Why Damage Limitation Isn’t the Answer to the North Korean Threat


Foreign policy analysts are understandably on edge about North Korea. Given the combustible combination of burgeoning North Korean nuclear capabilities and Donald Trump’s penchant for recklessness, the potential for war in Northeast Asia seems higher than it has been in a long time. North Korea’s recent test of a purported thermonuclear weapon has further exacerbated these worries and amplified existing calls for a drastic shift in U.S. strategy. Writing recently in War on the Rocks, Vince A. Manzo and John K. Warden join a growing chorus of analysts highlighting the benefits of the United States adopting a damage limitation strategy vis-à-vis North Korea. Such a strategy would see Washington invest in a combination of missile defense and counterforce capabilities to diminish Pyongyang’s ability to inflict nuclear punishment on the United States and its allies. A robust missile defense capability would prevent any North Korean nuclear weapons from reaching the United States after being launched, while a counterforce capability would allow the United States to find, target, and destroy North Korean nuclear weapons on the ground before they are launched.

Although the piece was written before North Korea’s recent test of either a hydrogen bomb or a boosted fission weapon, the test makes it even more important to debate of Manzo and Warden’s plan. Thermonuclear weapons are far more destructive than other types of nuclear weapons. The damage the United States would need to limit is therefore far higher.

Nevertheless, while their argument is well-crafted, Manzo and Warden are wrong in two crucial respects: First, they fail to justify why the United States needs to significantly expand its pre-existing damage limitation capabilities. The United States and its allies have been fairly successful in deterring North Korea, and even with the introduction of more advanced nuclear capabilities under Pyongyang’s command, there is little reason to believe this will change. A damage limitation strategy would provide few additional deterrent benefits. Second, Manzo and Warden fail to consider all the potential downsides to such a strategy. They are correct to argue that North Korea doesn’t have a strong incentive to preemptively launch potentially vulnerable nuclear weapons in a crisis, but they don’t deal with a number of other additional drawbacks to pursuing damage limitation.

As Manzo and Warden note, the United States has already significantly invested in damage limitation capabilities, such as ballistic missile defenses. These capabilities, however, remain unproven and their effectiveness is debatable. The United States would therefore likely need to invest in counterforce capabilities as well, which would allow it to offensively target North Korean nuclear weapons and destroy them before they can be launched. Manzo and Warden are ultimately quiet on the question of what mix of missile defense and counterforce capabilities the United States will need to acquire, but clearly imply that current U.S. capabilities are insufficient to deter current or future threats.

Still, what threats would the United States be unable to deter with its current capabilities? Nuclear weapons are notoriously poor instruments of coercion. States are apt to shrug off nuclear threats because these weapons are so much more destructive than the value of whatever the nuclear power would be demanding from the target Moreover, the widely cited taboo on nuclear use means that any state that followed through on a nuclear threat and actually launched nuclear weapons would face virtually united global opprobrium and significant follow-on consequences. North Korea has made a number of explicit nuclear threats, for instance against the U.S. territory of Guam, but in each instance they lack credibility and are easily dismissed as bluffs.

Manzo and Warden therefore argue the main North Korean threat is asymmetric escalation — its ability to use nuclear weapons first in an ongoing war to convince the United States to back down. The seriousness of this threat, therefore, depends in large part on the underlying probability of a war between the two countries. In other words, the United States only needs to worry about asymmetric escalation if its ability to deter North Korean military aggression is already insufficient. Importantly, Manzo and Warden fail to either argue that this is the case or convincingly lay out a plausible scenario whereby a war could occur. Past North Korean actions, such as the 2010 sinking of a South Korean vessel, have certainly represented direct challenges to the core interests of U.S. allies. Similar provocations could arguably spiral out of control and escalate to the level of general war. Still, the probability of this occurring is highly debatable, given overwhelming U.S. conventional and nuclear superiority over North Korea and the track record of successful deterrence in the region.

Threats of asymmetric escalation are not only unlikely to occur, but also far harder to credibly make than Manzo and Warden assume. In order to be taken seriously, such threats would have to be over a high-stakes issue, such as territorial defense, rather than lesser coercive demands, such as the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea. As well, these threats carry with them a high risk of all-out U.S. nuclear retaliation, to say nothing of a conventional response. They would move America’s hand to the hangman’s lever and place the North Korean regime one small step away from total annihilation.

