North Korea and a Return of the “Balance of Terror”

August 30, 2017
North Korea and a Return of the “Balance of Terror”
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Whether by outside help from Russia and Pakistan, or by native Korean “stick-to-it-iv-ness” the North Korean regime has developed nuclear weapons that are small enough to fit onto missiles that are powerful enough to reach its arch-enemy, the United States, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.  Thus, the world is now enthralled by a new “balance of terror” where two adversaries are capable of attacking one another’s cities with the most powerful weapons ever built.  President Trump may relish in threatening nuclear holocaust, but the fact remains that there are few options now that the North Koreans have a credible nuclear deterrent: 1.) Pre-emptively attacking the Kim regime to destroy its nuclear weapons program, which would leave tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands dead in the retaliatory strikes against South Korea, Japan, or even U.S. territories, or 2.) Establishing a credible deterrent while maintaining a reliable direct channel of communication.  The continued relevance and importance of United States power and influence in global politics will turn, in part, on how it responds to this current crisis.

A look at some historical documents from early in the formation of United States Cold War nuclear doctrine will prove helpful in understanding the latest incarnation of nuclear terrorism.  First, even though North Korea has had for decades a massive conventional military force, capable of extreme violence against its immediate neighborhood foes (South Korea and Japan), nuclear weapons nevertheless present a strategic departure that is destabilizing.  Secondly, effective nuclear deterrence relies on several key factors, but relevant to the current situation are that both sides in a nuclear competition must have a “second-strike” capacity and that there must not be accidental use of nuclear weapons—in the current crisis, neither of these can be relied upon.  Lastly, bluster and threats are likely to prove totally ineffective in this case; instead clear, coordinated communication along established channels will help reduce the chance of errors.


Ice-picks, bayonets and thermonuclear war

Writing in 1966, Thomas Shelling set out to describe the “unacquisitive, unproductive power to destroy things” as a specific kind of bargaining power, and to understand how the dawn of the nuclear age might have changed this calculation.  Of nuclear weapons he wrote,

“Against defenseless people there is not much that nuclear weapons can do that cannot be done with an ice pick…this is a difference between nuclear weapons and bayonets.  It is not the number of people they can eventually kill but in the speed with which it can be done.”[1]

Shelling explained that with nuclear weapons, the need to fight through a land army or well-equipped navy in order to directly threaten and subdue a foreign population vanished.  In this way, the massive military powers of the Soviets and the United States were useless against the triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range strategic bombers, and stealthy nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines.  The populations of each nation (and of allied nations) were held hostage to the terrorism implicit in the deployment of nuclear weapons.  In exchange for this terror, the two powerful adversaries were deterred from direct military engagement.

Now, a very large swath of the United States, Asia Europe and even parts of Africa can be credibly terrorized by North Korean nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.  A graphic created by the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that places as far away as Chicago, Moscow, London, Paris, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, and Sydney can be reached by Pyongyang’s most powerful missile.  Once, people beyond its immediate neighbors could look at the “Hermit Kingdom” with bemusement, as if they were watching a high-definition remake of Stalinist Russia; now the odd, cruel, and poorly understood regime-cum-religious cult can seize the attention it has so long believed it deserves.   Before, though it could obliterate Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with its thousands of conventional artillery pieces and short-range rockets, and even though it threatened the use of chemical and biological weapons, North Korea can apply what Shelling called “coercive diplomacy” on the United States and its powerful friends.  As witness to the sudden reality of that threat, the state government of Hawaii began civil defense rehearsals in response to a simulated nuclear attack.  Not since the end of the cold war has that kind of public preparedness been seriously contemplated.


Not MAD, but still madness

Nuclear deterrence requires several features, but for the present crisis two require close analysis:  1.) the need for a second-strike capacity by both belligerents in the contest, and 2.) the avoidance of accidental use of nuclear weapons.  In the contest between North Korea and the United States, the existence of both is questionable and therefore destabilizing.

