July 21, 2024
The United States Nuclear Posture Review is scheduled to be released in 2022. In part, this Review will likely set American policy with regard to China’s dramatic nuclear build-up and North Korea’s manifest unwillingness to consider “denuclearization.” Though there are significant pressures on President Joe Biden to accept a “no-first-use” nuclear posture, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Australia have lobbied Mr. Biden not to commit to any such posture. These U.S. allies are concerned that American “no-first-use” would weaken overall nuclear deterrence against China and Russia. WAR ROOM welcomes back Lou Beres as he examines the policy and the realities of the North Korean nuclear program.

“It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth, in other words, to silence.”

Albert Camus, The Plague

An accelerating nuclear threat

By August 2021, it was clear that nuclear-armed North Korea had restarted its plutonium-producing reprocessing center. This development at Yongbyon, the country’s 5-megawatt reactor, came when nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington were already at a standstill. Earlier, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had offered to dismantle part of Yongbyon’s main nuclear complex in exchange for sanctions relief. The United States rejected the offer, which left all other North Korean nuclear sites unaffected.

Amid heated political rhetoric, strategists must seek to answer questions on more analytic grounds. In this case: “What are the underlying conceptual issues if denuclearization is off the table?” U.S. military leaders, politicians and strategists must accept that a nuclear North Korea is a regrettable but also irreversible “done deal.” North Korea seeks conspicuous global power and influence, so Kim will never surrender such prestige-granting weapons and infrastructures. At least not voluntarily. Among other things, President Biden should now take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. What should be America’s next move? The realistic answer is unambiguous. All focused American efforts to deal with this rapidly growing nuclear threat should center on long-term mutual deterrence. Implementing this still-plausible goal would best stabilize the nuclear problem at hand.

U.S. strategic reasoning here should be consistently dialectical. Otherwise, American military planners and decision-makers would remain severely limited in their capacity to learn meaningfully from the past. Additionally, preventing a nuclear war with North Korea ought never represent a flippant seat-of-the-pants process for narrowly political display. Nuclear war will not be rendered less likely if American and North Korean leaders merely decide to “fall in love” again, as former President Donald Trump announced after the Singapore Summit with Kim on June 12, 2018. The primary battlefield of any international war, including a nuclear war, would be intellectual. It is only at the primary level of “mind” that the United States can proceed rationally with an already nuclear North Korea.

A bilateral “balance of power”

Some tangible forms of U.S. power, even though seemingly immense, may not help achieve U.S. policy aims. In world politics, national power is never merely a comparative expression of mega-destructive ordnance. In many cases throughout history, moreover, the “weaker” party has prevailed. For the United States, the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars are evident cases in point. Some years back, Donald Trump, speaking of Kim Jong Un, bragged that both leaders “have a nuclear “button,” but “my button is bigger than his.” In such inherently bewildering matters of national strategy, “button size” (presumably referring to the United States’ much larger arsenal) would likely not matter. After all, in matters of strategic nuclear deterrence, even a seemingly “weaker” nuclear force could still inflict “unacceptable destruction.”

Going forward, the United States will need to present itself credibly to North Korea as both willing and able to inflict unacceptably damaging but also proportional retaliations in response to any conceivable levels of nuclear aggression. Although former President Trump’s visceral position vis-à-vis Pyongyang had been to threaten Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” or “total destruction,” this was never a sensible approach to achieving long-term nuclear security. However counterintuitive, President Biden ought quickly to understand that the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrent threats could sometime vary inversely with the extent of enemy-threatened destruction. If the North Koreans perceive the costs of American retaliatory destruction as disproportionate to the initial aggression, U.S. deterrence could actually become less persuasive.

Although no one could reliably determine which specific U.S. deterrent threats were optimal or just suitable, it stands to reason that calibrating American retaliatory threats to particular levels of expected North Korean harms would generally offer a more prudent and promising strategy than posturing with variously spasmodic, intermittent, inflexible and across-the-board Trump-style threats. Thus, Washington’s deterrence credibility might be enhanced if it signaled Pyongyang of its readiness to wage a “limited nuclear war” rather than Trump’s threat of “total destruction.”

