The North Korea policy of the Donald Trump administration has been mired in a morass of contradiction and bluster. But there might be a silver lining: There is an indication that the administration will follow its predecessors and attempt to deny North Korea the ability to hold the United States at risk with nuclear weapons. If effectively implemented as a part of a comprehensive deterrence strategy, this approach would give the United States and its allies the best chance of containing a nuclear-armed North Korea and avoiding nuclear war.
In their attempts to formulate an effective strategy, the previous two administrations articulated an important strategic principle: The United States will attempt to deny North Korea the ability to hold the U.S. homeland at risk with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This is not, however, the same as saying that the United States will prevent North Korea from testing an ICBM or deploying an operational ICBM force, a goal that does not seem possible without paying an unacceptable cost. Rather, the principle is a signal of U.S. intent to deny North Korea the ability to use the threat of nuclear strikes against the U.S. homeland as coercive leverage.
The most visible and expensive element of this policy is the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. Initiated under President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002 and expanded by President Barack Obama in 2013, the GMD system is designed to defend against North Korean and Iranian ICBMs. The U.S. decision to deploy this system demonstrates that, from a strategic planning perspective, the United States saw a North Korean ICBM as a distinct possibility and took steps to ensure that extended deterrence to Japan and South Korea would remain viable even if North Korea deployed a nuclear-capable missile that could range the continental United States.
By seeking to reduce vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland, the United States has placed North Korea in a different category than Russia. (Where China should fit is a matter of debate.) Washington accepts that “mutual vulnerability” to nuclear attack is an enduring reality of its relationship with Moscow. In other words, the United States assesses that neither it nor Russia has the ability to disarm a considerable portion of the other’s nuclear weapons capability and prevent a significant retaliatory strike. Furthermore, as a matter of policy, the United States does not seek to develop strike and missile defense capabilities that would deny Russia a survivable nuclear second-strike capability.
Part of the reason the United States has accepted mutual vulnerability with Russia is that it wants to avoid first-strike instability. The traditional concept of first-strike instability reasons that a nuclear-armed country would have a strong incentive to launch a first strike against its nuclear-armed adversary in a crisis if, first, doing so would enable it to generate an advantage by destroying a significant portion of its adversary’s nuclear forces and, second, its adversary also has an incentive to strike first and limit damage before its own forces are degraded or destroyed. In other words, nuclear deterrence could fail in a crisis if one or both sides were to perceive that both the potential payoff of attacking and the risk of delaying or restraining are high.
Importantly, the use-them-or-lose-them logic of classical first-strike instability does not apply to the U.S.-North Korea nuclear relationship. In a crisis or conflict, North Korea would certainly fear for the survivability of its nuclear forces and potentially its regime. But even once North Korea’s nuclear force grows larger and more sophisticated, Pyongyang could not conceivably hope to generate an advantage by conducting a damage-limiting nuclear first strike against the United States. Such a strike would not significantly degrade U.S. nuclear forces or overall war potential and would ensure the end of the Kim regime. This is in no way a “dominant strategic move” for North Korea.
How then, could the United States fail to deter North Korean nuclear use? Pyongyang knows that it cannot use nuclear weapons and other capabilities to defeat U.S. and allied military forces. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s more plausible theory of victory is a strategy that attempts to use nuclear coercion to persuade the United States that the costs and risks of overthrowing the Kim regime are too high. In this sense, North Korea’s initial attempt at asymmetric escalation using nuclear weapons is more likely to be a limited strike against regional military targets than a massive strike against the continental United States. Pyongyang would attempt to degrade the ability of the U.S. to flow forces to the Korean Peninsula, while demonstrating a propensity for controlled risk-taking. But critically, North Korea would retain a survivable reserve nuclear force to threaten destruction of major U.S. population centers if the United States does not back down.
From this perspective, accepting U.S. vulnerability to North Korean nuclear forces would improve the credibility of North Korea’s coercive strategy and increase the risk of both war and nuclear use. If Kim Jong Un is confident that North Korea can maintain a survivable reserve force that can threaten U.S. cities, he may be tempted to use nuclear weapons in a limited, coercive fashion to try to terminate a conventional conflict with the United States and its allies. Rather than use-or-lose, the logic driving North Korean first use would be, use some because you will not lose the rest. Even more unsettling, if Pyongyang became confident in its ability to use nuclear coercion as a war termination mechanism, it might conclude that it has leeway to initiate violent provocations and even war.
