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Limited Strikes on North Korea Would Be an Unlimited Disaster
There’s no clear upside — and plenty of potential downsides — to punching Pyongyang in the nose.
Many commentators across the national security community, such as Edward Luttwak, Michael J. Green, Matthew Kroenig, Oriana Skylar Mastro, and others, have the same bright idea for how to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to swear off further ballistic missile and nuclear warhead testing: Punch him right in the metaphorical nose.
The idea is that by hitting the right — and largely symbolic — target inside North Korea, we can find a sweet spot of escalation that’s light enough not to goad the North into a major war but painful enough to make them think twice about further testing of weapons of mass destruction. To quote one proponent, “Limited strikes should be targeted carefully and focused on North Korea’s specific provocation. A good start would be to take out the next North Korean intercontinental test missile on its launch pad.” As for the risk of a response, “If Kim can be deterred, as [critics of a strike] suggest, he will react in a way that risks few lives and leaves him options to preserve his precious regime.”
The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions. We assume that the North Korean regime can detect with any realistic degree of confidence that a limited strike is in fact limited. We assume that North Korea will only analyze the costs and benefits of retaliating based on the merits of a fleeting crisis. And we assume that Kim Jong Un’s power is limitless and that he has none of his own constituencies to placate in the hours and days after a strike.
These assumptions are shaky at best. North Korea’s early warning network, fragile enough that a clean strike seems somehow viable, is more likely apt to encourage Pyongyang to take more aggressive action. Kim doesn’t have to consider just the ensuing hours and days after a strike, but also many years (and presumably other crises) in the future. And Kim is riding a tiger, and opting to blink will likely lead to his being thrown and eaten.
Limited wars have sometimes, if rarely, worked in the past, even between other nuclear-armed powers, such as the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999. Yet everything we know of the messy politics of Pyongyang suggests that the chances of keeping any conflict limited are small at best — and the alternative is far too horrific to take such a risk.
There’s a popular maxim in the military: The enemy always gets a vote. And when that enemy must weigh future risks and rewards, the greater military might and influence enjoyed by a superpower still might not be enough to coerce the outcome it desires. This, for a great power like the United States, is obviously frustrating. But just because it’s frustrating doesn’t make it any less true.
Chief among the problems with the limited strike option is that it assumes that the North is capable of discerning between a punch in the nose and a full-on pummeling — and that Kim could take the public humiliation of sitting on his hands throughout a limited U.S. strike and still cling to power. They can’t, and he wouldn’t. And North Korea isn’t the only case. In fact, studies of threats by larger powers against smaller ones show that most countries in North Korea’s position would retaliate with whatever means they have at their disposal.
In short, when you punch somebody in the face, the recipient understandably can’t know whether more is about to follow.
What to expect when you’re expecting … Tomahawks
The selling point of a limited strike is that American cruise missiles and stealth bombers stand a good chance of slipping past North Korea’s aging early warning system to hit their targets well before the Korean People’s Army could give its leadership a heads-up that an attack is underway. To quote Luttwak writing in Foreign Policy earlier this month, “North Korea’s radars, missiles, and aircraft are badly outdated, with their antique electronics long since countermeasured.” North Korea is actually modernizing its air defense networks, but it’s true that they still remain far behind those of the United States or its allies. As such, this is considered to be a selling point: not only could the United States punish North Korea, but it could also do so in a way that requires few resources and risks no casualties.
Unfortunately, the tactical advantages of American stealth and surprise don’t produce a crystal-clear situational awareness and understanding of American intent for our adversaries. Wartime surprise does what it’s supposed to do: confuses and overwhelms the adversary. That surprise is intended to so discombobulate an opponent that they can’t formulate an effective response until it’s all over. But if you’re trying to prevent further escalation, confusion is exactly what you’re trying to avoid on the other side.
Warning is a key part of strategic stability, and the more confident Kim and his generals are that they can see an American attack coming, the more comfortable they are with accepting risk. This goes to the heart of what a warning system does for decision-makers: They exist as much to convince national leaders that the country isn’t under attack as to warn them that the missiles are on their way.
Shocking Pyongyang with an unforeseen strike, and thereby taking away North Korea’s confidence in its ability to know when a war has started, will leave a frightened and disoriented North Korean leadership fearful that they can’t really know when it’s ended. Once the North’s early warning system is discredited, its chain of command has only the knowledge of a recent American strike and their prewar beliefs about U.S. intentions to guide their next response, neither of which lend themselves to the perception that such a strike would be limited. U.S. President Donald Trump declared at the United Nations that the United States would have to “totally destroy” North Korea in the event of a crisis. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), during a television interview, said that “North Korea itself” should be destroyed.
