Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, analyses the various facets of a miscalculated nuclear war breaking out between the US and North Korea if both leaders are not careful...
“Hic Sunt Dracones” – the Hunt-Lenox Globe, 1504
“Friction is the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.” – Carl von Clausewitz, On War
Once again, on October 9, 2020, with immodest displays of tangible hardware, North Korea mocked Donald Trump’s lingering expectations of “denuclearization.” Here, in Pyongyang, President Kim Jong Un smugly revealed a “monster” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Further highlighted at Kim’s extravagant military parade were the Hwasong-15, which is the longest-range missile ever tested by North Korea, and also what appeared to be a newly-refined submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
How did US President Trump respond? The only apparent reaction from Washington was to call this strategic exposure “disappointing.” Nary a polite nod about the corresponding legal consequences and implications was offered by the White House.
None of this should come as any surprise. Massive state-of-the-art nuclear weapons remain North Korea’s most conspicuous expression of global power and influence. To be sure, Kim will never voluntarily surrender such weapons. Realistically, all focused US efforts to deal with this rapidly growing nuclear threat should center on long-term mutual deterrence. Creating this plausibly stabilizing condition by law and diplomacy will be indispensable.
For the United States, prudent decision-making in this unstable theatre of potential nuclear conflict will be necessary. Among other things, President Donald J. Trump should take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. In part, at least, such aptly considered diplomatic caution would stem from the absence of any historically comparable crises.
By this absence, prima facie, American military planners and decision-makers remain starkly limited in their capacity to learn from the past. Still, preventing nuclear war with North Korea is not a seat-of-the-pants process for strategic amateurs or political showmen. In the final analysis, the primary battlefield of any war, including nuclear war, must be intellectual.
There is more. By definition, there are no “go to” experts on the subject of a nuclear war, civilian or military. As there has never been such a war, there could be no way for American planners or decision-makers to ascertain the mathematical probability of a US-North Korea nuclear conflict. It follows, inter alia, that there exist ample grounds for US decisional modesty. For the United States, it is high time to display profound humility on all strategic and law-based dealings with Kim Jong Un.
When a prospectively belligerent path has never been walked upon before, it is incumbent on the calculating “traveler” to advance slowly, purposefully and with recognizable deliberateness.
In essence, all strategic issues are many-sided matters of science, law and logic, not just wishful thinking or faith. Though Trump’s original reference to the June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit was to an occasion where the two leaders “fell in love,” there remain few if any residual benefits to this earlier “romance.” This does not mean that Trump’s senior strategists and counselors should in any fashion steer away consciously from clear-eyed assessments of nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn from a constantly shifting and hard to decipher geopolitics.
In terms of international law, this geopolitics remains much like its original form in the seventeenth century; that is, anarchic, force-based and unmitigated by any well-intentioned global authority.
There is more. It goes without saying that the “pandemic variable” could sometime prove decisive in strategic terms. Unalterably, calculating plausible connections between this novel biological variable and US national security would represent an unprecedented task of Herculean proportion. President Trump will also have to bear in mind that many continuously transforming and mutating strategic developments throughout Asia will be impacted by “Cold War II.”
This “War” references an ongoing and primary oppositional stance with Russia, and – more or less derivatively – with China.
How shall the United States plan? Proceeding with assorted time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy, all significant US strategic calculations will be fraught with intersecting, overlapping and daunting uncertainties. Always, it will be necessary for President Trump and his relevant counselors to remain ready to offer the best available war-peace estimations. Among potential causal factors – some of them maximally interdependent or authentically “synergistic” – the calculable risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang (or between Pyongyang and South Korea) will depend upon whether such a fearful conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.
Ipso facto, this three-fold distinction would also have pertinent jurisprudential differences.
Whatever the particular cause, useful calculations will have to include presumed North Korean conflict orientations to certain regional American allies, not just to the US directly. Such inclusion, in turn, will have to factor in China.
As always, in these calculations, refined strategic theory will be a necessary “net.” Only those who “cast,” can be expected to “catch.” This tripartite distinction on cause could prove important to any hoped for success in US-North Korea nuclear war prediction and prevention.
Any accidental nuclear war between the US and North Korea would be unintentional or inadvertent, but not all unintentional nuclear wars would be the result of an accident. An unintentional nuclear war could sometime be the result of decisional miscalculation or irrationality, by either one or both of the two contending parties/presidents. Such an understanding is entirely plausible, and ought to underscore the need for decision-maker humility rather than flagrantly chauvinistic bravado.
There is much more to know. Facing future North Korean negotiations – proceedings governed by authoritative international law – it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine dynamic configurations of foreseeable nuclear risk. When expressed in the orthodox game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, these shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington); but, they might also arise more-or-less suddenly, unexpectedly, with an apparent diffusiveness and in multiple or overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.
Whatever their nuances, these examinations will be intellectual and legal tasks, not political ones. To understand any such “cascades” will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. Correspondingly, this will not be a graspable task for the analytically faint-hearted. It will require generally rare combinations of historical acquaintance, legal erudition and well- demonstrated capacities for advanced dialectical thinking.
In essence, this points to a task that will require thinkers who are as comfortable with elucidating holistic computation prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with more narrowly technical elements of modern strategic planning.
