President Biden and North Korea: Deterrence, Not Denuclearization, Is America’s Only Realistic Goal Commentary
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President Biden and North Korea: Deterrence, Not Denuclearization, Is America’s Only Realistic Goal

“Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch.” – Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934)

During his March 25, 2021 press conference, US President Joe Biden declared “denuclearization” as America’s ultimate strategic goal for North Korea. Though such a declaration might first appear reasonable, it misrepresents what is plausible in solving this country’s most urgent military problem. In essence, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and posture are a fait accompli; now, effectively, they are irreversible.

For the United States, this means that meaningfully pragmatic remedies to Kim Jong Un’s still-growing nuclear capabilities must point in variously other directions. More specifically, these remedies should now coalesce around a single overarching orientation to belligerent threat management. This is the situational orientation of credible nuclear deterrence.

History deserves pride of place. Substantial policy errors were made by former US President Donald Trump, who mistakenly called “denuclearization” America’s overriding strategic objective and failed to offer any viable North Korean solutions. To be sure, getting Kim Jong Un to reverse his nation’s steadfast posture on nuclear weapons modernization would represent an ideal American strategic outcome, but it would also be starkly unrealistic and perhaps even unimaginable.

Much as President Biden might wish it were otherwise, this is not yet an ideal or reason-based world.

How should America’s current president proceed in this stubborn “theatre” of instability, one where North Korea test-fired its latest ballistic missiles during the last week of March 2021? To begin with a galvanizing but incontestable premise, Mr. Biden should acknowledge that Pyongyang would never voluntarily surrender its nuclear weapons altogether and that getting Kim Jong Un to undertake such a surrender involuntarily could produce apocalyptic outcomes. There is nothing hyperbolic or exaggerated about such a bold prediction. Though North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and infrastructures are patently less powerful than our own, they are nonetheless capable of bringing unacceptable levels of devastation to targeted countries.

These presumptively adversarial states include not only such American allies as Japan and South Korea but even the United States itself.

For the US, going forward, there can be only one intellectually defensible and law-enforcing stance toward North Korea. This is a coherent posture centering on long-term mutual deterrence. In this connection, prudent and concept-based decision-making will be indispensable. Among other things, President Biden should take scrupulous care never to exaggerate or overstate America’s military power advantage and/or its associated risk-taking calculus. In part, at least, such aptly considered diplomatic caution would stem from the absence of any historically comparable crises.

Some pertinent jurisprudential clarifications are now in order. From the standpoint of international law, there is no discernible contradiction between enhanced nuclear deterrence and world legal order. Rather, in our always decentralized or “Westphalian” system of international law (bequeathed originally at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), law enforcement has always relied upon variously intersecting mechanisms of “self-help.” In this long-codified system of structural anarchy, peace can be maintained only via assorted stratagems of threat, “balance,” and counter-threat.

To be sure, these stratagems are augmented and tempered by multiple regimes of treaties, customs, and “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations,” but the de facto final arbiters of world politics are those state and regional/global actors who can qualify as “powerful.”

In the best of all possible worlds, greater global centralization would replace Realpolitik altogether, but for the foreseeable future, the core deterrence logic of power politics will have to continue to be acknowledged. From the valued standpoint of international law enforcement, it’s not complicated. As a continuously primal species, we are simply not yet ready for this regrettable logic to be discarded.

There is more. Even with a greatly improved US president, American military planners and decision-makers will remain limited in their capacity to learn meaningfully from the past. Still, even in the more promising “Biden era,” preventing nuclear war with North Korea should never again become a seat-of-the-pants political process, a sideshow dominated by mountebanks, strategic amateurs and utterly vacant showmen.

In the final analysis, to make a point never understood by former President Donald J. Trump, the primary battlefield of any future war, especially nuclear war, must be intellectual.

In these generally complex and sometimes synergistic matters, decisional caution should become the watchword. By definition, there are no “go-to” experts on the subject of a nuclear war, neither civilian nor military. Ipso facto, as there has never been such a war, there can be no way for American planners or decision-makers to ascertain the true mathematical probability of any US-North Korea nuclear conflict. Looking ahead, there exist ample strategic grounds for exhibiting US decisional “humility.”

For the United States, this is not the time for overweening pride or hubris.

