Korean Crisis Deepens

Conflicts become significantly more dangerous when each side sees itself as the innocent victim of reckless acts by its adversary. A dangerous feedback loop develops in which bad behavior must be met with resolute force, which is seen as even worse bad behavior by the other. Unfortunately, just such a hazardous situation exists on the Korean peninsula as demonstrated by the following recent reports:

On Sunday, Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair warned:

We’ve seen cycles of North Korea provocation followed by negotiations, followed by concessions, followed by North Korea breaking agreements, followed by more provocations … South Korea is beginning to lose patience with the north
… [and] will be taking military action against North Korea … I don’t think a war is going to start but I think there is going to be a military confrontation at lower levels rather than simply accepting … this North Korean aggression.

Two days earlier, North Korea’s Foreign Minister issued a mirror-image warning:

The U.S., having included the DPRK in the list of targets of a nuclear preventive strike, is pursuing a policy aimed at isolating and strangling it, while the ruling conservatives of South Korea, who are oriented toward external forces, have rejected all of the earlier reached inter-Korean agreements and are waging a campaign of confrontation … [showing the necessity of] strengthening of our self-defense potential based on nuclear deterrence forces.

North Korea’s fears of being attacked by the United States are not as paranoid as might first appear. In discussing the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review, Secretary of Defense Gates noted that “all options are on the table” for North Korea and Iran, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry co-authored an article “The Case for a Preemptive Strike on North Korea’s Missiles.” (That article advocated a conventional, not a nuclear attack.)

And, just today, North Korea warned that the joint US-South Korean military operations intended to intimidate the North into backing off could bring a nuclear war to the region. While North Korea often engages in hyperbolic rhetoric, once Dennis Blair’s “military confrontations at lower levels” occur, escalation cannot be ruled out due to the fog of war.

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About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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3 Responses to Korean Crisis Deepens

  1. Marty,
    Wasn’t that article by Carter and Perry written before the DPRK conducted its first nuclear weapon test? Nevertheless, in light of your comments in this post, do you still agree with their claim that “Such a strike could be seen by the North Korean leadership for what it is: a limited act of defense of the U.S. homeland against a gathering threat, and not an overall attack on North Korea?”

  2. Rthomran says:

    The North is in a very bad way. The threats are very real. They are like a child who acts out for attention. Any attention they get puts then on the world stage where they want to be.

  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    To answer Bruce’s question: Yes, Perry and Carter wrote that article in July 2006, while the first North Korean nuclear test was in October of that year. You then ask whether the authors are right in saying the North would could see it as “a limited act of defense of the U.S. homeland against a gathering threat, and not an overall attack on North Korea.” Of course, anything is possible, but a good test is to pretend the roles were reversed. As noted, Secretary Gates has specifically left “all options on the table” with respect to the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. If the North were able to destroy some element of our nuclear program, would we see it as a limited act of defense of their homeland and not respond? I sincerely doubt it. One of the reasons so many mistakes occur in international relations is that nations have a double standard, seeing their own actions through a rose colored lens. It’s time we moved to a more reality-based approach.

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