Examining “Mutually Assured Destruction” in the Context of North Korea

AP Photo/Wong Maye-EAP Photo/Wong Maye-E

By Dustin Cai

North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, has historically made it clear that their goal is to become a nuclear power. The East Asian country has continued its intercontinental missile tests in the face of international pressure and sanctions and has further improved their nuclear capabilities. This has led North Korea to be cited by multiple countries as an imminent threat to world safety, including concerns from South Korea, China, Japan, and the United States. While North Korean leaders have made international threats throughout the past decade, their increased sophistication in nuclear power as well as more frequent tests of longer-range missiles have put more substance into their previously empty threats.

In early September 2017, director general Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Authority, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, officially designated North Korea as a “global threat,” up from its previous status as a regional threat. This came directly after a successful nuclear test and an aggressive missile launch over Japan. North Korea’s dedication to become a global nuclear power and its willingness to aggress upon other nations puts the country at the top of the list for international security concerns.

While the power of a modern nuclear bomb has not been witnessed in war, none will disagree about the destructive capabilities contained within a single warhead. Despite this potential for catastrophe, the Human Security Report Project finds that death and violence have declined in the post-WWII era–the war in which the first and only nuclear attack occurred–while peace has continued to grow.

Many theories and pieces of literature have been formulated since the 1950s to document and explain this concept, but the most prominent theory that developed is “mutually assured destruction,” otherwise known as MAD. Coined by Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during Kennedy’s presidency in 1962, MAD refers to the idea that one actor would refrain from launching a nuclear weapon because the response of an enemy nuclear warhead would be too great, causing a mutual destruction to both sides. Essentially, this created the popular concept that nuclear warheads act as deterrents against war as long as both parties hold nuclear capabilities. Although nuclear arsenals spurred a dangerous arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s, supporters of MAD point to nuclear capabilities as the reason war never broke out between the two countries during this time.

McNamara was an early defender of U.S. nuclear arms and defended U.S. ability to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes as the “foundation of [U.S.] nuclear deterrent.” Modern proponents of MAD still find this 50-year old theory to hold true. Professor Kenneth Waltz from University of California – Berkeley explains that, thanks to modern nuclear weapons, “never in modern history… have the great and major powers enjoyed such a long period of peace.”

To contextualize this theoretical example, real world examples can show how nuclear proliferation actually deters conflict between certain nations. Political science professor Robert Rauchhaus of University of California-Santa Barbara performed a quantitative analysis and found that nuclear asymmetry between nations, defined as one nation having nuclear weapons while another does not, increases instability and conflict. On the other hand, a Journal of Peace Research article performs an empirical analysis on world conflict and concludes the addition of one nuclear actor to a situation that already involves another nuclear actor decreases the probability of full scale war by 9%. Each additional nuclear actor added to the situation further decreases the probability of war by even larger margins. The research goes on, and Waltz concludes his own analysis by stating, “the slow spread of nuclear weapons will promote peace and reinforce international stability.”

So, if this theoretical concept of mutually assured destruction and the bevy of research on international nuclear proliferation has been so prominent in guiding international defense policy for the past few decades, then why are people so worried about North Korea gaining nuclear weapons? Theoretically, North Korean nuclear capabilities should only stabilize conflict in the Korean peninsula by creating nuclear symmetry. However, one important caveat in MAD theory is the assumption that both nuclear actors are rational. In Waltz’s defense of MAD, he assumes that all nations are rational actors and will apply the most rational choice; therefore, no nation will choose to go to nuclear war because of its destructive implications.

This caveat is one of the main reasons why many are more worried about North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons than other current nuclear holders like Pakistan or Israel. Some political leaders, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have publicly condemned North Korea for being irrational, citing North Korea’s escalating threats and repeated missile tests despite international condemnation. Other political commentators criticize Western views of North Korea as having a biased view on the sanity of Kim Jong-Un to skew perceptions in a certain negative way, and reduce the classification of North Korea as a crazy, but rational actor. For example, current U.S. CIA director Mike Pompeo sees Kim Jong-Un as a rational actor taking necessary steps to prolong his regime and possibly extend his rule the entire Korean peninsula. But other pieces of evidence gathered by the Human Rights Watch are typically cited in proving North Korea’s irrationality, with multiple systemic human rights violations including murder, torture, enslavement, oppression of free speech, widespread censorship, and public executions. Many typically look to these atrocities and conclude that no rational actor would do this to their own citizens.

North Korea continues to bolster its nuclear arsenal, increase its intercontinental missile capabilities, and make threats against the international community. Kim Jong-Un has continued to use self-destructive methods against his own citizens in order to gain political power, and once North Korea secures higher levels of military and nuclear sophistication, the trend of self-destruction is expected continue to international levels never seen before. If North Korea locks in a nuclear arsenal uncontested, their trend of irrational behavior would unravel decades of international nuclear defense theory and force nuclear powers to rethink the benefits and dangers of nuclear proliferation. Mutually assured destruction has proven itself to be a powerful tool in keeping peace, but perceived  irrational actors such as Kim Jong-Un have yet to get their hands on the big red button.

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