North Korean Nukes: A view from a millennial scholar


Nuclear strategy has often been caricatured as the eccentric uncle – or mad (social) scientist – of the fields of Strategic Studies and International Relations, one whose relevance is waning in a post-Cold War world. Yet the failure to contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and ongoing proliferation elsewhere, shows the enduring relevance and importance of nuclear strategy as a topic of study in the 21st century. The ‘return’ of nuclear proliferation to the public eye and rolling news items has come with some vengeance, if my experience as a recurring interviewee on BBC Radio Cymru/Wales as a scholar of nuclear strategy and international security can be entertained as an anecdotal source. Discussion and debate on contemporary nuclear proliferation issues could benefit from re-introducing this ‘eccentric uncle’ to the public. Nuclear strategy is not a relic from a bygone age with little reference to the information-guzzling millennials of today that only resonates with an ever-decreasing pool of ‘Cold Warriors’ in the military and the civil service.

Ten years ago I was a fresh-faced undergraduate student starting my degree in International Politics at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. Not long before that, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Nuclear strategy and the proliferation of nuclear technology was a subject of mixed fortunes for would-be strategists at that time. Arguments that we should take the risk of a nuclear missile-armed North Korea seriously were dismissed; after all, Iran may yet be contained and welcomed in ‘from the cold’, why not North Korea? There was hope that President Clinton’s deal in 1994 to freeze the North’s nuclear programme could be renewed. Besides, there was much doubt that Pyongyang could even muster the industrial capacity and supply chains to develop both nuclear materials and complex missile programs whilst its people starved. Contemplating the costs and logics of state on state warfare – both nuclear and non-nuclear – was out of fashion. Thinking of the hardest yet least addressed question of nuclear proliferation – should war be waged to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons – had been dismissed as anachronistic or even downright dangerous.

As recent events have shown, however, perceiving a decline in the importance attached to the study of nuclear strategy would seem somewhat misguided. Ten years on, it is unfortunate to see my own view that nuclear strategy and the logics of nuclear deterrence still influence world politics as vindicated. Nuclear strategy and thinking of state survival – particularly for Asian states – is back on the table of the United Nations and back in our living rooms through breaking news. Studying nuclear strategy demonstrates that apparent hysteria that a nuclear Armageddon is upon us distracts from the far more real risk of nuclear proliferation. The risks of intentional major war may be reduced when nuclear weapons are in the mix; but the costs of accidents or misreading intentions during a crisis increase.

Much media coverage of Pyongyang’s march towards a deliverable nuclear weapons capability has skirted the central most animating and controversial debate on the existence of nuclear weapons in international politics. Is the spread of nuclear weapons to more states actually a bad thing? This is known as the Waltz v Sagan debate on nuclear weapons. Ken Waltz famously argued that more may be better. The logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) would make war unthinkable for nuclear weapon states, making them more cautious in crises particularly as the world had pulled back from the precipice of, and learned from, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Scott Sagan argued that the spread of nuclear weapons was something to prevent because it increased the risk of accidental nuclear war, or the spread of nuclear materials to non-state actors that may not subscribe to MAD logic.

I will not offer a resolution to that debate here. I am of the view that both sides have extremely valid observations. Whilst this does not provide simple solutions, it should provide a healthy and accurate attitude of seriousness to the threats and effects that nuclear weapons pose to the people and ecology of our planet, but also why the world’s major powers continue to believe that nuclear weapons provide the ultimate guarantee of security from external threats.

A nuclear deterrent – particularly one that can wipe out the west coast of the United States – is the most powerful guarantor of the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-Un cannot therefore easily be labelled as a maniacal or suicidal dictator as a retaliation annihilating North Korea may follow. Two nuclear-armed states have not gone to war with each other and there has not been a war between the world’s major economies since 1945 – so far. Nuclear weapons ensure that smaller states can negate the conventional superiority of a larger foe – think France and Britain against the Soviet Union, Pakistan against India, Israel against its neighbours, and North Korea versus the United States and South Korea. Yet the risks of accidental nuclear war or detonations are also very real and there have been many close calls that should strike horror into the minds of any who read about them.  However, if the spread of nuclear weapons is such a threat to the existence of life on Earth, should the ultimate punishment in international politics be exacted upon those who spread them? Should war be declared to stop the spread of nuclear weapons? But would a nuclear casus belli be abused for preventative wars of intervention with ulterior motives? This debate in a nutshell is one that mass media would be wise to bring to wider audiences. It would not only improve the public’s perception of the strategically sound reasons behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and why war is so unthinkable on the Korean peninsula, but also other nuclear debates.

This debate outlines why states continue to seek and modernise their nuclear arsenals, and why intentional nuclear war is not something one should stay up at night worrying about. A reliable second strike capability makes major war a suicidal option or an unacceptable risk to the other side. Indeed, a paradox of nuclear strategy is that the world could be more stable once North Korea develops more nuclear-tipped missiles on solid-fuelled rockets and a fleet of nuclear missile submarines. It would then have an assured strike capability, and would not face a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ situation in a nuclear crisis with the United States which would have most to gain by striking first. However, this scenario requires others to trust that Pyongyang will be responsible with the safety and security of its nuclear arsenal.

That fact that nuclear weapons have remained pointed between the major powers of the world despite the end of the Cold War should caution anyone against believing that nuclear weapons are an anachronism of the Cold War. Recall that Israel’s nuclear arsenal was absent of direct Cold War ideological motivations. India and Pakistan developed their nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Russia and the United States never seriously undermined their ability to annihilate each other after 1991. China is on course to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities across the board. All are putting faith in MAD logic – that nuclear weapons ensures that no power can prevail in a major war, forcing a peaceful co-existence. Albert Wohlstetter’s ‘balance of terror’ continues to attract new generations of policymakers and strategists.

As a millennial scholar of Strategic Studies and International Relations, I have in some ways grown up with ‘the bomb’ as well: just not as the baby boom generation would know it. The Waltz v Sagan debate should continue as a ‘nuclear peace’ persists, and engaging with that debate should raise awareness of how interminable and chronic the problem of nuclear proliferation is. Far from being an anachronism, the paradoxes of nuclear deterrence and the value of grasping the strategic thinking in the capitals of nuclear weapon states should be communicated to all with the understanding that nuclear deterrence could not only be our doom but also our salvation.

Image: North Korean ballistic missile on display during a ‘Victory Day’ parade in 2013, via Wikimedia commons

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