged" (Trump's other preferred descriptor), such rhetorical belligerence can do nothing to reduce sorely palpable risks to the United States. On the contrary, mindlessly hewing to what the logicians would call an argumentum ad bacculum - a fallacy based upon illogical expectations for the utility of force - can only further undermine this country's national security.

This is not a time for loose or inconsequential thinking. The only way American strategic planners can help to preserve nuclear peace with North Korea is by deriving a decipherable prognosis and promising therapy from systematic diagnosis. Without a prior and sound assessment of what is actually wrong with our adversary's calculations, we can never expect to fashion any reliable prognoses or derivatively usable remedies. It is foolish and dangerous for this president to blame Pyongyang's nuclearization on alleged eccentricities of the North Korean "rocket man." Among other things, it could be plainly apparent to a perfectly sane and rational Kim Jung Un that Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Mommar Gadhafi both lost power only after first losing their indispensable nuclear leverage.

Seen in this light, is "Rocket Man" still "crazy?

There is more. In preparing for purposeful nuclear crisis bargaining with North Korea, Donald Trump (through no fault of his own) will have little meaningful precedent upon which to rely. Still, he will need to make some more-or-less predictable sense out of an intrinsically unpredictable set of problems. In this connection, Mr. Trump and his counselors ought never forget that a rapid-cycle deterioration of competition in risk-taking could be rendered ever more precarious as a result of certain unforeseen interactions.

At times, such perilous interactions would rise to the level of "synergies," or mutually-reinforcing debilities wherein the "whole" of formidable American risk exceeds the sum of enemy-inflicted "parts."

In any event, Mr. Trump must proceed in any still-impending North Korean crisis with exquisite prudence and an antecedent diagnosis, bearing in mind that while nuclear war avoidance is most important, maintaining "escalation dominance" would also be indispensable. In essence, presidential success here will require striking a very delicate "balance" between narrowly self-assertive and broadly cooperative strategies.

In all expectedly balanced deliberations with the North Koreans, America might do better to rely, at least in part, on talented diplomats, poets, philosophers and mathematicians than on exclusively career soldiers. For one thing, in the grievously measureless legacy of warfare, the military professional has made more than a few consequential mistakes. Looking ahead, we ought not now be demanding that trained military strategists could demonstrate optimal "therapeutic" capacities in managing conflicts with which they have had no possible acquaintance.

For the United States, the looming North Korea crisis, whether protracted or episodic, will inevitably be one of "mind over mind," and not of "fire and fury." During this daunting intellectual struggle, each side, as long as it remains recognizably rational, will be seeking "escalation dominance" without needlessly endangering its own national survival. Significantly, if the American side should sometime calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, the apparent incentives to undertake far-reaching military preemptions could then quickly become overwhelming.

This is the case even if the American calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be wrong. Also relevant here would be certain understandably anticipated prospects of any North Korean plans to "preempt the preemption," cautionary scenarios that could make genuine strategic sense in Pyongyang. President Kim's closest military counselors could sometime seek to clarify for their "great leader" ("The General") that the United States would have considerable damage-limiting advantages to striking-first, especially while North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile assets were in early stages of development, and were still few in number.

At that point, striking first against the United States could appear as the most visibly rational option, ironically, even more so if the American president had appeared "too convincing" with his own pet "madman" notions of pretended irrationality. Managing national security is substantially different from negotiating real estate transactions in Palm Beach or The Bronx. It's time for the American president to acknowledge this fundamental difference.

There is more. If President Trump should decide to launch a defensive first-strike, a "preemption," the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be "disproportionate." In that very unstable case, one rife with the potential for a more continuously unfettered escalation, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the mix might not easily be prevented.

If President Donald Trump's defensive first strike against North Korea were recognizably less than massive, a fully rational adversary in Pyongyang might determine that his own chosen reprisal should be correspondingly "limited." But if Mr. Trump's consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Kim Jung Un could then become an "all out" retaliation.

Such an unanticipated response, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, would expectedly be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of U.S., South Korean, and/or Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, of course, this sort of response could inflict very tangible harms. North Korea's unconventional weapons already include advanced biological and chemical agents. Even a perfectly rational North Korean leadership could sometime calculate that all-out retaliations would make perfect strategic sense.

In facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual capability and rationality, both President Trump and President Kim Jung Un must continuously concern themselves with possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and cyber-defense/cyber-war. This means that even if President Trump and President Kim were both entirely sane and focused - a charitable assumption, to be sure - northeast Asia could still descend rapidly toward an uncontrollable nuclear war.

When Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, it was to express confidence in an ultimate victory for Athens. Simultaneously, as recalled by Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BCE), Pericles had also expressed various deep apprehensions about self-imposed setbacks along the way. "What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies," lamented Pericles, "is our own mistakes."

Today, our own biggest mistake vis-à-vis North Korea would be to further abandon a medical model of strategic crisis analysis, and continue to rely instead upon the patently ineffectual grammar of visceral tweets or competitive insults. This judgment is offered not because of any primary per se concern for reducing expansively boorish US presidential behavior in world politics, but only to better ensure that all our developing American "therapies" for the Kim Jung Un "pathology" are based upon thoroughly scientific diagnoses.

Louis Rene Beres, an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University, received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1971. Dr. Beres is a widely published author on the topics of philosophy and jurisprudence, and his writings have appeared in books, monographs, and law reviews. Dr. Beres is an international expert on nuclear weapons and has also served as a security consultant for the US and Israeli governments.

Suggested citation:Louis Rene Beres, Diagnosing the North Korean Pathology, JURIST — Academic Commentary, September 30, 2017, http://jurist.org/forum/2017/09/Beres-north-korea-policy.php

This article was prepared for publication by Kelly Cullen, a JURIST Section Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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About Academic Commentary

Academic Commentary is JURIST's platform for legal academics, offering perspectives by law professors on national and international legal developments. JURIST Forum welcomes submissions (about 1000 words in length - no footnotes, please), inquiries and comments at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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