A sense of alarm is rising throughout the world as North Korea follows up its war rhetoric with two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, a missile launch plan aimed at Guam, a missile launch over Japan, followed by its sixth nuclear — and possibly its first successful thermonuclear — bomb test. North Korea is on the verge of establishing the ability to mount a miniaturized thermonuclear warhead on an ICBM that could reach Washington, London or almost anywhere else.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his regime are making every effort to acquire nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis the United States without fear of failure and isolation. Kim may seem desperate and losing his senses. But make no mistake; he is not mad despite his unique appearance and belligerent rhetoric. On the contrary, his actions are rational when viewed from the perspective of nuclear deterrence theory.
It makes strategic sense for North Korea to develop multiple strike capabilities while enhancing their survivability with solid-fuel technology, road mobility and submarine-launch technology. North Korea must still successfully develop warhead re-entry technology and will also seek MIRV technology — placing multiple independent warheads on each ballistic missile — to make them more difficult for the U.S. to intercept. But it’s a matter of when, not if.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile program has its origin in former leader Kim Il Sung’s statement in 1965, in which he ordered the military to develop long-range strike capabilities to attack Tokyo and Washington. North Korea failed to unify the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War due to the intervention by U.S.-led U.N. forces. Japan served as a logistics base during the war. In short, North Korea’s nuclear and missile program aims to deter another U.S.-led military intervention. After several decades, North Korea is finally realizing its founder’s long-cherished wish.
Japan has been within the reach of North Korea’s short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, with or without chemical and biological warheads, since the early 1990s, while South Korea has been under the threat of a vast heavy artillery force deployed along the DMZ since the 1953 armistice. This force constitutes North Korea’s actual deterrence against any U.S. “aggression.” The U.S. set several red lines to stop North Korea’s nuclear program but never enforced them due to the North’s massive conventional war capabilities. As a result, those red lines became a red carpet.
In 1994, for instance, when the Clinton administration considered a preventive strike on North Korean nuclear facilities, the U.S. military estimated that 50,000 U.S. soldiers, 500,000 South Korean soldiers, and a million civilians, including 100,000 U.S. citizens, would be killed in 90 days. Those figures were unacceptable to President Bill Clinton. Today, 200,000 U.S. citizens live on the peninsula — a figure almost the same as the population of Pittsburgh. No U.S. president, not even Donald Trump, can easily make a decision to use force to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs when it means sacrificing so many U.S. citizens.
In addition, Kim will soon acquire the ability to directly destroy any targets in Guam, Hawaii and the continental U.S. with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. From the fates of Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Kim learned that countries which give up their nuclear ambitions will face regime change. So, dissuasion is no longer a realistic solution for the North.
Prevention is not a solution, either. North Korea is, whether people like it or not, a de facto nuclear weapon state with multiple delivery means. A preventive surgical strike would become a full-scale war with massive casualties on both sides, and could go nuclear.
This does not mean, however, that pre-emption is off the table. If North Korea poses an imminent threat, the U.S. and its allies should defend and defeat. Provocations by North Korea must also be proportionally responded to by the U.S. and its allies to prevent further escalation.
More importantly, the U.S. and its allies should enhance deterrence with massive retaliation and denial capabilities. North Korea’s priority is survival and therefore it regards its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent rather than a device for aggression. Pyongyang has repeatedly announced that U.S. “hostility” is the main driver of its nuclear missile development. If so, the U.S. and its allies can deter North Korean aggression even after the desperate state obtains a nuclear deterrent. In short, North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM is not a game changer.
But if Kim believes North Korea and the U.S. are mutually deterred and feels safe, he might try to coerce South Korea and Japan with nuclear blackmail to achieve his political objectives, such as the withdrawal of American troops from the two countries. As strategists say, it’s a typical stability-instability paradox. To prevent North Korea from successfully decoupling the U.S. and its allies, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul should come up with a common strategic goal and a strategy to achieve it.
There is no easy, short-term solution. There needs to be a long-term strategy. Is denuclearization a realistic goal? Are we ready for nuclear arms control with North Korea? Are we willing to talk with Kim or are we seeking regime change? What is the best mix of pressure and engagement? How do we prevent North Korea from launching a desperate attack? Do we prefer a unified Korea or not? How do we strengthen trilateral cooperation for deterrence and defense? How do we engage with China, Russia and other reluctant partners? These are some of the questions that need to be answered to formulate a strategy.
It might take long to negotiate a trilateral strategy at a time when North Korea is about to obtain a nuclear deterrent. But since North Korea is rational, not mad, deterrence can work. Let’s not discuss a U.S. preventive strike. Let’s discuss strategy. There is no time to waste.
Tetsuo Kotani is a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He covers Japan’s security policy and the Japan-U.S. alliance.