Thus, rather than accepting North Korea’s ability to cause significant destruction to the United States with a nuclear strike, the United States should field damage limitation capabilities, a combination of strike and missile defense armaments that would allow the United States to disarm the majority of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability and prevent significant retaliatory strikes against U.S. cities. If the United States has a credible damage limitation option, the Kim regime is more likely to calculate that crossing the nuclear threshold would be a strategy for suicide, not survival, because North Korea would lack a reliable second-strike capability to deter regime change.
In order for U.S. damage-limitation capabilities to match North Korea’s rapidly improving long-range missile capabilities, there is an urgent need to improve U.S. homeland defense. The GMD system has well-documented limitations, and the Trump administration should make prudent investments to fix the program, emphasizing the need for cost-effective, reliable capabilities. In addition, the United States and its allies should field a combination of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike capabilities that can threaten North Korea’s road-mobile transporter erector launchers and ballistic-missile submarines.
The United States also should ensure that its policy of rejecting vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear strike is clear to Pyongyang. Worryingly, some North Korean officials have suggested that they have already achieved mutually assured destruction with the United States. Washington should change this assessment by signaling that even a credible ICBM threat would not deter the United States from coming to the defense of its allies.
But denying North Korea the ability to gain leverage by threatening the U.S. homeland would be just one element of a strategy for deterring North Korea from initiating a war and, if that fails, deterring North Korea from using nuclear weapons in that war. To strengthen deterrence of North Korean adventurism, the United States and South Korea also should improve their combined conventional force posture on the peninsula, particularly their ability to fight and win limited wars. To counter the threat of regional nuclear strikes, the United States, South Korea, and Japan should improve their ability to strike and defend against North Korea’s theater-range missiles. In truth, North Korea may see nuclear coercion targeting Japan or South Korea as a more likely path to terminating a war than directly threatening the United States.
Moreover, attempting to deny North Korea’s ability to deter the United States with nuclear coercion does not mean that the United States should forgo caution, restraint, and negotiation. Manufacturing crises through unnecessary hectoring only increases the risk of misperception in both crisis and conflict, making the challenge of managing escalation even more daunting. There is an ever-present risk that aggressive military signaling by North Korea and the United States could turn a crisis into an escalating conflict. And precisely because the United States and its allies are sure to win a total war, Kim Jong Un likely would fear that a war will result in regime change and may calculate that limited nuclear escalation is the best way to stave off defeat. Even in circumstances where regime change is not the U.S. or allied intent, North Korea may be driven to nuclear use by misinterpreting certain military actions as a prelude to invasion. Taking steps to diminish tension, reduce misunderstanding, and assure Pyongyang that the United States and its allies would only pursue regime change in the most extreme circumstances would decrease the risk of miscalculation.
Preemptive disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear forces is not the primary reason for pursuing damage limitation capabilities. Rather, the main reason is to convince Kim Jong Un that restraint is preferable to escalation. In certain wartime circumstances, the United States and its allies might calculate that pursuing regime change in Pyongyang, despite the enormous costs, is the least bad option. In that case, disarming as much of North Korea’s nuclear force as possible would be a necessity. But in many other scenarios, especially ones in which North Korea has not yet crossed the nuclear threshold, U.S. and allied interests would be better served by conveying to Kim Jong Un that de-escalation is his best chance of survival. In this case, U.S. damage-limitation capabilities would function as an implicit threat. Paired with a credible assurance that the regime would survive if North Korea avoided nuclear use, such a threat would help persuade Pyongyang that the costs and risks of coercive nuclear escalation are too high to risk gambling the future of the regime.
Effectively deterring a nuclear-armed North Korea requires measured resolve backed by real strength. By rejecting vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear strike and improving damage limitation capabilities, the United States and its allies can challenge North Korea’s theory of coercive nuclear escalation, inducing caution in both crisis and conflict.
Vince A. Manzo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Research Analyst with the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA). He is author of “After the First Shots: Managing Escalation in Northeast Asia.” John K. Warden (email@example.com) is a Senior Policy Analyst on the Strategic Analysis & Assessments team at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). He is author of “North Korea’s Nuclear Posture: An Evolving Challenge for U.S. Deterrence.” The views expressed are their own.
Image: U.S. Navy