Defusing the Korean Nuclear Threat

A front page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal shines a spotlight on a number of overlooked, early-warning signs of the BP oil spill disaster: “In the months before and after the rig exploded … the industry was hit with several serious spills and alarming near-misses, some of them strikingly similar to what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon.” That observation has some surprising lessons for defusing the current crisis on the Korean peninsula and averting a second – and possibly nuclear – Korean War.

Risk analysis has improved safety in nuclear power plants, jetliners and other critical areas by breaking down catastrophic failures into a sequence of smaller errors. By viewing those smaller errors as early-warning signs, risk analysis can bring remedial efforts to bear on the problem before catastrophe strikes.

My 2008 paper (1.8 MB PDF) introduced this approach for reducing the risk of nuclear deterrence failing. The diagram above shows the value of breaking down a catastrophic failure in this manner. Most of the time, the world is in a state of relatively low risk, somewhere in the middle of the circle labeled The World As We Know It. In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were in a state that could easily have crossed the Nuclear Threshold. During the Georgian War of August 2008, the world also was in a dangerous state, but not as perilous as 1962. Given President Bush’s promises of support for Georgia and pressure in America to intervene, it would have taken only one additional step to bring Russian and American troops into direct conflict, after which we could have been staring at the nuclear abyss again – and trying desperately to claw our way back to safe ground. Nuclear terrorism is another way the nuclear threshold could be crossed.

Once a first nuclear weapon has been used in anger, we are in a totally new world, the circle or “super-state” labeled Nuclear Disaster, and the danger of further escalation is clear. Even more than with the overlooked, early-warning signs that allowed the catastrophic BP oil spill to occur, it behooves us to pay attention to preliminary indications that nuclear weapons might be used, and to minimize the chance of repeating those mistakes. Unfortunately, rather than learning from mistakes that helped create the Georgian War, a narrow focus on Russian errors and an almost total disregard for our own has led possible 2012 presidential candidate Sarah Palin to declare that the U.S. should be prepared to go to war if Russia invades Georgia again – even though Georgia fired the first shots in that war.

We are neglecting similar early-warning signs with respect to the developing crisis on the Korean peninsula. A 2008 report by Stanford Professors John Lewis and Robert Carlin notes:

One of the most serious, pernicious misunderstandings of the Agreed Framework [under which the United States and North Korea were defusing tension over North Korea’s nuclear program] is that it was, at heart, a nonproliferation agreement. It was not. The engine of the framework was always its political provisions (section II). These called for both sides to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” …

By treating North Korea so exclusively through its own lens, as a nonproliferation concern, the United States ignored Pyongyang’s strategic concerns and the domestic priorities that drove much of its external actions. Not surprisingly, this problem persisted and was magnified after 2001. In a telling moment a few years ago with the authors, an exasperated North Korean official repeated a point he had often made in the past:

You don’t deal with us directly or as an equal or even as a negotiating partner. … This is intolerable. This means you don’t understand even Asian culture, where prestige and face are so important. Your government really doesn’t have any respect for us, so why should we respect you? This is what I meant earlier when I said you deal only with trivial matters and not with the basic relationship. We wanted to have a fundamental relationship with you, but you didn’t want that.

In a briefing last week at Stanford, Lewis and Prof. Siegfried Hecker reported on their recent trip to North Korea that has been heavily covered – and misreported – in the media. Contrary to the scare stories prevelant in the news, both Lewis and Hecker advised that, in order to defuse the crisis, we engage with North Korea on a more realistic and respectful basis.

Lewis also noted that news reports on North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island left out or deemphasized a number of key points:

* South Korea started the artillery exchange. While it claims it fired away from North Korean territory, any military action in this disputed region carries grave risks of escalation.

* All three hotlines between Seoul and Pyongyang were down at the time of South Korea’s shelling. North Korea therefore used commercial communications to ask the South: “Are we under attack?” It received no answer in the two hours that elapsed before (from its perspective) it returned the artillery fire.

* The commander of the South Korean Marines vowed “thousand-fold” retaliation for the four deaths on Yeonpyeong Island. Prof. Lewis later pointed me to a report that indicated the North suffered considerable casualties when South Korea shelled a North Korean barracks in (from its perspective) retaliation.

As evidence that we should pay much greater attention to Prof. Lewis’ warning, he issued a similar prediction in a 1965 article about U.S. involvement in Vietnam which, if followed, would have saved the vast majority of lives lost in the war. Along with coauthor George Kahin, he warned that the United States was making the same mistakes that the French had made a decade earlier:

The Vietcong has for some time now controlled substantially the same amount of territory – and in most cases the same areas – in South Vietnam as did the Vietminh in 1953-54. Moreover, in those areas of the South still under Saigon’s authority, popular loyalty to the government is tenuous and not appreciably greater than that accorded to France and her Vietnamese protégées.

The French under General Henri Navarre made their major military effort in 1953–54 not on the assumption that they could defeat the Vietminh but as a necessary step in building a position of greater strength from which to negotiate. Similarly, the U.S. now insists that greater military power must be brought to bear before we can attain a suitable position for negotiations. The French ignored then, and the U.S. is ignoring now, basic political factors that limit what can be achieved by military power. With us as with the French, the lack of popular support for a regime artificially fostered by Western backers and out of line with the mainstream of Vietnamese nationalism has precluded any politically effective application of military power. …

If the U.S. desires a peaceful settlement with Hanoi, various factors contribute to a strong US negotiating position. This position cannot be strengthened by further escalation of military pressure. On the contrary, such action can only destroy or weaken this position.

Rather than face the unpleasant reality that the American-backed Vietnamese government was destined to fall, we fought on for ten more years. Had America listened to Lewis and Kahin’s advice, we could have avoided 56,000 of our 58,000 fatalities, as well as the vast majority of the several million Vietnamese dead.

It’s time we stopped ignoring these early-warning signs and moved from wishful thinking to objective reality as the basis of our national security. If we do that, a much improved world awaits us and our children. If we do not, the extra 56,000 American deaths that resulted from ignoring Prof. Lewis’ prescient 1965 advice could pale in comparison to new losses in Korea and beyond.


An earlier blog post connecting the Deepwater Horizon and nuclear disasters.

John Lewis’ 1965 article on Vietnam.

John Lewis’ report Negotiating with North Korea

Previous blog posts on North Korea: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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