Learning from President Trump’s relevant policy errors, President Biden also will need to avoid exaggerating the strategic benefits of any “personal attitude” in crisis-related diplomacy, and to proceed with a conscientiously fashioned analytic “template” that accounts for both the rationality and intentionality of pertinent decision-makers in Pyongyang. A more consistently disciplined conceptual perspective for any coherent U.S. nuclear threat assessment would address: (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional, unintentional, or accidental intra-crisis behaviors of these adversaries.

Intentional and unintentional nuclear war: a critical bifurcation

Facing future North Korean negotiations, competent U.S. policy analysts must examine dynamic configurations of all foreseeable nuclear risk, including unintentional nuclear war. Unintentional nuclear war could emerge from an unfortunate accident involving mechanical, electrical, or computer malfunctions; the intended or unintended effects of cyber operations by North Korea, the United States, or a third party; or from decisional miscalculation or irrationality by either one or both of the two contending national presidents. These shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time. But they might also arise more-or-less suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent diffusiveness and even in multiple “cascades” of strategic complexity.

Given these risks, U.S. goals should be plain. If Pyongyang’s “denuclearization” is no longer realistic, then stable and viable deterrence should become the overriding U.S. strategic goal vis-à-vis North Korea. This complex goal must always be contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality.

Circumstances of nuclear extremity

For now, Kim Jong Un still seems to be rational – that is, to value his own personal life and that of his nation above any other preference or combination of preferences. He should, therefore, remain subject to U.S. nuclear deterrence. Nonetheless, it could still become important for a negotiating American president to distinguish accurately between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and instances of feigned or pretended irrationality, even though doing so might be difficult in the midst of any ongoing nuclear crisis.

In any nuclear crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side would strive to maximize two overriding goals simultaneously: (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing altogether vital national security obligations. This second objective must mean preventing one’s own country and society from suffering any catastrophic or existential harms. Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, especially if both adversaries were fully rational, either or both heads of state could still commit catastrophic decisional errors while seeking escalation dominance.

All underlying issues of military contention between Washington and Pyongyang are enormously complicated and would remain subject to irremediable failure. Faced with such starkly sobering complexities, each side should now proceed warily with a posture that is militarily purposeful and prudentially risk averse. For the United States, the president’s core policy imperative must be to treat the North Korea nuclear problem as an intellectual matter. In any event, North Korean “denuclearization” is not a plausible strategic goal for the United States. Establishing stable nuclear deterrence with Pyongyang, however, does represent such a goal and is precisely the direction in which U.S. North Korea nuclear policy should now be heading.

Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many major books, monographs and articles on nuclear strategy, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: North Korea’s ballistic missile – North Korea Victory Day-2013

Photo Credit: Stefan Krasowski via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Interesting idea. But hardly new and not useful for today. Having served in ROK on a few occasions, once during an impending crisis in the 1990’s, I must react to the author’s call for a ‘bi lateral” relationship with my first point. Just where would his idea place the government and the people of ROK? As well as the facts of the Command relationships between ROK, US, Combined Forces Command, USFK, and now INDOPACOM. Each of which have roles that call for “combined” decisions about how to act under the duress of threats. I will admit to no longer being current on the classified doctrine by which a response to such a threat must be managed. But I expect it remains under the province of an agreed upon method by which the US manages its intentions in not just “partnership,” a largely overused term in current events, but in legal treaties with ROK.
    The author’s description of statements by the previous POTUS belies his caution about “escalation dominance.” The key thing I think is at work is not unlike what it has always been. How to “deter” an act that has not ever happened? How does one know if the US current posture of forces in theater or elsewhere is part of either deterrence from either nuclear attack, or, just as likely, a large scale attack of multiple capabilities? I would be interested in his ideas about that, especially with regard to the Army’s relatively new adopted doctrine for large scale operations which finally recognize multiple domains, one of which, of course, is space.

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