Nuclear Stability, Conventional Instability: North Korea and the Lessons from Pakistan


Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.

Earlier this month, an anonymous senior U.S. administration official offered an explanation for why North Korea pursued nuclear weapons. “North Korea’s goal is not to simply acquire these horrific weapons to maintain the status quo in the Peninsula,” the official noted. “[I]t is seeking these weapons in order to fundamentally change that status quo. Its primary goal, as stated … is to reunify [with] South Korea. These weapons are part of the plan to reunify with South Korea.”

This official articulated a commonly heard explanation for North Korea’s acquisition and expansion of its nuclear arsenal: These weapons will provide a shield that emboldens Kim to seize territory of a conventionally (and extendedly nuclear) superior adversary. Ultimately, the thinking goes, North Korea will pursue an offensive agenda, using its nuclear weapons to deter retaliation as it seeks to end the U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula, reunify it under the supreme leadership of Kim Jong Un, and attain what state propaganda has long called the “final victory.”

The official’s remarks illuminate Trump administration statements implying Kim is irrational and undeterrable. In August, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster stated “classical deterrence theory” — the idea that states respond to threats of denial or punishment — might not apply to Kim. Some key administration officials clearly believe Kim has expansive, revisionist goals and, having acquired a nuclear shield, cannot be deterred from pursuing them.

But a nuclear deterrent does not guarantee North Korea its “final victory,” for two reasons. First, even those who paint the most nightmarish picture of North Korean revisionism would have a difficult time explaining how North Korea could occupy any significant portion of South Korea, given the overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority of South Korea and the United States. Second, although young nuclear states have sometimes displayed emboldened behavior when they first acquired their arsenals, this has often waned as their revisionist intentions are either thwarted or satisfied. We illustrate these points with the most recent case of a revisionist emergent nuclear power: Pakistan.

This historical comparison is important. If the administration believes Kim will successfully use nuclear weapons for anything more than insurance against regime change, it could make the case for a U.S. first strike — a move which would spark a nuclear war — to disarm North Korea of that shield before it is too late. But India and Pakistan’s behavior after both countries acquired nuclear weapons suggest reason to doubt this narrative. Despite persistent revisionist aims, twenty years after acquiring nuclear weapons Pakistan has achieved none of its stated revisionist objectives of acquiring Kashmir or achieving broader geopolitical parity with India.

The Benefits of Nuclear Weapons

 While states may believe nuclear weapons confer benefits that allow them to change the status quo vis-à-vis their adversaries, altering the status quo is always more difficult than preserving it. It is true, however, that if nuclear weapons can deter existential threats to a state, they can also be used to attempt at least limited coercion. For instance, if a state gradually encroaches into adversary territory, or otherwise achieves a fait accompli, its nuclear weapons may deter other states from dislodging it or retaliating in other ways. Nuclear weapons powers can enjoy a range of other benefits, including enhanced status, independence, and even the ability to engage in conventional brinkmanship by deliberately pursuing revisionist objectives through limited offensive maneuvers. Conventional brinksmanship is related to a concept known as the stability-instability paradox. The paradox posits that a condition of mutually accepted destruction (when two nuclear states obtain, and accept, vulnerability to each other’s second-strike capability) generates stability at the nuclear level — since strategic nuclear use would be suicidal. But mutually accepted destruction therefore opens space for conflict at lower levels of intensity, such as terrorism or limited conventional wars, because these can erupt without fear of escalation to the nuclear level. In short, nuclear stability can incentivize conventional instability.

What follows from the stability-instability paradox is that new nuclear states that wish to revise the status quo in their favor may believe that their newfound nuclear shield may enable them to wage conventional wars to do so without the fear of nuclear retaliation. This is the fear permeating Washington today: Not that North Korea will fully achieve its aims, but that it will try. But North Korea is not the first state with openly stated revisionist objectives to acquire nuclear weapons. Almost twenty years ago, the same fear gripped India and the world when Pakistan openly tested nuclear weapons, but ultimately turned out to be overblown.

Pakistan’s Revisionist Aims and the Subcontinent’s Nuclearization

What can Pakistan teach us about the prospects for nuclear emboldenment? Pakistan has long had at least limited revisionist objectives toward India, notably acquiring Indian-held Muslim-majority Kashmir. These objectives, like North Korea’s stated goal of reunification, long preceded the acquisition of nuclear weapons. In 1965, Pakistan attempted a fait accompli operation, Operation Gibraltar, to infiltrate Kashmir and spark a rebellion meant to result in Kashmir joining Pakistan. It failed: India retaliated swiftly and severely across the International Border, opening a second front where the terrain and Indian conventional superiority gave it a significant advantage.

