Rational Security

Rolling the Iron Dice

Can Kim Jong Un use his nukes and get away with it?

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The rushed deployment of American missile interceptors to Guam last week, buttressing those already in place at Fort Greely, Alaska, makes for good politics but reflects poor strategic vision. The apparent threat posed by North Korea — that Kim Jong Un might lob a lone, long-range missile toward the United States — is illusory. Pyongyang has no missile with that kind of range, and almost surely no nuclear warhead small enough to fit on such a delivery vehicle anyway. As to striking closer to home, say against Japan, the North Korean history of faulty, inaccurate missiles suggests they’d have a hard time even hitting land at all, much less any specifically designated target. More to the point, though, any one-off attack of this sort would invite an absolutely devastating response to which North Korea would have no adequate defense.

Rather than behaving in such suicidal fashion, Kim could be thinking more creatively about the strategic utility of his small nuclear arsenal across the spectrum of bad behavior open to him. The simplest and safest path he can pursue is to persist in his bluster while refraining from any kind of serious military provocation. When the current furore dies down, he can declare victory in this latest confrontation. Or, ratcheting up the action just a little, he might order something like the 2010 artillery bombardment of the border island Yeongpyeong, during which some South Korean soldiers were killed. Both large-scale bluster and small-scale bombardment are more than adequately supportable by the North’s nuclear capacities. Nobody is going to war against Pyongyang on the basis of harsh rhetoric or mild skirmishing. So stand by for more churlishness, and maybe even a little violence.

But there is also a possibility — to be taken quite seriously — that North Korean strategists believe that they could mount a larger, but still limited, military action against the South. An incursion several tens of kilometers deep that imperiled Seoul, say, and/or the American troops in the Chorwon Valley. The attack on the ground might be supported by cyber-strikes designed to disrupt South Korean and U.S. military command and control. Recent cyberattacks on the Republic of Korea, seemingly coming from the North, suggest that Pyongyang may have such a capability. Overall, the idea would be to mount a limited offensive, halt in place, then seek economic and other concessions — for example, an end to sanctions, perhaps more aid — in a negotiated peace settlement. The idea is that the North’s viable nuclear escalatory threat, small as it is, would nevertheless deter a large-scale American response, allowing this strategy to succeed. Chancy, but doable.

At the peak of the risk spectrum, Kim Jong Un could decide one day — surely not now, as alert levels south of the 38th Parallel are too high — to mount a full-scale invasion with the North’s million-man army. If he were to "roll the iron dice" (the phrase that German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg used to describe going to war in 1914), the North’s nuclear capacity could come into play in two ways. The first would be limited to trying to deter a counter-blow by American-led forces, something akin to the amphibious "left hook" that Douglas MacArthur mounted at Inchon in September 1950. Indeed, it would take a very steely resolve in Washington to send large numbers of troops to fight in what might become an irradiated battle zone — where millions of Korean civilians would be among the most vulnerable.

The second, and far riskier, option Kim could choose would be to detonate a nuclear weapon at the outset of an invasion of the South. Not on the ground, but at very high altitude. Nobody would be killed, but the explosion would generate a highly disruptive electromagnetic pulse. This would fry or block almost all South Korean and American communications, and many other computer systems, greatly diminishing defensive capacities for days, probably weeks. It would greatly complicate efforts to deal with a blitz from the North, an assault perhaps to be led by Kim’s roughly 100,000 special forces, many of them infiltrating via tunnels or on radar-evading Colt II biplanes. The chance Pyongyang would be taking — that President Obama would refrain from nuking the North in retaliation — is enormous. But, given that a high-altitude detonation would not have killed anyone on the ground, the American response might well be limited to conventional counterattack. If so, the great early advantage enjoyed by invaders less dependent on the kinds of communications that would be disrupted — and the latent threat of holding South Koreans hostage to nuclear attack — just might give the North a chance to prevail.

This would be especially true if the international community felt impelled to try to mediate a ceasefire. It would be quite ironic were near-friendless North Korea to see the United Nations — the organization that authorized the "police action" against Kim Il Sung in 1950 — come to its rescue. Short of substantial international peacemaking efforts, there would always be the North’s "China card." Beijing saved North Korea the last time war broke out on the peninsula; how China would respond to a major new conflict would no doubt determine the outcome yet again.

With all the foregoing in mind, may I suggest that we stop focusing on the illusory threat of North Korean long-range missiles attacking the United States? There are far more pressing matters to consider at the unruly lower end of the spectrum of conflict. And far more serious concerns at the higher end as, one day, perhaps soon, a faltering North Korean economy may prompt a tottering regime to take the chance that it just might roll a seven or an eleven, allowing it to win with the iron dice of war.

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