Is North Korea winning the stare down?

Is North Korea winning the stare down?

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A visitor walks by a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after the missile launch.
Photo: AP

You would think that if North Korea were ever to use its nuclear weapons, it would be an act of suicide. But brace yourself for what deterrence experts call the “theory of victory.”

To many who have studied how nuclear strategies work, it’s possible North Korea could start a nuclear war and still survive. Tuesday’s missile test suggests once again it may be racing to prepare itself to do just that - but only if forced into a corner.

Every missile North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launches comes at a high cost. North Korea doesn’t have an endless supply, and they aren’t easy or cheap to build.

So when Kim orders a launch, it’s safe to assume it’s a move to gain the most political, technical and training value. Tuesday’s launch of a ballistic missile over Japan and into the open Pacific Ocean, once again blowing past warnings from the United States and its allies, is a top example.

There is a good strategy hidden in each launch. From Kim’s point of view, here’s what it looks like.

How the north could survive

North Korea has never suggested it would use its nuclear weapons to attack the United States or its allies without any sort of warning.

But, like Washington, it has stated quite clearly that if it is either attacked or has reason to believe an attack is about to happen, it has the right to launch a nuclear missile in return, or even before, the US launches theirs. 

The trigger for North Korea could be unusual troop movements in South Korea, suspicious activity at US bases in Japan or - as the North has recently warned - flights near its airspace by US Air Force B-1B bombers out of their home base on the island of Guam.

If Kim thought any of those was an attack, one North Korean strategy would be to immediately target US bases in Japan. A more violent move would be to attack a Japanese city, such as Tokyo, though that would probably be unnecessary since at this point the objective would be to weaken the US military’s command and control. Going nuclear would send the strongest message, but chemical weapons would be a good choice too.


A timeline of  North Korea's missile development


North Korea’s ability to next hit the US mainland with nuclear-tipped missiles is the key to how it would survive in this scenario. And that’s why Kim has been rushing to perfect and show them off to the world.

“The whole reason they developed the ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) was to deter American nuclear retaliation because if you can hold an American city or cities at risk the American calculation always changes,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a nuclear strategy specialist.

“Are we really willing to risk Los Angeles or Chicago in retaliation for an attack on a US military base in the region?” he asks. “Probably not.”

That, right there, is Kim’s big wager.

If “no” actually is the answer, then North Korea has a chance - though slim and risky - of staving off a full-scale conventional attack by the United States to survive another day.

Use 'em or lose 'em

Kim isn’t crazy. He has good reason to fear an attack by the United States.

It’s very unlikely Washington would start a war on its own. But if it did, North Korea would face a far stronger and better equipped enemy able to - literally - bring the fight right to Kim’s front door. A successful US first strike could, within hours or days, take out North Korea’s leadership, or at least seriously disrupt its chain of command, and destroy a good portion of the country’s fighting power.

So North Korea has a very strong reason to strike fast, before all is lost.

Under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il - Kim’s grandfather and father - North Korea relied on conventional artillery just north of the Demilitarised Zone to keep Washington at bay, thinking the US wouldn’t make any moves that might risk an attack on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and the huge casualties and destruction that would bring.

Kim, fearing “decapitation strikes,” (attacks that would stop North Korea's fighting ability) has brought missiles and nukes into the mix for an added layer of protection.

His strategy is to neutralise Washington’s military option by holding both Seoul and an American city hostage while building up his own ability to withstand a first strike or a massive wave of return strikes. To do that, North Korea is developing an lot of different kinds of missiles that can be launched by land or from submarines and easily hidden and moved to remote, hard-to-find sites.

Reasonably enough, countries with big arsenals are generally considered less likely to feel the need to use them or lose them.

North Korea is believed to have an arsenal of perhaps several dozen nuclear weapons, growing by maybe a dozen or so each year. That’s a lot, but some analysts believe it may take a few hundred to cure Kim of the itchy trigger finger syndrome.

The 'Madman Strategy'

In deterrence circles, ambiguity is considered a must. But confusion can be deadly.

In any confrontation, it’s best that an opponent knows better than to cross the line - but not to know exactly where that line is. That fosters caution. Confusion, on the other hand, creates the incentive to make a move either out of frightened self-defence or confident risk-taking.

That’s what North Korea appears to be doing now, though it’s not clear whether it is out fear or arrogance.

Over the past several weeks, United States President Donald Trump has promised fire, fury and power like the world has never seen should North Korea issue even a vocal threat - which it did almost immediately, with no major consequences. Trump’s Cabinet members scaled down those threats, but in the process set or seemed to erase red lines of their own.


North Korea's past bluster and actual attacks


Some have suggested this is a deliberate “madman strategy.”

Inspired by the writings of Machiavelli, President Richard Nixon tried this against Vietnam in the late 1960s. His idea was to make the Vietnamese and their Communist allies think Nixon would do anything, including use his nuclear weapons, to end the war.

But if Trump is doing the same, he isn’t doing it very well, Narang said.

While Kim’s government speaks with one voice and maintains consistency, which is what gives the madman approach its credibility, it’s “really hard for Trump to make these crazy statements and not have them changed by someone in his administration.”

At some point, Narang said, the blurriness goes away and we just look like we don't know what we're doing.

Eric Talmadge has been AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013.

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