The Rorschach Test of New Nuclear Powers: Analogies for North Korean Command and Control


The human brain is always looking for patterns to explain things, and what we see is shaped by what we already know and feel. This reality is the basis for the famous Rorschach inkblot test, in which subjects are asked what they see in a series of ambiguous black and white images. Similarly, humans often reach for analogies to describe and understand new situations and challenges, trying to match a new situation to a more familiar one. Yet how do we know the right analogy to reach for? This question has long bedeviled social scientists, historians — and especially policymakers.

Choosing the right analogy to discuss the emergence of a new nuclear power, as is happening in North Korea, is a particularly acute problem. This is an exceedingly rare event. In all of human history it has only happened at most 13 times, perhaps fewer depending on how it is counted. Since even the most cutting-edge methods of social science are of little avail with so few observations, analogy is crucial, and the choice of analogy inevitably drives conclusions. Like the Rorschach test, the analogies analysts reach for are shaped by their own experience and expertise.

In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda hypothesize that North Korea has developed a “fail deadly” approach to nuclear command and control, under which the system errs on the side of launching nuclear weapons. They argue that the “Kim regime has likely designed the wartime command and control system around fears of a decapitation strike by the United States and South Korea.”

This is an eminently logical proposition given the analogy they draw on: Pakistan and its confrontation with India. Pakistan is faced with a conventionally superior nuclear-armed adversary in India and may very well adopt a posture of wartime pre-delegation of nuclear use. In other words, the authority to use nuclear weapons devolves from the upper echelons of the regime to lower-level military commanders in a crisis. This means even if the leadership is killed or communications are totally severed, nuclear retaliation is still likely. Surely North Korea, which faces a conventionally superior nuclear-armed adversary in the United States, would do likewise to limit the risk of decapitation preventing an effective response.

It is not surprising Narang and Panda reach for the Pakistan analogy — they are South Asia experts with deep backgrounds in nuclear issues in the region. Yet when I see North Korea, I reach for a different analogy: the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War. The Soviets were, by all accounts, desperately afraid of nuclear weapons getting beyond control of the Communist Party apparatus. The early Soviet atomic program was not run by the military but by the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria. As a result, from the very beginning the party avoided any pre-delegation to military commanders (with the possible exception of nuclear torpedoes). For example, despite some claims to the contrary, it is now clear that the Soviet leadership explicitly and repeatedly rejected any pre-delegation of nuclear use to the local commander before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Soviets rejected pre-delegation despite enormous vulnerability to a U.S. preemptive strike – the same sort of vulnerability North Korea faces now. Reflecting on U.S. nuclear options in this era, former Deputy National Security Advisor Carl Kaysen later recalled a fundamental strategic question: “‘Can we make sure that the Soviets can’t launch a really serious heavy attack on the United States?’ And the answer was that in 1961 we could have made sure, with rather a high level of confidence.” The United States likely has similar capability against North Korea, at least for now.

The Soviets were well aware of their vulnerability, yet chose throughout the Cold War to favor a “fail safe” approach to nuclear command and control. As Stephen Meyer, a leading analyst of Soviet nuclear forces, concluded: “The Soviet political leadership apparently feared the loss of political control (or accident) more than the threat of surprise attack by the United States.” Even the semi-automatic command and control system Perimetr (aka “Dead Hand”) created in the late Cold War was an elaborate effort to use technical means, such as timers and sensors, to avoid truly pre-delegating nuclear authority to military commanders. The U.S. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board flatly stated at the end of the Cold War: “There is no evidence that nuclear release authority has devolved to the General Staff or the nuclear force commanders.”

My reaching for the Soviet analogy is just as unsurprising as Narang and Panda’s choice of Pakistan. It is the case I know best outside the United States. They look at Pyongyang and see Islamabad, while I see Moscow. So how might we adjudicate these warring analogies? One way is to look for key differences between the Soviet Union and Pakistan and then assess how North Korea lines up with those differences.

One major difference between the Soviet Union and Pakistan is civil-military relations. Pakistan, like Prussia in the 19th century, is sometimes described as “an army with a state,” reflecting the dominance of the military in politics. In contrast to Pakistani praetorianism, the Soviet Union was a party-dominated state, where the Communist party took great pains to ensure it remained fully in control of the military (though, as scholar of civil-military relations Joseph Torigian has shown, Communist party leaders’ relationship to the military was crucial to their power).

This difference seems to have shaped how the states approached nuclear command and control. In Pakistan, the military is probably not concerned about the political implications of pre-delegating authority to lower-level commanders, who are part of the military and thus pose little risk to the military’s dominance of politics. In the Soviet Union, pre-delegation might have undermined party control of the military. As Meyer hypothesized, the Soviets “may have avoided pre-delegation of the highest military authority precisely because it could imply political succession rights during regular political transitions.” In other words, pre-delegation of nuclear authority to the military may have strengthened the case for a “soft” military coup in the event that a Soviet leader died or was removed from power.

The state of North Korean civil-military relations, then, may be a key factor explaining its nuclear command and control and whether the regime has chosen to “fail deadly” or “fail safe.” It’s unclear whether North Korea is more similar to the Soviet Union or to Pakistan in this regard. Like the Soviet Union, North Korea is a party-led state — Kim Jong Un, despite his nominal military title of “marshal,” does not rule because he came up through the ranks of the military. It may be that, contrary to what Narang and Panda concluded, North Korean nuclear weapons fail safe (at least in terms of formal authority) because the system is designed to maximize political control. At the same time, like Pakistan, the military is central to the North Korean state: The Songun (“military first”) policy has been prominent for more than two decades. This suggests that the government may not be concerned about pre-delegation to the military, which in turn points to the fail-deadly hypothesis. Analysts turning to analogy to explain the emerging North Korean nuclear command and control should start with this question: Is Pyongyang more like modern Islamabad or Soviet Moscow? The answer will require drawing on the expertise of scholars of civil-military relations as well as nuclear strategy. Even then analogy is only a starting point — North Korea may be more or less similar to previous cases, but will certainly be unique.

More broadly, the case of analogies and North Korea’s nuclear command and control highlights the importance of domestic politics in assessing international security. Purely strategic logic is seldom the only driving factor of a state’s defense and security policy. A variety of domestic factors, such as civil-military relations or political economy, also impose constraints on national strategy. To take one of countless historical examples, as Frank Gavin has shown, the Kennedy administration’s attempt to move U.S. strategy to a policy of “flexible response” was greatly constrained by the role of the U.S. dollar and the gold standard in the Bretton Woods international economic system. Despite the compelling logic of Kennedy’s strategy, domestic politics meant it simply was not sustainable for the United States to maintain the forces in Europe required for flexible response. U.S. analysts tend to appreciate these non-strategic constraints on U.S. strategy, but the examination of North Korean command and control serves as a reminder that these constraints apply to other states as well.


Austin Long is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of multiple studies on nuclear strategy, including most recently “The MAD Who Wasn’t There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance.”

Image: RoK Air Force/Chief Master Sgt. Kim, Kyeong Ryul 

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