“Second-strike” is the ability of a nuclear force to survive a first strike and be able to effectively deliver a devastating blow to the enemy.  This is the cornerstone of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD).  If I am convinced of the fact that enough missies, bombers and submarines of my enemy will survive to retaliate massively against me, then rationally I will not contemplate a nuclear first-strike.  If this is true of both sides in a conflict, then neither will attack the other; the existence of those equally matched forces becomes purely a deterrent against nuclear war.  In this case, the nuclear capability of the North Koreans is far out-matched by the United States.  In a nuclear exchange where the Koreans struck first, sufficient stock of the United States’ strategic nuclear force would survive to completely obliterate North Korea, whereas, if the United States wished, it could very easily deploy a small fraction of its nuclear force to totally eradicate North Korea’s vulnerable nuclear forces in a single first-strike.  Thus, theoretically, the United States is not deterred from attacking North Korea with nuclear weapons.  Undoubtedly the North Koreans are aware of this imbalance.  So, while they may not initiate an unprovoked attack, they will maintain a hair-trigger posture and may be induced to use their limited nuclear capacity if they perceive they are under imminent attack by the United States—use your nukes before you loose them.   This imbalance makes signaling of intent ever more important to avoid mistakes.

Albert Wohlstetter, in a canonical 1958 RAND study on the state of U.S. nuclear deterrence wrote, “the great multiplication and spread of nuclear arms throughout the world, the drastic increase in the readiness of these weapons, and the decrease in the time available for the decision on their use must inevitably raise the risk of accident.”[2]  The speed with which nuclear weapons can be deployed in response to a crisis is sobering.  According to the Bureau of Atomic Scientists, United States retaliatory strikes against a perceived nuclear attack by intercontinental ballistic missile must be ordered within as little as twenty minutes.  The hair-trigger nature of Cold-War nuclear force posture necessitated the maintenance of constant, immediate communication—the nuclear “hot-line” between Washington and Moscow was one of the institutional improvements installed after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  As Wohlstetter concluded in part, “there can be miscalculations on the part of governments as to enemy intent and the meaning of ambiguous signals.”[3]  Clear, well-crafted communication, through trusted, resilient channels is necessary when mistakes can be catastrophic.

No such direct communication channel exists between the United States and North Korea.  No diplomatic relationship exists; there are no embassies in each other’s capital cities.  In fact, the current crisis is characterized by aggressive posturing with little direct communication.  For example, on the 9th of August, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reminded the North Koreans that the United States and its allies “possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”  When he differentiated between defensive and offensive capabilities Secretary Mattis referred to the United States “counter-force” doctrine for nuclear deterrence, which was designed to limit the effectiveness of a nuclear first strike.  If deterrence failed or seems to about to fail, damage to the United States can be limited in part by degrading the enemy’s capacity to execute nuclear attacks by destroying its nuclear forces, military command-and-control infrastructure, and political leadership.   This implies the necessity for a preemptive first strike.  Even if enemy civilian centers were not targeted, given the concentration of population centers on the Korean peninsula, non-combatant deaths and incidental damage to civilian objects would be inevitable and catastrophically high.  The North Koreans have long threatened massive retaliation if they are attacked or if they believe attack is imminent.  Presently the balance of terror is predicated on mutual distrust, heightened readiness, and a clear intent by both sides to preemptively respond to imminent threats.

“Outward histrionics”

 “A deterrent strategy is aimed at a rational enemy.  Without deterrent, general war is likely.  With it, war might still occur.  This is one reason deterrence is only a part and not the whole of a military and foreign policy,”

advised Albert Wohlstetter in 1958.[4]  Eight years later Schelling described in part what he believed made nuclear war more dangerous than conventional wars of the past, “the centralization of decision, in the divorce of war from political processes, and in computerized programs that threaten to take the war out of human hands once it begins.”[5]  Deterrence relies upon the rationality of the participants, the political calculation of national interest outweighs all others—the instinct for survival will constrain the most adventuresome political leader.  Donald Trump presents a challenge to this strategic assumption.  This is not to suggest that Trump would, on a whim or in a rage of indignation, begin a nuclear holocaust, but the perception on the part of North Korea and among U.S. allies that he might, necessarily heightens the readiness of all sides.  Like switching a loaded firearm from safe to fire, the possibility of an accident increases.