Certain understandings here will call for crucial bifurcations. Currently, it is worrisome that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is likely paying sufficient attention to the specific risks of an unintentional nuclear war. Moreover, to this point in their ongoing relations, each President would seem to assume the other’s decision-making rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual assumption, it would make no calculable sense for either side to negotiate any further nuclear security accommodations with the other.
Goals here must be plain. Stable and viable deterrence, not Pyongyang’s “denuclearization,” must become the overriding US strategic goal vis-à-vis North Korea. This complex goal is always contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. But are such assumptions valid in the particular case of a potential war between two nuclear powers? If not, if President Donald Trump should sometime begin to fear overt enemy irrationality in Pyongyang, issuing any explicit threats of US retaliation might only make matters less stable.
This is especially worrisome where the new threats were expressly disproportionate. In the past, in his escalating bravado detached from any secure intellectual foundations, Donald Trump has favored such utterly vacant and law-violating threats as “complete annihilation” or “total destruction.” No such crudely lawless preference stands even a scintilla of chance to meet legitimate American security goals. What might sound reasonably “tough” to an American President comfortable only with metaphors of the street may nonetheless only reduce US nuclear deterrent persuasiveness.
At some point, if made too contingent upon seat-of-the-pants bellicosity, American national security could come to depend on some presumptively viable combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Settling upon such untested and legally-problematic combinations would lack decisional input from any tangible/quantifiable historical evidence, and would be existentially risky. In the conceivably worst case, the offensive military element could entail a narrowly situational preemption – a defensive first strike.
At that manifestly late stage, of course, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot.
At that portentous point, there could remain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a nuclear North Korea would still be rational.
In Washington’s nuclear relations with Pyongyang, none of these decisions should ever be made casually or without fully substantive intellectual foundations. More precisely, with the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, determining optimal US policy combinations from one crisis to another could very quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive, the fact that the United States is recognizably “more powerful” than North Korea could prove to be largely irrelevant.
Even worse, it could become the underlying cause of some actual military nuclear engagement between the two countries.
Some years back, Donald Trump, speaking of Kim Jong Un, bragged that both leaders may have a nuclear “button,” but that “my button is bigger than his.”
In such urgent matters of national strategy, however, size would likely not matter. In matters of strategic nuclear deterrence, even a seemingly “weaker” nuclear force could still inflict wholly unacceptable harms.
In these delicate matters, the weaker party could remain fully capable of wreaking “assuredly destructive” retaliations. In all such foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain various overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law, the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might sometime be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.”
This juridical correctness would apply, however, only if the American side could argue persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was “imminent in point of time.”
Discernible “imminence” is specifically required by the authoritative standards of international law – that is, by criteria established and codified after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.” Today, in the perplexing nuclear age, aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could also prove sorely abstract or densely problematic. What then?
For the time being, at least, it seems plausible that Kim Jong Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, Kim is assumed to be technically rational, and thus remains subject to US nuclear deterrence. Nonetheless, it could still become important for any negotiating American president to distinguish accurately between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and instances of feigned or pretended irrationality.
Such an expectation might not be easily satisfied in the midst of any already-ongoing nuclear crisis; that is, in extremis atomicum. As for the potential effects of disease pandemic upon accurate adversarial assessments, these would inevitably be significant. They could also be more-or-less indecipherable.
There is more. Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, especially if both adversaries were fully rational, either or both heads of state could still commit catastrophic errors in making strategic choices. Any such errors would likely represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these sorts of prospectively crucial errors are more apt to occur in circumstances where one or both presidents had chosen to reignite exclamations of gratuitous bravado or belligerent rhetoric.
An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of certain misunderstandings or miscalculations between rational national leaders, but also as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistic) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions, or certain “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could surely include unprecedented intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”
What are the essential “nuclear bargaining” dynamics that now need to be studied? In any crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will expectedly strive to maximize two overriding goals at the same time. These objectives are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing vital national security obligations.
In the final analysis, this second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or existential harms.
What is the “bottom line”? All underlying issues of strategic contention between Washington and Pyongyang are enormously complicated and (as an inevitable corollary) subject to irremediable failure. Faced with such complexities – both operational and legal – each side must now proceed warily, in suitably deliberate fashion, with a posture that is both militarily purposeful and prudentially risk-averse. Reciprocally, any aggressive over-confidence by President Trump and/or President Kim will have to be consciously avoided.
Recalling the terrible costs of excessive leadership pride chronicled in Greek tragedy – that is, existential costs of “hubris” – the American President must also understand that there will be no rescues from any Deus ex machina. In the end, these must all be matters of problematic human judgment.
Although everything on the bargaining table could appear simple, it would be wise to keep in mind the classic “friction-centered” warning of Carl von Clausewitz. “Everything is very simple in war,” says the Prussian military thinker in On War, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.” Always, this difficulty must extend to corresponding matters of law.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles in the field. Professor Beres’ writings appear in many leading newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, The National Interest, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and Oxford University Press. In Israel, where his latest writings were published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Policy and Strategy and the Institute for National Security Studies, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Dr. Beres’ strategy-centered publications have been published in such places as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; JURIST; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Israel); The Strategy Bridge; The War Room (USA War College); Modern War Institute (West Point); The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Modern Diplomacy; Yale Global Online; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard) and the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, “Hic Sunt Dracones”: Still Expanding Risks of a US-North Korea Nuclear War, JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 21, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/10/louis-rene-beres-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/.
This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary, JURIST’s Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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