war on the rocks

Toward Deterrence: The Upside of the Trump-Kim Summit

June 15, 2018

The long-awaited Trump-Kim summit achieved nothing of substance: a photo op and a largely meaningless commitment to denuclearize from North Korea in exchange for equally meaningless security commitments from the United States. It is easy to be underwhelmed by a summit that delivered little and leaves North Korean nuclear weapons firmly in place. Indeed, North Korea has had its status as a nuclear-armed power legitimized by securing a high-profile meeting on equal footing with a sitting president of the United States.

However, accelerating the de facto acceptance of North Korea as a member of the nuclear club may be the summit’s most positive, if unintended, effect. Even if President Donald Trump or the U.S. government never admits it, the summit moves the United States and North Korea closer to a relationship characterized by deterrence rather than by the threat of regime change, military provocation, and crisis. That process toward a stable deterrent relationship is not automatic. Indeed, Trump’s bellicose language over the last year had suggested that the United States might refuse to acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear status and the requirements of deterrence that accompany it. But Trump has now invested political capital in a diplomatic process that can be stretched out indefinitely: North Korea and the United States can now “negotiate in good faith” toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in much the same way nuclear-armed states “pursue negotiations in good faith” toward disarmament under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty: slowly and without any imminent prospect of success.

This is a positive development. To understand why accepting North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is so important, we need to understand the dangers of the alternative: a relationship characterized by the threat of regime change, preventive force, and periodic military crises. Our research on escalation dynamics within nuclear crises — periods of unusual tension and military escalation when two nuclear-armed states stand on the brink of war — suggests that such a relationship with North Korea would be unusually dangerous. Any genuine crisis between North Korea and the United States would be volatile, hard to control, and likely to lead to nuclear escalation.

We come to this conclusion by distinguishing between two sources of danger in nuclear crises. First, leaders might deliberately choose to use nuclear weapons because there are strong strategic incentives to use nuclear weapons before the adversary does. Second, a crisis might spiral across the nuclear threshold even if leaders do not want it to. Some crises are harder to control than others, even if leaders want to keep them contained.

Comparing a potential U.S.-North Korea crisis with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis on these two dimensions is instructive and sobering. The comparison suggests it might be more likely that nuclear weapons would be used in a crisis between the United States and North Korea than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, widely thought to be the most dangerous moment of the Cold War.

The Cuban Missile Crisis saw relatively low risk of deliberate first use: Neither Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev nor U.S. President John F. Kennedy saw much value in using nuclear weapons first. The United States had more nuclear weapons and better delivery vehicles than the Soviet Union, but did not have the capability to inflict a first strike that would eliminate the Soviets’ ability to respond. The U.S. government did not know where all the Soviet warheads were located, and there were concerns that U.S. forces were too inaccurate to successfully target the USSR’s arsenal. According to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, by 1962 the United States knew it could not deliver a “splendid first strike,” and that any such strike “would have led to unacceptably high casualties both in Europe and in the United States” and “destroyed us as well as the Soviets.” While some in the U.S. government believed there were significant strategic advantages from striking first, Kennedy appears to have been deeply skeptical that those advantages were politically significant and generally unimpressed by the benefits that U.S. nuclear superiority offered in the crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis did, however, have significant potential for uncontrolled escalation. U.S. and Soviet military forces came into contact with each other on several occasions during the crisis in ways that could easily have led to nuclear use.  Both sides’ command and control systems were unreliable and suffered from numerous shortcomings that could have made escalation hard to control. Neither side had a clear sense of the other’s red lines for nuclear use, and communications between the two sides were slow and unreliable: it was only in the aftermath of the crisis that the so-called “hotline” between Washington and Moscow was established. As a group of senior U.S. officials later recalled: “the gravest risk in this crisis was … that events would produce actions, reactions, or miscalculations carrying the conflict beyond the control of one or the other or both.”