It could be argued that such language is part of a messaging strategy to induce North Korea to take the prospect of negotiations seriously, but it’s very easy for strong rhetoric to be mistaken for a clear statement of intent, as the 1983 Able Archer exercise demonstrated. During Able Archer, NATO performed a command post exercise designed to rehearse a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Though it took place during a period of heightened tensions and fierce rhetoric between the United States and the Soviet Union, decision-makers in Washington felt that Soviet leaders would be able to appreciate the difference between exercises and action, and rhetoric and reality. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and the Soviet Union prepared their nuclear forces accordingly, almost bringing the world to war.
Further, as Adam Cathcart has written for FP, given the lack of direct ties between the United States and North Korea, and given the fact that access to foreign media is limited to North Korean government officials, it would be worryingly easy for Pyongyang to take this kind of language at face value.
At a minimum, prudence would dictate that Pyongyang predelegate to lower-level commanders the authority to fire if they feel threatened. The worst-case scenario is that a sense of urgency would kick the chain of command into use-it-or-lose-it mode — unleashing their weapons now for fear that an imminent strike would destroy the choicest parts of the North Korean arsenal. And given the potentially underdeveloped and brittle command-and-control system in North Korea, this opens the door to potential unintended use of those weapons.
Imagine a force that relies on early warning to rush away from their garrisons (as North Korean training has focused on); time is required to get those units moving. As a commander, you need to have an operator detect the attack. If the amount of warning you have is only a few minutes (or none at all), you’ll be tempted to move your surviving forces out into the field and place them in a position where they’re ready to fire.
Depending on how dire you believe the threat to be, you might even opt to give more junior commanders lower down on the chain the permission to launch under certain conditions. All commanders make mistakes, but every link in the chain gives leaders a chance to cancel a false alarm. The lower down the chain you give launch authority, the fewer links there are to slow things down. Those commanders might also lack the situational awareness to understand the bigger picture and may mistake more limited events in their area (a building exploding, communications shutting down) as a far bigger crisis and launch their missiles accordingly. If the United States wants to limit the potential for retaliation, it has to avoid a scenario in which a confused and overwhelmed North Korean military puts the potential for disaster in the hands of every commander.
No backing down
Why doesn’t North Korea just walk away from the table? After all, if they’re so concerned that they could lose more of their retaliatory forces in a follow-on strike, does this not therefore incentivize them to instead strike a more conciliatory tone and acquiesce to U.S. demands, especially given the vast gulf in military might?
There is a body of research that indicates that this is less likely to be the case than people might think. Todd Sechser researched the results when larger states make coercive threats against smaller ones. His research indicates that the smaller state is actually more likely to resist those threats than it is to acquiesce to them.
The reason is simple: When confronted with the choice to resist against or acquiesce to a threat issued by a larger power, the smaller power isn’t merely considering that single interaction. It’s also considering what will happen further down the road based on the decision it makes. If it accedes to a coercive demand now, what happens when its adversary decides it wants to make more demands later?
Some point to the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan as evidence that a military confrontation between two nuclear powers can remain both limited and conventional. But there are critical differences. Kargil took place between two powers that had a history of fighting limited skirmishes in that area for decades. Pakistani operations were, at least in part, a response to a successful Indian operation a number of years before. The United States, in contrast, has not fought the Korean People’s Army since the late 1960s, when at the height of the Vietnam War the Korean People’s Army and the U.S. Army fought a series of violent cross-border skirmishes. In the Kargil conflict, both armies shared not only a common history as opponents but also a past heritage in the Indian Army of imperial days, making them well aware of each other’s motivations and limits.
Further, Kargil was a remote and isolated battlefield that limited the scale of combat. This was a war, essentially, that was fought on the edge of the world between platoons and companies. A strike on North Korea would take place in an area that’s anything but isolated. Remember, at least one intercontinental ballistic missile test took place in Pyongyang’s suburbs, likely near that city’s international airport. South Korea’s capital sits well within range of North Korea’s long-range artillery, and the bulk of the South Korean public lives within that massive urban space. The stakes and the necessary scale, in other words, are far different.
