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Flying blind: North Korea deliberations have little precedent

Whatever North Korea’s preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jong Un’s retaliatory blow would likely be designed not to elicit any unacceptably massive American counter-retaliations.

In deliberating with North Korea, President Donald Trump will have little or no meaningful precedent as a guide. Whatever transpires between Washington and Pyongyang, therefore, these unique ventures in escalation and risk-taking will not be informed by prior historical experience. In more precise terms of logic and scientific method, they will be sui generis.

President Trump should proceed in any North Korean nuclear crisis with uncommonly abundant caution. At the same time, he will need to bear in mind that while nuclear war avoidance must be his most overriding objective, maintaining “escalation dominance” would also be critical to U.S. national security.

President Trump’s strategic plans for North Korea ought never to be constructed ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing — yet they must still be the determined result of assorted systematic extrapolations from exclusively pre-nuclear forms of conflict management.

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For the United States, any nuclear North Korean crisis would be one of “mind over mind,” and not just one of “fire and fury.” During this preeminently intellectual struggle, each side, as long as it remains visibly rational, will seek “escalation dominance” without further endangering its core national survival. If President Trump should sometime calculate that his North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, incentives to undertake far-reaching U.S. military preemptions could then become overwhelming.

This is the case, moreover, even if the American calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be wrong.

For a variety of reasons, of course, President Trump could sometime decide to initiate selective military action against North Korea. In response, Pyongyang, having no realistic option to launching certain presumptively gainful forms of armed reprisal, could then choose to strike American military forces in the region, and/or certain other carefully selected targets in Japan, Guam or South Korea.

Whatever North Korea’s preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jong Un’s retaliatory blow would likely be designed not to elicit any unacceptably massive American counter-retaliations.

If Mr. Trump should sometime decide to launch a defensive first-strike, i.e., a “preemption,” the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be “disproportionate.” In that conspicuously unstable case, one rife with the potential for a more continuously unfettered escalation, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the mix might not easily be dismissed.



There is more. During any ongoing pattern of escalation, President Trump could adopt a “mad dog” strategy vis-à-vis Kim Jong Un. In these untried circumstances, the American leader could make himself dependent upon a tenuous strategy of pretended irrationality, or what I have called in my own published books and monographs over the past 50 years, the “rationality of pretended irrationality.” Naturally, such belligerent dependence could rapidly backfire, thereby opening up a potentially irreversible path to certain genuinely unstoppable escalations.

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 might determine that his own chosen reprisal should be correspondingly “limited.” But if Mr. Trump’s consciously rational and calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Kim Jong Un could then be “all out.”

In facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual rationality, both President Trump and Kim Jong Un would have to concern themselves with possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions and myriad nuances of cyber-defense/cyberwar.

In other words, even if both President Trump and Kim were capable, humane and suitably focused — a generous assumption, to be sure — Northeast Asia might still descend rapidly toward some form of uncontrollable nuclear war. If this dire prospect were not sobering enough, it is also reasonable to expect that the corresponding erasure of a once-prevailing nuclear taboo would substantially heighten the likelihood of nuclear conflict in certain other parts of the globe.

When Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, it was to express confidence in an ultimate victory for Athens. Simultaneously, as recalled by Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), Pericles had also expressed various deep fears about self-imposed setbacks along the way. “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies,” lamented Pericles, “is our own mistakes.”

Today, as President Trump must prepare to face off credibly with Kim Jong Un, the expected consequences of any American mistakes could be vast and far-reaching. It follows that in choosing a purposeful style of escalation and negotiation with Pyongyang, the United States must remain wary of locking in to any lethal pattern of interaction for which the other side’s reaction must invariably be starkly injurious to the United States.

In essence, President Trump and his counselors must refrain from any conceivable provocation for which their North Korean adversary could have only one plausible response — 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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