Academic journal article North Korean Review

Command without Control? Nuclear Crisis Instability on the Korean Peninsula

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Command without Control? Nuclear Crisis Instability on the Korean Peninsula

Article excerpt

Introduction

One of the striking aspects of the March-April 2013 security crisis on the Korean peninsula was the relatively sanguine response of most commentators to a series of events that had the potential to escalate to war. While there was no direct evidence that North Korea had mobilized its military forces at any point during the two months in which the major U.S.-ROK military exercise "Key Resolve" took place, the rhetorical threats emanating from Pyongyang involved an unprecedented number of explicit references to nuclear use. Furthermore, the U.S. flew several nuclearcapable platforms close to North Korean airspace in the most robust demonstration of immediate extended deterrence on the peninsula since U.S. nuclear-armed submarines surfaced in South Korea's harbours in the 1970s.1 By any reckoning, there was potential for serious consequences flowing from miscalculation.2 However, most analysts tended to be dismissive of the idea that war was on the horizon. As one seasoned observer of North Korea claimed in the midst of the crisis, "most people in Seoul don't care about the North's belligerent statements: the farther one is from the Korean Peninsula, the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here."3

An important underlying assumption about North Korea's nuclear weapons program has acquired currency among observers over the past few years. This assumption aligns closely with the view held by proliferation optimists that the risks posed by new nuclear powers are exaggerated and that these states are likely to exercise significant caution after crossing the nuclear threshold.4 Optimists maintain that the leaders of new nuclear powers will be chastened by their awesome responsibility and act with appropriate restraint. Contrary to proliferation pessimists, who argue that the risks of nuclear conflict multiply with each new entrant into the nuclear club, optimists claim that the inherently compelling deterrence attributes of the world's most powerful weapon will have the effect of stabilizing regional security complexes. According to proliferation optimists, all leaders operate within a rational actor mindset; no rational individual will countenance nuclear war; and nuclear weapons inevitably induce a high degree of caution. If the established nuclear weapons states have managed to co-exist for several decades, why should we assume there is a greater risk that new nuclear powers will act any less responsibly?

In this article, I challenge optimistic interpretations of North Korea's behavior as a nuclear weapons state by using the neglected prism of crisis instability. Employed as a framework of analysis to assess the dynamics of the Cold War superpower nuclear relationship, notions of crisis instability focus on the extent to which stability is achievable between nuclear-armed states during crisis situations. It is one thing to say that Pyongyang will never under any circumstances launch a bolt-fromthe-blue nuclear attack, but quite another to argue that under no circumstances will North Korea ever authorize the use of nuclear weapons during a confrontation with the U.S. and South Korea. An important test for proliferation optimism concerns the incentives and disincentives new nuclear powers confront in crisis situations. Very few would contest the claim that Pyongyang is unlikely to initiate nuclear use in non-crisis conditions, but it becomes harder to sustain this argument when we examine the various challenges that will confront North Korean decision makers in periods of acute tension.

The central argument of this article is that the prospects for North Korea using nuclear weapons during crises are probably greater than generally acknowledged. This is not based on any assumption about the irrationality of the leadership in Pyongyang. To the contrary, nuclear first use might be seen as a rational option by North Korean elites if they regard a U.S.-ROK conventional first-strike as inevitable. …

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