North Korea likely cannot currently hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, but could be able to by the end of Donald Trump’s first term in office. It’s certainly a difficult situation for the United States to be in, and one that foreign policy hawks will almost certainly leverage to argue for either preventive or preemptive strikes against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
To put it plainly, however, this would be an exceedingly stupid thing to do. Not only is there no guarantee that military action would be successful, but there are an incredible number of negative externalities to a first-strike including the prospect of conventional escalation. Moreover, scholars and analysts have consistently overestimated the consequences of nuclear proliferation for international conflict and underestimated their stabilizing effects. Thus, even if undesirable, North Korea’s ability to strike the United States, above and beyond their current nuclear capabilities, may not mean much at all.
Although direct arguments for preventive war against North Korea are luckily hard to find, analysts have already formulated the intellectual groundwork for military action. For instance, Joshua Stanton, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner recently argued that “the only remaining hope for denuclearizing North Korea peacefully lies in convincing it that it must disarm and reform or perish.” Although Stanton, Lee, and Klingner believe that economic pressure alone can induce North Korea to moderate its nuclear behavior, by extension if the United States cannot resolve the situation peacefully, it must be prepared to follow through militarily on its threat that North Korea will “perish.” Similarly, Matthew Kroenig, a well-known proponent of preventive strikes against Iran, has approvingly noted that “the Trump administration has launched a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea that will leave no options”—read military action—“off the table.”
It is somewhat surprising that members of the D.C. foreign policy establishment have yet to trot out the well-worn argument for preventive war given both the Trump administration’s own purported inclinations towards military action and the willingness of hawks to make similar arguments when it came to the nascent—some would say non-existent—Iranian nuclear weapons program. There are obvious differences, however, between the North Korean and Iranian situations, chiefly that the former already poses nuclear weapons whereas the latter did not. Still, regardless of the reason behind the surprising reluctance of hawks to argue for a preventive or preemptive strike, it remains important expose the faulty logic that would underpin such an argument.
First, there is no guarantee that a preventive or preemptive strike against North Korea would succeed. Kier Lieber and Daryl Press, writing in the journal International Security, have assessed the prospects of a counterforce strike to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and argue that such a strike is likely to succeed. Still, even they acknowledge that their argument is probabilistic rather deterministic. Even if their analysis is correct, low probability events can occur, as Donald Trump’s election emphatically demonstrated. Moreover, Lieber and Press’ confidence in their assessments may be misplaced; the actual probability of success may be far lower than they believe.
Second, even if a preventive or preemptive strike did succeed, North Korea would retain a number of options for conventional military escalation that the United States may find difficult to deter. The insularity and secrecy of North Korea means that predicting the behavior of Kim Jong Un or his regime is incredibly difficult. Nevertheless, Un would clearly confront both domestic and systems-level imperatives for conventional escalation in the aftermath of a strike by the United States.
Given that the domestic legitimacy of the North Korean regime rests in part on a perception that it can stand up to American aggression, Kim Jong Un might launch conventional counter-strikes in order to avoid a domestic backlash. Wars pursued for domestic political utility can be considered rational even if there is little to no security benefit. North Korea might also respond militarily as an attempt to signal resolve and deter future military coercion by either the United States or other countries. Some countries also arguably find inherent value in wars of revenge, meaning North Korea might attack to fulfil this need even if it runs the risk of its own annihilation in the process.
Additionally, one of the arguments underpinning calls for pressuring North Korea—albeit an unpersuasive one—is the idea that North Korea is fundamentally an irrational actor. If so, then any U.S. military action might drive them to lash out conventionally against South Korea, Japan, or other targets in Asia that the U.S. shares values with.
Third, scholars and analysts have consistently overestimated the negative consequences of nuclear proliferation for international conflict and underestimated their stabilizing effects. This is particularly true when it comes to the supposed effects of an assured nuclear retaliation capability on international conflict. Outside of the well-known debate between Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz over whether nuclear proliferation is stabilizing, other scholars have greatly expanded the nuances of the relationship between nuclear weapons and international conflict. For instance, scholars have noted that new nuclear powers are more likely to reciprocate in militarized interstate disputes than older nuclear powers, nuclear armed states have an edge in crisis bargaining, and such states may be incentivized to engage in lower level conflict due to the stability-instability paradox.
Fully applying these theoretical insights to the North Korean case at hand is a monumental task, but one major point is worth highlighting. It is unclear why North Korea gaining the capability to strike the United States would exacerbate the potential for conflict above and beyond their initial proliferation efforts. Indeed, as Robert Jervis has argued, states that maintain a mutual assured retaliation capability are dis-incentivized from conflict due to the tremendous costs of a nuclear confrontation should a lower level conflict escalate.
The counterpoint to this view rests on what is known as the stability-instability paradox. First introduced by Glenn Snyder in the early Cold War, this paradox implies that the less likely that a low-level conflict is to escalate to nuclear use, the more likely these lower levels of conflict are to occur. The stability-instability paradox is a favorite boogeyman of nuclear proliferation pessimists, and was raised as one of the key reasons why the United States needed to oppose Iranian nuclear proliferation.
Much analysis that references the stability-instability paradox, however, wildly mischaracterizes it. In the first place, a distinction needs to be drawn between actions that an aggressor state was already contemplating and are now less costly due to the stabilizing impact of nuclear weapons versus those actions that it wasn’t previously contemplating but now does. I would argue that few, if any, actions fall in this latter category. To say that the stability-instability paradox incentivizes lower levels of conflict therefore misconstrues the types of actions that are being incentivized. The very existence of the paradox is conditional on an adversary already contemplating aggressive action.
States can also take a number of actions to decrease any incentives for aggression stemming from the stability-instability paradox through selectively increasing the probability of nuclear escalation. These actions, such as pre-delegating the use of nuclear weapons, can easily bolster general deterrence. The strength and danger of the stability-instability paradox, therefore, needs to be interpreted situationally. It must be weighed in regards to a number of variables, including not only the participants and their capabilities, but their risk tolerance and other beliefs regarding the efficacy of military force.
Arguing against military action to target North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities might seem to be a useless exercise given that there have been few—if any—arguments in favor of such action. As noted, however, the inherent dangers of any preventive or preemptive strikes—to say nothing of their futility—means such arguments need to be forcefully and clearly made. There have also been instances, such as the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, where strident opposition failed to shift either public or elite opinion. Although disheartening, the failure of the marketplace of ideas in the past is not a sufficient justification of inaction today. There are few good reasons to either preventively or preemptively strike North Korea and the costs would almost certainly outweigh the benefits.