Secondly, the Trump administration has demonstrated a shocking degree of disunity regarding its North Korean strategy.  In an apparently unscripted remark at his private golf club in New Jersey, the President threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” if the North Korean regime attacks the United States.  Some have suggested that military action to force an end to the Kim regime is being considered, while Secretary of State Tillerson has tried to project relative calm and a commitment to diplomacy.  In response, Trump surrogates dismissed Secretary Tillerson’s comments and President Trump himself suggested the following day that his “fire and fury” comments may not have been tough enough.  Layered on top of all of this noise is that regarding even routine administrative matters, the President does not seem to have full authority over the government—witness how the Pentagon for all intents and purposes ignored Trump’s early morning tweets banning transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces.  This kind of disunity and confusion must be almost impossible to understand inside the totalitarian Kim regime.

Writing seventy years ago under the pseudonym X in an article appearing in Foreign Affairs, George Kennan framed a strategy that would become known as “containment.”  Paired with nuclear deterrence, containment became the overarching national security strategy employed by the United States during the Cold War.  Kennan recommended, “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies,” while cautioning that, “such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’”[6]  Kennan suggested that the United States create in the world an image of consistency, harmony, and peaceful prosperity.  He cautioned that disunity is a balm to one’s opponents in an ideological battle, “by the same token, exhibition of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country have an exhilarating effect.”[7]  Against a uniformly committed, totalitarian dictatorship, as deeply distrustful of the outside world as they are assured of their own correctness, belligerent rhetoric will serve to reinforce regime narratives while divisiveness and lack of clear leadership in Washington must be an encouragement in Pyongyang.

The parallels between Stalinist Russia and the present-day Kim regime are plain.  Joseph Stalin was an inspiration for the founder of the present North Korean state, Kim Il Sung.  Their highly centralized government is based on the Soviet system and though it has overlaid its own unique ideology of Juche or “self-reliance,” the North Korean regime remains a committed Marxist state that prioritizes its military over everything else.  Though not a perfect analogy, Kennan’s general suggestions can be instructive in this case.  Donald Trump is the personification of “outward histrionics” and seems incapable of much more than “superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’”  The combined effect of Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability, the disunity at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and the general ineffectiveness of bluff and bluster against an ideologically committed totalitarian dictatorship is that North Korean officials must be unnerved, confused, and emboldened.  Now they are armed with nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles—a dangerous mix.

Nuclear dawn, leadership sunset?

This crisis is a fresh test of leadership for a new U.S. administration that had vowed to disengage itself internationally.  The ramifications of mishandling the new strategic threat posed by North Korea are catastrophic; the new balance of terror must be treated with the respect it deserves.  President Trump may revel in his ability to boldly threaten “fire and fury” but is constrained by a dearth of viable options: 1.) initiate a preemptive war in which tens—perhaps hundreds—of thousands will be killed in South Korea and Japan, and cost trillions in reconstruction, and, if nuclear weapons are employed, relegate the United States to a pariah state, shorn of credibility and status as an international leader; or 2.) establish a clear, credible deterrent, while maintaining the ability to communicate directly and easily with Pyongyang to avoid accidents.  Whether or not Washington can or will exercise responsible leadership in the present crisis will determine if the North Korean nuclear weapons dawn becomes another day drawing down the diminished standing of United States’ power and influence in global politics.

[1].  Thomas C. Schelling.  Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, New Haven Conn. (1966): pp. 19, 20.

[2]. Albert Wohlstetter, “The delicate Balance of Terror,” P-1472, RAND Corporation, 6 November 1958.



[5].  Schelling, Arms and Influence, p. 20.

[6].  George Kennan, (as X), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, 25, no. 4 (1947): p. 575.

[7].  Ibid pp. 581-582.