With North Korea’s recent claims of having tested a hydrogen bomb, there is renewed concern about the situation on the Korean peninsula and the North’s expanding nuclear program. Yet despite a possible increase in nuclear weapons capability, the strategic situation on the Korean peninsula has not changed since North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold.
Basically, it is incredibly unlikely that North Korea will use its nuclear weapons prior to the outbreak of a new Korean war, which the country has no interest in starting.
This is because North Korea’s primary goal is survival of the regime. Considering this, it is wrong to describe North Korea as “crazy,” or irrational, as the North Korean leadership fully understands that they will ultimately lose a Korean War, nuclear weapons or not.
This understanding has led the North Korean regime to undertake efforts that may seem “crazy” in order to ensure its survival.
Given that the outbreak of a new Korean war will destroy the North Korean regime, it has every interest in preventing that outbreak. To do so, North Korea has undertaken the following rational calculi:
- Provocations and “crazy” actions by the North Koreans act to deter the United States or South Korea from launching an effort aimed a regime change.
- By seeming “crazy,” North Korea discourages its opponents from undertaking measures that could be seen to provoke an all-out North Korean attack.
- Nuclear weapons strengthen North Korea’s deterrent factor. The eruption of a New Korean war will undoubtedly end with the destruction of the North Korean regime; a regime which stakes its existence on making the cost of an invasion of the North higher than its benefit.
- Nuclear weapons will be used if the North is invaded, as there is nothing for the regime to lose.
Condemnations, including from the United States, are already being issued against North Korea for its nuclear test. Many are calling for China to play a more constructive role in dealing with the North Korean issue, as the North will never denuclearize unless China exerts significant pressure on it to do so. But pressuring China to do so is easier said than done, especially as the economic relationship between the US and China is strongly intertwined. To ultimately give up nuclear weapons, North Korea will have to feel that retaining its nuclear weapons endangers the regime’s survival more than not having them—and China will have to see it as in its own interests to exert the necessary pressure.
In the meantime, there are concrete measures the United States can take to address the reality of a nuclear North Korea:
- Increase intelligence and surveillance: This includes satellite and possibly aerial reconnaissance, and will inform potential military options short of a full-scale invasion.
- Develop assets, capabilities, and forces capable of destroying or disabling North Korea’s leadership or command and control system.
- Develop assets, capabilities, and forces capable of destroying or disabling North Korea’s ability to use nuclear weapons.
- Invest in missile defense research, capabilities and systems specifically aimed at North Korea.
- Prepare contingency options for an unexpected collapse of the North Korean regime.
- Ensure mechanisms are in place for de-escalation in order to prevent an outbreak of war.
- Ensure strategy and coordination between the United States, South Korea, and regional allies is coordinated and these defense commitments are reiterated clearly to the North.
- Attempt to increase international exchanges as a long-term method of engaging the people of North Korea, especially scientists if possible.
None of these are easy options, but the North Korean situation is not an easy one to resolve. Even without nuclear weapons, the first hours of a new Korean War would be incredibly costly to South Korea, despite the South’s militarily superiority.
Keeping these potential costs in mind, the US should consider ways in which it can coordinate a worldwide response to constructively engage China on this issue. In the end, the solution may be a matter of laying out a new landscape for China’s opportunity cost.