The experience of the 1965 war, followed by the amputation of Bangladesh in 1971, hardened Pakistan’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons to deter an Indian conventional attack. The specific lesson from Operation Gibraltar was clear: Do not attempt a fait accompli in Kashmir without the ability to deter Indian conventional retaliation with nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Pakistan’s revisionist objectives long preceded the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan first achieved an untested nuclear weapons capability in the late 1980s. Despite testing a nuclear device in 1974, India’s nuclear weapons program had, in fact, largely been on ice until that point and was only weaponized when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi received incontrovertible evidence of Pakistani nuclearization. It took India several more years to attain an operational nuclear weapons capability. In this covert nuclear phase, when both states had untested nuclear weapons capabilities, Pakistani emboldenment took on a subtler form than its successive incarnation: It trained and funded insurgents in Kashmir and Punjab, more aggressively inserting irregulars and guns, but otherwise refrained from overt aggression.

The Case of the Kargil War

After India and Pakistan went overtly nuclear in May 1998, Pakistan took its newfound capability out for a test-drive in the Kargil War, attempting a limited fait accompli in Kashmir. Although India’s response was more restrained than in 1965 due to the fear of conventional and nuclear escalation, the end result was the same: The status quo ante was restored and Pakistan achieved none of its territorial aims.

Within the first year of becoming an overt nuclear weapons state, Pakistan essentially resurrected the Gibraltar playbook, probing whether the acquisition of nuclear weapons would allow it to this time deter India’s attempts to dislodge it. It did not. There is still inconclusive evidence about whether the Pakistan Army was motivated to attempt the infiltration in the Kargil sector because it now had nuclear weapons or whether it would have done so anyway. Regardless, the comparison with 1965 is instructive. On the one hand, Pakistan may have deterred India from opening a second front and attacking Pakistan across the International Border, and Delhi was careful not to use air power or force across the Line of Control. On the other hand, India was still able to successfully repel Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, though reversing the infiltration was costly and time-consuming. Pakistan’s attempt at emboldenment was thwarted. India has since adapted to the threat of infiltration by building an electrified fence and bolstering its security footprint in Kashmir.

Operation Gibraltar with and without nuclear weapons ended the same way for Pakistan. Nearly twenty years later, Pakistan has not tried to seize disputed territory again. The lesson of Kargil was that while Pakistan may have been tempted to try to repeat Gibraltar with nuclear weapons, India was simply forced to adapt its response, shifting from a punishment strategy to a denial and dislodging strategy. Therefore, the final result, restoring the status quo ante, was the same.

Pakistan-Sponsored Terrorism and the Nuclear Umbrella

Kargil showed that seizing another country’s territory does not become magically easy after the acquisition of nuclear weapons. But other forms of provocation, below the threshold of land-grabs, might certainly be possible behind a nuclear shield. Instead of only targeting Kashmir, Pakistan has shifted the form of its revisionism to sponsoring mass-casualty terrorist attacks in India’s major cities, such as Delhi and Mumbai. There are various theories about why Pakistan has shifted to sponsoring militant attacks on India, but most agree that these are not primarily about territory. Although India has invested a lot of effort in trying to prevent such attacks, experimenting with concepts such as Cold Start or “surgical strikes,’” and maybe even toying with nuclear counterforce options, it has not yet arrived at a fully satisfactory answer.

As horrific as these attacks are, however, they are not existential threats to Indian security — but overreaction and a war that risks nuclear escalation could be. As former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon wrote, after the 2008 Mumbai attack, India had more to gain from restraint than from military retaliation. This is one of the unfortunate implications of the stability-instability paradox. Periodic attacks such as Mumbai are possible under mutually accepted destruction, but they tend to stay limited. And they are a far cry from Pakistan’s longstanding revisionist aim of reclaiming Indian territory in Kashmir. Despite acquiring nuclear weapons, Pakistan has, if anything, revised its territorial objectives downwards. Still, it is true that India has been forced to accept — and to try to prevent periodic provocations that it would not have had to do so absent Pakistani nuclearization.

The Pakistani case illustrates three things. First, the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not a silver bullet that suddenly allows states to achieve significant revisionist objectives. The logic of conventional and nuclear deterrence quickly overpowers domestic political rhetoric about reclaiming “lost” territories. Second, attempts at territorial revision are early and short-lived: they are (rarely) satisfied or (more often) thwarted and then not reattempted. Pakistan attempted the Kargil infiltration a year after it acquired nuclear weapons, failed, and then a new status quo set in. It has not attempted a repeat since. Third, limited new forms of emboldenment, such as terrorism or kidnappings, may still be pursued at subconventional levels of the conflict spectrum, where the state’s nuclear weapons deter a conventional response. States, like India, however, craft a new normal and innovate ways to prevent and respond to the low-level aggression. There is no reason to expect the dynamics between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States to be substantially different.

Nuclear North Korea’s Revisionist Aims

Given the experience in South Asia, how might a newly nuclear North Korea behave? A newly confident North Korea that can deter an American invasion may certainly attempt low-level provocations. But if the Pakistani case is any guide, these will be limited and ephemeral. Moreover, the United States and South Korea are more than capable of adapting to any shift in North Korean strategy, as India has.