There are a number of additional drawbacks to a damage limitation strategy that Manzo and Warden don’t consider. First, it can be hard to acquire and sustain the requisite technological edge for a damage limitation strategy to be effective in the face of competitive arms racing. Second, there may be incentives for premeditated or preventive strikes against an adversary outside of a crisis. Third, a damage limitation strategy may have negative political consequences by signaling aggressive or revisionist intentions. Finally, it may be impossible to convince other states besides the intended target, like China, that the damage limitation strategy isn’t also directed at them.

To be fair, a number of these arguments are not operable when it comes to the United States and North Korea. Many observers already believe the United States can effectively limit the damage that North Korea can threaten with nuclear weapons though counter-force strikes, which seek to directly eliminate an adversary’s ability to use its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, it is unlikely North Korea would be able to arms-race its way out of this technological deficit given its faltering economy. Moreover, to their credit, Manzo and Warden correctly note North Korea would not have first strike incentives against the United States. Pyongyang could not conceivably hope to generate an advantage by conducting a damage-limiting nuclear first strike against the United States even if its nuclear force grew larger and more sophisticated.

A number of reasons remain, however, as to why the United States shouldn’t pursue a damage limitation strategy. First, crisis instability — the embedded incentive one side has to escalate a crisis — cuts both ways. Although scholars have traditionally focused on the escalation dangers posed by a state with vulnerable nuclear weapons, the state threatening those weapons also has incentives to escalate. For instance, even if North Korea doesn’t have incentives to pre-emptively launch nuclear weapons, the United States could have incentives to pre-empt North Korean nuclear usage through a counterforce strike. In a crisis, the United States would be under immense pressure to limit potential damage by destroying North Korean nuclear weapons if there was a high probability that it could do so successfully. Whether a rational response to uncertainty regarding North Korean intentions, or the irrational product of misperception, counterforce strikes could drag the United States deeper into a costly conflict in Northeast Asia that it otherwise might not consider escalating.

Similarly, if the United States possesses a large enough advantage in damage limitation capabilities, it may launch strikes outside of a crisis to take advantage of this window of strategic opportunity. These attacks could either be premeditated, where the benefits of striking North Korea would outweigh the costs, or preventive, where the benefits need not exceed the costs but the differential between the two will negatively shift in the future. The costs of such strikes would be immense given North Korea’s ability to conventionally retaliate.

Those inclined to support damage limitation might be tempted to dismiss the notion that the United States can worsen North Korean perceptions of its revisionist intentions since North Korea already assumes the United States is actively pursuing regime change or similarly revisionist goals. This stance, however, rests on ultimately untested — if not wholly subjective — judgments about both how well states can generally perceive intentions and, specifically, how well North Korea can. Such pessimistic judgments would need to be justified.

Finally, Manzo and Warden don’t consider how a damage limitation strategy aimed at North Korea would impact other strategic interactions outside of the U.S.-North Korean relationship. If the United States builds up its missile defense and precision strike capabilities, there will be no way to convince adversaries like Russia and China that the buildup is not, in fact, aimed at them. Even if North Korea might not be able to engage in an arms race with the United States, Russia and China will certainly try. These relationships would also be far more fraught with incentives for preemptive launch than the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Unlike North Korea, Russia and China could feasibly benefit by launching nuclear weapons first in a crisis. They could not only inflict unacceptable damage on the United States but simultaneously limit the damage they themselves might receive in return. The main threat from a damage limitation strategy directed at North Korea, therefore, ultimately may emanate from unintended targets.

The question of whether the United States should or should not pursue a damage limitation strategy against North Korea therefore cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Although an admirable first step, Manzo and Warden’s analysis is at best only a start to the wider ranging strategic debate and decision that we need to see from Washington. The debate over a damage limitation strategy is far from settled. In fact, it has just begun.


Alexander Kirss is a PhD student in political science at George Washington University. His work has previously appeared in War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and Charged Affairs.

Image: U.S. Navy