For President Biden, it is a proper time to display decision-making modesty on nuclear dealings with Kim Jong Un. When a prospectively belligerent path for a nation-state has never been walked before, it is incumbent upon the calculating “traveler” to advance slowly, purposefully, and with a recognizable deliberateness. In such delicate military matters, moreover, no other conceivable advance could prove similarly gainful.

There is more. All strategic issues concern many-sided matters of science, law, and logic, not just wishful thinking or unfounded faith. Though Trump’s original reference to his June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jong Un was made about an occasion where the two leaders “fell in love,” there remained few if any detectable benefits to this alleged “romance.” This does not mean that Joe Biden’s senior strategists and counselors should steer away from clear-eyed assessments of nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn from a constantly shifting and difficult-to-decipher geopolitics.

In all such matters, conspicuous erudition should have its policy-shaping place. For example, the “pandemic variable” could sometime prove more-or-less decisive in strategic terms. But calculating plausible connections or correlations between this biological variable and US national security could also represent a gargantuan task, an unprecedented obligation of Herculean proportion.

President Biden 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. Ironically, at least with particular reference to Russia, Cold War II proved to be less of a “contextual variable.” This is because US President Donald Trump often behaved as if he were merely the obsequious surrogate or witting subordinate of Vladimir Putin.

Whatever else one might say of this twisted Cold War II relationship, it played out as The Manchurian Candidate on stilts and steroids.

Now, more planning precision is required. How shall the United States best act accordingly? 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 Biden and his designated counselors to remain ready to offer the best available war-peace estimations.

Among all 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.

Whatever the particular cause, useful calculations will have to include presumed North Korean conflict orientations to certain regional American allies, and not just the US directly. Such inclusion, in turn, will have to factor in China. Here, focus should not be on the gratuitous scapegoating favored by Donald Trump (a dereliction that eventually spawned Trump’s deflecting references to the “China virus”) but on tangible expressions of Beijing’s global power projection.

In these bewildering 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 vitally important to any hoped-for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention efforts.

Further clarifications are needed. 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 accident. Instead, an unintentional nuclear war could sometime be the result of decisional miscalculation or irrationality, and by either one or both of the two contending presidents. Such an understanding is entirely realistic, and ought to underscore the analysis-based need for decision-maker humility rather than contrived bravado.

There is much more to know. Facing future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine and measure various dynamic configurations of foreseeable nuclear risk. When they are 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). Nonetheless, they might also arise quite suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent diffusiveness and in multiple or overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

Whatever their nuances, these examinations will be intellectual tasks, not narrowly political ones. To understand such determinative “cascades” will require carefully-honed, well-developed, and formidable analytic skills. Correspondingly, this will not be a graspable task for the intellectually faint-hearted. It will generally require manifestly rare combinations of historical acquaintance, law-based erudition, and well-demonstrated capacities to perform advanced dialectical thinking.

In essence, this points to a task that will require thinkers who are as comfortable elucidating assorted prescriptions of Plato, Descartes, and Grotius as they are with the more narrowly technical elements of modern strategic planning.

Here, certain understandings will call for crucial bifurcations. Currently most worrisome is that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is likely paying sufficient attention to the grave risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point in their ongoing bilateral relations, each president would seem to assume the other’s decision-making rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual assumptions, it would make no calculable sense for either side to negotiate any further nuclear security accommodations with the other.

For President Biden, goals should be made plain or conspicuous. Stable and viable deterrence, not Pyongyang’s “denuclearization,” must become the overriding US strategic goal vis-à-vis North Korea. This complex goal remains contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning incremental nuclear arms control and enemy rationality.

But are such assumptions still valid in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If not, if President Joe Biden should sometime begin to fear overt enemy irrationality in Pyongyang, issuing explicit threats of US retaliation might only make matters even less stable. This is especially worrisome where the new threats are expressly disproportionate.

In the past, as part of his escalating bravado detached from secure intellectual moorings, Donald Trump favored such vaporous threats as “complete annihilation” or “total destruction.” Of course, no such shallow preference ever stood a scintilla of chance to meet America’s nuanced security goals. What might once have sounded reasonable or “tough” to an anti-intellectual and law-violating American president could only have reduced US nuclear deterrent persuasiveness.

At some point, if once again made contingent upon seat-of-the-pants bellicosity, American national security could come to depend on presumptively viable/legal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Settling upon such untested combinations would lack decisional input from any tangible or quantifiable historical evidence, and could be existentially risky. In a conceivably worst case, the offensive military element would entail a narrowly situational preemption – a defensive first strike.