What might this look like? North Korea may return to its old ways of limited provocations. Pyongyang hasn’t engaged in serious conventional aggression across the Military Demarcation Line, with some exceptions, since 2010, when it sank the ROKS Cheonan, killing more than 40 South Korean sailors, and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. That may start to change with a newly robust and diversified nuclear force. Pyongyang may rely on its long-range ballistic missiles to engage in compellent threats against the United States while it pursues limited conventional provocations against South Korea. But it was engaging in this activity before acquiring nuclear weapons, as was Pakistan. So, at worst, North Korean provocations may become more frequent until the United States devises a prevention or denial strategy to dampen them.

A useful example of how North Korea might try to compel the United States to abandon activities that the regime dislikes is was threat in August to bracket Guam with intermediate-range ballistic missiles should the United States continue B-1B Lancer flights to the Peninsula. North Korea has already threatened to shoot down U.S. bombers outside of its airspace: that’s precisely the sort of offensive action it may undertake under its nuclear umbrella. Retaliatory options for the United States and South Korea may be limited by the prospect of unintentionally sparking a nuclear war given North Korea’s explicit first-use strategy. It is only natural that with a newfound capability, North Korea may try to compel the United States and South Korea into giving it more breathing room against American conventional activity.

At the broader political level, we do not dispute that North Korea wants the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on its terms. Neither do we dispute the Trump administration official’s comment that North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be a part of its plan to do so. But there is little evidence or logic to support the claim that North Korea’s nuclear forces are primarily designed for blackmail and coercive reunification, or that they are useful tools for forcibly achieving that objective against a more powerful allied force.

There is no doubt that North Korea would prefer the United States out of the Korean Peninsula, which is among its revisionist goals. What is less clear is how nuclear weapons would enable it to achieve that end. The North Korean regime speaks of ending the U.S. “hostile policy,” a reference to the forward-based allied posture in East Asia and Washington’s deterrent activities in the region, ranging from bomber assurance and deterrence missions to the annual conventional U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Even with a nuclear deterrent, North Korea cannot expel the United States from the Korean Peninsula by force, either through gradual “salami-slicing” or through an outright invasion against a more conventionally and nuclear powerful allied force. The other way it can expel the United States is by driving a political wedge between the United States and South Korea, also known as decoupling the allies. This is undoubtedly one of the primary aims of North Korea’s nuclear program. But the United States can deny North Korea this objective by taking steps to augment its presence and reassure South Korea that it has no intentions of abandoning its ally. Nuclear weapons alone will not help North Korea end the “hostile policy.”

North Korea itself seems to recognize this, if we take seriously its own words regarding the primary objectives of its nuclear weapons. Although North Korean official statements and propaganda reiterate the reunification objective, they simultaneously go to great pains to clearly state that the primary purpose of its nuclear and missile program is to deter a U.S.-led attack. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho underlined that North Korea’s “national nuclear force is, to all intents and purposes, a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the U.S. and for preventing its military invasion.” Ri added that North Korea’s “ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the U.S.,” an objective recently reinforced to U.S. Track-II dialogue participants as well. Moreover, a 2013 North Korean law, entitled “On Consolidating the Position of Nuclear Weapons State for Self-Defense,” began with the observation that the “nuclear weapons of the DPRK are just means for defense as it was compelled to have access to them to cope with the ever-escalating hostile policy of the U.S. and the nuclear threat.”

States do gain a lot from nuclear weapons. In North Korea’s case, we have argued that these weapons provide it with important insurance against coercive regime change, invasion, or disarmament. More significantly, North Korea’s intercontinental-range ballistic missile capability not only augments this strategy but also opens the space for decoupling the United States from South Korea. However, as long as that alliance remains intact and the U.S. nuclear umbrella remains credible, North Korea’s nuclear weapons will buy it regime-change insurance, a larger buffer against American conventional threats, and cover for limited conventional provocations — nothing more.

Yet some in Washington are advocating for a preventive strike against an already-nuclear North Korea based on the theory that the regime will be undeterrably emboldened with a nuclear shield and must therefore be forcibly disarmed before it is too late (or before, they argue, North Korea perfects the ability to hit the continental United States, exposing only Japan or South Korea to nuclear attack). This ignores the logic of deterrence, one that powerfully grips leaders from Mao and Stalin to Trump and Kim, and is borne out by the experience of recent emergent nuclear powers. Indeed, the lesson of India and Pakistan suggests that these advocates are relying on flimsy theoretical and empirical logic. Pakistan’s attempts at revising the status quo with India were both short-lived and futile. And even if North Korea attempts similar types of behavior, history shows that Washington and its allies can adapt to, deny, and deter Pyongyang, as Delhi has successfully done with Islamabad.


Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) is a senior editor at The Diplomat and an independent researcher. Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Image: Joshua Song/Flickr