Kim’s nest of vipers
Even if Kim Jong Un could have faith that a U.S. strike would be limited, he might be forced to respond anyway. There’s a common misperception in the West that Kim has unlimited power and freedom of action, and so he’s the only actor we have to worry about. Yet like all leaders, Kim has constituencies that make up his power base. His actions, therefore, are not purely based on his perception of the threat from the United States, but also on what is required to keep the support of those elites and remain in power.
Since taking power, Kim has taken a different path than his father did, adopting what is known as the byungjin line, an ideology that places a double emphasis on improving both the domestic economy and North Korea’s nuclear forces (his father’s policy was seongun jeongchi , or “military first.”) The development of nuclear weapons does not just have a military application. Like WMD programs in other autocratic states, the development of these weapons is also a way to reward different elite factions with tangible benefits.
As the political scientist Etel Solingen has written, “domestic models of political survival and their orientations to the global political economy have implications for nuclear trajectories.” In states like North Korea, which aren’t reliant on integration into global trade networks, the patronage networks needed for Kim to remain in power are actually helped by sanctions, and thus rely on the nuclear and missile programs to retain (and enhance) their positions. When sanctions are leveled on a state’s economy, it strangles the competitiveness of most industries and thus makes it easier for the state to award lucrative monopoly contracts to chosen elites. These same elites can also take advantage of numerous state-supported instruments to run smuggling operations and use those same operations to pad their bottom line and broker access and influence within the government
Take both Ryomyong Street and Mirae Scientists Street, a pair of newly constructed Pyongyang apartment complexes intended in varying degrees to reward both elites and scientific figures responsible for developing North Korea’s WMD programs. Beyond the obvious benefits of such a program (providing WMD-associated elites with better housing), the construction of these facilities has a number of additional benefits. North Korea, contrary to what many may think, actually has a thriving real estate market. Constructing these kinds of facilities for WMD-associated figures is also a way to pad their bottom line by allowing them to sell or rent their assigned real estate for a profit.
All of this demonstrates that Kim may face considerable resistance to backing down by the very constituencies he relies upon to maintain his power. Freezing his nuclear and missile programs, besides making him look weak to internal elites, also would make it harder to reward them. Without these programs, they would likely be cut off from many of the revenue streams that fund their comparatively affluent lives in the capital, a city reserved for North Korea’s chosen elite that has become so relatively affluent compared to the rest of the country that’s it’s been nicknamed “Pyonghattan.” Of course, a wider war is hardly a better way to maintain one’s holdings, but the prospects of an indefinite and undefined future payoff lacks the same saliency that one’s current holdings offer — after all, sunk costs, no matter how fallacious, always matter.
Corruption and proliferation walk hand in hand. As the infamous Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan demonstrated, the same corrupt practices and techniques required to acquire the resources for a WMD program can equally (and frequently simultaneously) be used to line one’s own pockets. And if this occurs at a reasonable level, it isn’t a bug. It’s a feature, one that allows Kim to buy the loyalty of those he needs to remain in power.
Kim certainly isn’t unfamiliar with the risks he runs with these power bases. Indeed, his purge of regime strongman Jang Song Thaek, his uncle, demonstrates that Kim is well aware of the potential for these trusted elites to turn on him. And as the proliferation networks that elites oversee have become more independent and capable, so has their ability to turn on the regime. For Kim, a decision to avoid battle and acquiesce in the wake of a strike isn’t merely based on what he thinks the United States will do. It’s also based on what the people guarding his villa, running his security services, and overseeing the military will do. And as awesome as the power of the United States is, that power isn’t the one guarding his door when he sleeps.
If the United States keeps operating under flawed assumptions about the North, it could lead to a strike that, at best, will not end North Korea’s WMD program and, at worst, might provoke an escalation that results in the first battlefield use of nuclear weapons since 1945. The in-between possibilities are equally unattractive: limited retaliations that threaten the United States and its allies, and target civilians and military alike? A wider war on the Korean peninsula? No war, but allies that are forced to re-evaluate their own security relationships in the wake of a massive U.S. miscalculation? None of these can be said to be in the United States’ best interest.
Most of all, we don’t have to take these risks at all. If the perception of Kim Jong Un is one of a rogue and irrational actor, then striking now is far more prudent because deterrence likely will not hold. Of course, everything we see indicates that Kim is rational. North Korea is absolutely deterrable. And since it is, striking based on a misplaced trust in our own power is a dangerous — and unnecessary — risk.