At that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral and law-enforcing reconciliation would 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 substantive intellectual and legal foundations. More precisely, with the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, determining optimal US policy combinations from one crisis to another could 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 an actual military nuclear engagement between the two countries.

Some years back, Donald Trump, speaking of Kim Jong Un, bragged that though both leaders may have a nuclear “button,” “my button is bigger than his.” In such urgent matters of national nuclear strategy, however, size might likely not matter. Indeed, in matters of strategic nuclear deterrence, even a seemingly “weaker” nuclear force could sometime still inflict 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 be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” This juridical correctness would apply only if the American side could argue persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was actually “imminent in point of time.”

Discernible “imminence” is specifically required by the determinable standards of international law – that is, by authoritative criteria established and codified after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.” Today, in the infinitely perplexing nuclear age, precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract or densely problematic. What then?

For the time being, 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, moreover, Kim is assumed to be technically rational and remains subject to US nuclear deterrence. But 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.

There is more. 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 prove more or less indecipherable.

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 offering their strategic choices. 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 mistakenly chosen to reignite law-threatening exclamations of belligerent bravado.

An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of misunderstandings or miscalculations between rational national leaders, but as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistic) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions, or of certain “hacking”-type interventions. Ominously, going forward, these interventions could include unprecedented intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

What essential “nuclear bargaining” dynamics 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 levels of “escalation dominance” without sacrificing any vital national security obligations.

This second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or existential harms.

What is the strategic “bottom line” for Joe Biden? All underlying issues of adversarial contention between Washington and Pyongyang are enormously complicated and (as corollary) subject to literally irremediable failure. Faced with such daunting complexities – both operational and legal – each side must now proceed warily, in suitably deliberate fashion, and with a posture that is both militarily purposeful and prudentially risk-averse. Reciprocally, any aggressive over-confidence by President Biden and/or President Kim will have to be consciously avoided.

Naturally, though such sound advice cannot be gainfully communicated to Kim Jong Un, the American president will have to fashion this country’s law-supporting strategy upon dispassionate analyses and reason-based theory. And whatever its particular nuances, whether expected or unexpected, such theory must point convincingly to tangibly realistic or still-achievable goals. Although it would be nice, in the best of all possible worlds, for Kim to accept non-nuclear status, this is not yet the best of all possible worlds.

Or as they would say here in Indiana: “Not hardly.”

The core policy “lesson” should be unambiguous. Whatever an American presidents’ in-principle preferences, this country’s plausible goals should never include North Korean denuclearization. Whatever its particular methods of expression, bargaining, and operation, Washington’s strategic theory vis-à-vis Pyongyang must continuously emphasize various will-based policies of strategic dissuasion. For Joe Biden, creating and sustaining stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea will soon represent the only promising game in town. It follows that preparing to play this “game” effectively and expeditiously is more important than any cultivated or concocted presidential “attitude.”

In Chapter 18 of his classic Gallic War, Julius Caesar comments: “Men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe.” Understood in terms of current US foreign policy toward North Korean nuclear dangers, this observation suggests the futility of believing that Pyongyang would ever exchange its nuclear armaments for sanctions relief or expanded financial incentives. In order to respond realistically to Kim Jong Un’s latest expansion of ballistic missile provocations, Washington’s only correct response must be based on a harsh reality Americans don’t want to believe. This is the reality that Trump-type focusing on leadership personalities or “attitude” must inevitably “miss the point,” and that US strategic policies should emphasize the visible centrality and conspicuous lawfulness of stable nuclear deterrence.

Among other considerations, this means a refined focus on the expected rationality or irrationality of key decision-makers in North Korea, on the cumulative requirements of escalation dominance, and on the always vital distinctions that necessarily obtain between intentional, unintentional, and accidental nuclear war.

Sound theoretical foundations will be needed to meet these complex expectations. Accordingly, any continued US search for North Korean “denuclearization” would prove markedly futile and potentially calamitous. Good theory must provide a serviceable “net” for President Joe Biden and his policy planners.

Going forward, only those American decision-makers who actually cast such a net can ever expect to “catch.”


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018). Professor Beres’ strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); JURIST; Daily Princetonian; Horasis (Switzerland); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Hill; The National Interest; and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, President Biden and North Korea: Deterrence, Not Denuclearization, Is America’s Only Realistic Goal, JURIST – Academic Commentary, April 9, 2021,

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