This New York Times article examines the possibility of a surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As the title suggests, the author is arguing against the idea.
The author makes a compelling case. Beyond this, there are a number of theoretically interesting points in this article. First, this is an interesting example of deterrence in the post-Cold war world. During the Cold War, the logic of deterrence was relatively simple at least at a superficial level. The type of deterrence most of us think of during the Cold War could be classified as general direct deterrence. If the US was attacked by the USSR, it promised to retaliate with nuclear weapons, inflicting massive amounts of damage on the USSR. And of course, visa-versa. If the US attacked first, the Soviets made the same threat. Since neither side could eliminate the others side’s retaliatory capacity with a first strike, both sides knew they would be destroyed if a conflict broke out. This was often referred to as mutually assured destruction.
To the extent this type of deterrence worked, it was because of clarity. In the context of general direct deterrence, the threats of retaliation were clearly communicated and for the most part credible. It was clear that both sides had the weapons capability to follow through on their threats. That is, both sides had a reliable second strike capability. And, in the case of a nuclear attack, there was little question that both sides were committed to following through. Given this clarity, neither the US nor the USSR was likely to misunderstand the situation they faced. Indeed, communication, credibility and capability are often referred to as the three C’s of deterrence.
In the context of post-Cold War politics that clarity is often lacking. As we see in the case of North Korea, figuring out the capabilities of the state is a complicated matter. There are questions concerning North Korea’s actual nuclear capabilities and the quality of its delivery vehicles (i.e. will the missiles fire, will they hit their targets etc.…). North Korea’s conventional capacity is much more formidable. As the article states, North Korea has the capacity to inflict a tremendous amount of damage to the South Korean capital, Seoul. The artillery and artillery rockets they would use may be crude by today’s standards but there are enough of them and they are dug in deep enough that it would take an estimated four days for the US and South Korean military to knock them out of action. In that time, estimates suggest there would be up to 6000 civilian casualties. One would hope that this type of carnage would be enough to deter an attack, but it is nowhere as near a simple a calculation as was the case with nuclear weapons.
There are also questions about the credibility of North Korea’s deterrent threat. If North Korea used nuclear weapons against targets in South Korea or elsewhere in Asia, the US would likely retaliate in kind. Even if they did not, as restricted themselves to a conventional attack against Seoul, the US might very well launch a full scale invasion and topple the regime as it did in Iraq. So, it is possible that a surgical strike may not lead to the type of retaliation described above. The North Korean regime may decide it is better to absorb the surgical strike and remain in power. Or not. We can only guess. And therein lies the problem. As long as there is a small chance that retaliation will not happen, there will be someone arguing that a surgical strike is worth the risk, particularly since the 6000 civilians are in South Korea not the US.
This also makes communication problematic. If there are questions about capability and credibility, no matter how clear the North Korean regime is about how it would respond to an attack, there will be room for doubt. And, a sliver of doubt is all it takes for someone to make a mistake.
This is not to say that the Cold War was good, or that every state should have a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, although some such as the late Kenneth Waltz made that argument. General direct deterrence was only one dimension to the Cold War strategy and the most simple and theoretically stable. Extended deterrence (making deterrent threats to protect allies) immediate deterrence (deterrence in the case of a crisis) and extended immediate deterrence were far more complex and even during the Cold war, far from reliable. Rather, the point here is that deterrence is even more problematic a strategy now than it was in the past.