North Korean Nuclear Threat

Post “miniaturized nuclear warhead” and “fire and fury” statements there has been much discussion about both the threat from North Korea and the tone of the US response. We have already discussed the latter, and to a lesser extent the former. We have a couple of additional comments on the former.

That North Korea might be able to deliver a nuclear warhead via an ICBM is certainly cause for limited concern. It may not, however, represent an imminent threat. As alluded to previously, much of the North Korean military position is predicated on the belief that the US and allied western powers present a direct, existential threat to North Korea. In their scenarios, we are the aggressors. Their strategy is rationally a defensive one, in that they know that they are not well positioned to initiate a sustained conflict or to gain and control territory. Instead, their strategy is to present an incredibly unappealing target to western powers. They know we may ultimately win the conflict, but they intend for us to know that the victory will be very costly. A nuclear capability is a logical extension of this strategic aim.

A North Korean first strike would be suicidal. Very little could likely provoke such, even given the bellicose language and seeming instability of their current leader. With that in mind, it becomes more important to take a measured approach to dealing with an increased threat posture from the North Koreans. It is possible that the seeming inevitability of a strike by the US could influence a first strike decision. Language that signals to the North Koreans that we intend to attack on the basis of their acquisition of new nuclear capabilities could potentially push them toward a first strike.

Another aspect being discussed that we have not addressed is the potential role of China in containing or constraining North Korea. Some assert that China can, will, and even has a responsibility to reign in its ornery neighbor. China has its own strategic objectives in the region, which might give China the motivation to at least appear to be trying to help. Those objectives do not include doing anything that interfere with its economic standing, its claims in the South China sea, or giving the US and western powers any actual or perceived strategic advantage in the region. With these constraints in mind, what measures can we reasonably expect China to take? An armed conflict with North Korea isn’t in their best interest, and neither is an outbreak of armed conflict between North Korea and other regional nations. There are limited economic measures China is willing to take with North Korea given their trade ties. Allowing a western power to occupy any land north or the 38th parallel is absolutely out of the question from China’s perspective. Again, what do we really expect them to do?

The immediate threat from North Korea is real, though the threat of conventional attacks is far greater than from nuclear attacks, and their reach to the US proper is limited. Other than serving as a distraction from other news, advances in North Korean nuclear capabilities are a cause for attention, but not significant concern. Action is warranted, though diplomatic action is far more likely to be effective than chest-beating rhetorical devices. Having a hot war with Korea will be bad for the entire region, at least, so great care and tact are warranted in any response.