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Rationality can’t be assumed in potential North Korea conflict

By Louis Rene Beres

In large measure, the rising nuclear threat from North Korea will depend on the discernible rationality or irrationality of the North Korean leader. Moreover, although very few American military analysts might be willing to raise parallel but also awkward questions about U.S. presidential rationality, such basic queries should not be sidestepped or ignored.

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Furthermore, in any such inquiry, plausible scientific assessments must take useful account not only of conspicuous and inconspicuous facts, but also of all possible “synergies” between the two principal human decisionmakers — Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Trump and the Triumph of Anti-Reason

Among other things, and notwithstanding what we were all once taught in 10th-grade geometry class, whenever such specific decisional interactions or intersections take place, the “whole” may become meaningfully greater than the mere additive sum of its “parts.”

In this revealing metaphor, the whole represents the anticipated risk total of a two-party nuclear war, while the parts represent separate and relevant national security decisions made in Pyongyang and Washington.

One additional conceptual distinction must now be mentioned and, much more importantly, placed prominently into the American analytic “mix.” This is the crucial difference between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent, but conversely, there remain certain identifiable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental.

Rationality can’t be assumed in potential North Korea conflict


Most critical, in this regard, are those calculation errors committed by either one or both sides that could lead inexorably, albeit unintentionally, to a nuclear conflict. The most blatant example would be evident misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that could emerge during the course of any particular escalatory crisis.

Such misjudgments would most likely derive from the mutual and obligatory search by each endangered party for “escalation dominance,” that is, from an inevitable competition in strategic risk-taking.

  • Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea could include:
  • mistaken or flawed interpretations of computer-generated attack warnings
  • an asymmetrical willingness to risk catastrophic war
  • an overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities of one’s own side, whether expressed on one or both sides
    any more-or-less sudden adversarial regime change, including outright revolution or coup d’état in Pyongyang
  • poorly-conceived or narrowly precipitous pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority.

Expressed generically, pre-delegations of launch authority are made to ensure that the applicable threats of nuclear reprisal could actually be executed. Such pre-delegations are designed in part to enhance a country’s nuclear deterrence posture, but only to the extent that they are first made sufficiently apparent and recognizable.



Technically, false warnings generated by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction, or sparked by adversarial or third-party hacking interventions, would not be properly included under causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. Here, rather, they would specifically represent more-or-less plausible scenarios of an accidental nuclear war.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in “On War,” “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” In the final analysis, U.S. strategic planners and thinkers will need to confront the growing North Korean nuclear threat with aptly far-reaching and intellectually penetrating assessments. To most accurately figure out the overall costs and risks involved, these strategists will somehow need to reduce a bewildering array of separate causal factors or variables into a gainfully “simple” national policy.

For a start, designated analysts would need to pinpoint and conceptualize all vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear war, inadvertent nuclear war, and accidental nuclear war.

Deterring North Korea requires more than basic common sense

Related judgments will need to be rendered concerning informed expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s core decisionmaking structure. Correspondingly, a potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a visible strategy of “feigned irrationality” that backfires.

For example, a pretending Kim Jong Un who had too “successfully” convinced American counterparts of his irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise avoidable U.S. military preemption. “Played” in the other direction, a North Korean leadership that begins to take seriously President Trump’s frequently self-vaunted unpredictability could be frightened into striking first itself.

Jurisprudentially, we should expect, Pyongyang would hastily describe any such North Korean first strike as “anticipatory self-defense.”

Risks of accidental nuclear war with North Korea must be accounted for

Confronting the complex nuclear threat from Northeast Asia will require much more than “good old fashioned American common sense.” It will require, instead, a markedly tangible triumph of “mind over mind.” In searching for such needed intellectual advantage, U.S. decisionmakers must remember, inter alia, that even if they should complete all their required analytic work scientifically, they could still never offer any authoritative or reliable estimates of nuclear war probability.

Why? True probability judgments in science must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. Here, there are no pertinent past events. On similar grounds, the strategic counsel provided by even the most senior U.S. flag officers would carry absolutely no experientially-based decisional expertise.

For President Trump, therefore, it could prove a terminally-grave mistake to place excessive faith in those who have so obviously never fought or even studied a nuclear war.

Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.

This article was first published at The Hill



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