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the danger came primarily from the risk of uncontrolled escalation rather than a deliberate decision by either leader to use nuclear weapons first. By contrast, a potential U.S. crisis with North Korea would likely involve the dangers both of uncontrolled nuclear use and deliberate nuclear escalation.

First, both North Korea and the United States would have incentives to deliberately use nuclear weapons first as a crisis escalated. For North Korea, using nuclear weapons early in a conventional conflict might be the only way to prevent a conventional defeat by the United States. Just as Pakistan today uses the threat of early nuclear use to deter its more powerful Indian neighbor, and as the United States and its European allies did throughout much of the Cold War to deter the Soviet Union, North Korea today appears to have adopted what Vipin Narang calls an “asymmetric escalation” posture: threatening nuclear first use to deter and (if necessary) blunt an attack by a more conventionally powerful adversary.

The United States would also face temptations for first nuclear use in a hypothetical crisis. A nuclear strike might be crucial to removing North Korea’s ability to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces, or to retaliate against South Korea, Japan, or the cities of the United States. As David Barno and Nora Bensahel argue, only a “surprise nuclear strike provides a decisive option. There is simply no other way to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities while minimizing the risk of massive conventional or nuclear retaliation.” Barry Posen, arguing against a U.S. war with North Korea, acknowledges that “a surprise American nuclear attack would offer the greatest chance of eliminating the North Korean nuclear arsenal and of preventing a conventional counterattack,” making it a potentially attractive option if war was deemed inevitable or necessary by U.S. planners. North Korea has a much smaller arsenal than the hundreds of warheads possessed by the Soviet Union in 1962, and the U.S. has far greater counterforce capabilities than it did then: A U.S. disarming strike against North Korea is therefore more plausible and potentially attractive than it was against the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Both sides therefore face incentives for deliberate first nuclear use in a potential crisis. But the dangers of uncontrolled escalation would also be high. First, little is known about the reliability of North Korea’s command and control systems or whether it might be set up to “fail-deadly” or “fail-safe” if — as would be likely — the regime came under significant assault in the early stages of any military confrontation. North Korea would likely face pressures to “use or lose” their nuclear weapons in any military crisis since it would rightly fear that its nuclear capabilities would be affected by U.S. military operations. And notwithstanding recent negotiations, there remain few well-established or institutionalized avenues for crisis negotiation or communication between the two sides, raising the risk of miscommunication and making it harder to deescalate a military crisis once started. Lastly, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, there is considerable uncertainty about what either side’s red lines for nuclear use would be. Would the United States use nuclear weapons if North Korea used chemical weapons against Seoul? Would North Korea use nuclear weapons if the US engaged in airstrikes aimed at North Korean command and control systems? We simply don’t know.

On the other hand, in a relationship characterized by deterrence in which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are accepted, we could expect more clarity about each side’s red lines, fewer fears of an unexpected attack or efforts at regime change, and more established avenues for communication within crises.

A nuclear crisis with North Korea would not feature the large nuclear arsenals and superpower competition that characterized the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nonetheless, a U.S.-North Korea crisis would take the most dangerous aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis — a high degree of non-controllability — and add potentially strong incentives for deliberate first nuclear use by both sides. Such a crisis would be volatile, liable to suddenly escalate, and deeply dangerous. The risk of nuclear use would be high.

But none of this means the two countries will automatically shift to a relationship characterized by stable and mutual deterrence. After all, the United States does not like being deterred, and accepting North Korea’s nuclear capabilities requires accepting constraints on U.S. foreign policy in the region. In the Cold War, it was not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis that the United States and Soviet Union were able to achieve a more stable relationship characterized primarily by deterrence. The Trump-Kim summit, for all its faults, offers the prospect of moving the two countries toward a similarly stable relationship, by framing the two countries as equals, lessening overt hostilities, and initiating an indefinite diplomatic process toward a vaguely defined end goal. That is something we should be grateful for.


Mark S. Bell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Julia M. Macdonald is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Image: Dan Scavino via Wikimedia Commons