Opinion: Between the US & North Korea: The Multiple Perils of “Escalation Dominance”

When all pertinent factors are taken into account, US President Donald Trump could undertake selective military action against North Korea. In response, Pyongyang – then having no realistic option to launching certain forms of armed reprisal – could strike American military forces in the region, and/or certain other carefully chosen targets in Japan or South Korea. Whatever North Korea's preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jong Un's retaliatory blow would likely be designed so as not to elicit any unacceptably massive (possibly even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

This reasoned conclusion, of course, would depend, inter alia, upon the Korean dictator's own willing adherence to rational decision-making, and also on certain largely unpredictable synergies between President Kim's discernible level of rationality, and the reciprocally rational calculations of President Trump.

If, for example, Mr. Trump should cast ordinary caution to the winds with his own “preemptive” strike (a defensive attack that would promptly be justified by Washington as a legitimate expression of international law-enforcement, or “anticipatory self-defense”), the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could conceivably be “disproportionate.” In that prospectively unstable case, one rife with potential for a more continuously unfettered competition in risk-taking, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the volatile mix might not be dismissed out of hand.

At that point, moreover, such introduction would not have to originate on the American side. This sobering inference is unassailable, or “true by definition,” because North Korea has already displayed certain conspicuous forms of nuclear weapons capability. Furthermore, in such rapidly escalating circumstances, Mr. Trump, in view of his own generally favored argumentum ad bacculum stance, might settle upon a “mad dog” strategy vis-à-vis President Kim. (Years ago, Moshe Dayan, as Israel's Minister of Defense, had urged that “Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”)

Here, the American leader would depend upon an untested strategy of pretended irrationality, or what I have called in my own books and monographs over the past half-century, the “rationality of pretended irrationality.” Significantly, any such belligerent dependence, while intuitively sensible and compelling to Mr. Trump, could still backfire, and thereby open up an irreversible path to fully unstoppable escalation.

If, on the other hand, President Donald Trump's defensive first strike against North Korea were recognizably less than massive, a fully rational adversary in Pyongyang could then likely determine that his own chosen reprisal should be correspondingly “limited.” But if Mr. Trump's consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the plausible response from Kim Jong Un could then be an “all out” retaliation. In any event, such a presumably unanticipated response, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, would be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of US, South Korean, and Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, of course, it could inflict very substantial harms.

For the moment, at least, any North Korean missile attack against US interests and personnel, whether a first-strike or reprisal, would have to exclude the American homeland. This same limiting prediction, however, cannot be made in reference to any considered South Korean or Japanese targets. On the contrary, any North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan would target primarily those countries' vulnerable military assets, but could also include a meaningful number of “soft” civilian populations, and certain corollary infrastructures.

Even if it is being played only by rational adversaries, any advancing strategic “game” between Washington and Pyongyang would demand each contestant to strive relentlessly for “escalation dominance.” It would then be in the manifestly unpracticed internal dynamics of such rivalry that the grievous prospect of mutual catastrophe could sometime arise. Looking ahead, this unwanted outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by one or both of the two national “players,” or, instead, by any sudden quantum leap in destructiveness undertaken by North Korea and/or the United States.

It's all bewilderingly complex, and essentially also unprecedented. In facing off against each other for escalation dominance, therefore, even under the most ideal assumptions of mutual rationality, both President Trump and President Kim Jong Un would have to scrupulously concern themselves with possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and assorted nuances of cyber-defense/cyber-war.

One final observation. Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim would need to continuously bear in mind that it is scientific nonsense to assign mathematical probabilities to unique events. Because an authentic nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States would represent precisely such a singular event – one with utterly unforeseen intersections, interactions, and “synergies” – no one can predict with any reassuring degrees of accuracy whether such a conflict (an asymmetrical conflict) would be more or less probable. Indeed, should President Trump ever decide to strike North Korea preemptively on the optimistic assumption that his generals have already “got everything covered,” he would promptly need to be reminded of the classic military warning issued by Carl von Clausewitz.

Long before military planners could even imagine a nuclear war, the great Prussian general and strategist had cautioned leaders about “friction,” or “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.” Accordingly, nuclear brinksmanship between Washington and Pyongyang would take place in uncharted waters, and thus require both participating presidents to steer an unalterably steady course between escalation dominance and national survival.

Can we now reasonably assume that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim are up to meeting such very demanding, implicitly cooperative, and thoroughly untried expectations? If not, some of America's principal allies, especially Israel, could consider themselves impacted by the outcome. To be sure, once the nuclear firebreak had actually been crossed in northeast Asia, certain critical strategic re-calculations and re-calibrations would take place almost immediately in Tel Aviv.


Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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