What Next for North Korea? Part 2: A Conversation with Daryl Press

Yu Xuan Chia – Singapore

Professor Daryl Press is the director of Peace and War Studies at Dartmouth College. Professor Press is writing a book about the past and future of nuclear deterrence and has frequently been asked to present recommendations to U.S. and South Korean military and political leaders.

In Part 1, Ambassador Donald Gregg described the diplomatic dimensions of the North Korean nuclear issue, urging for more dialogue and intelligence gathering. Now in Part 2, Dartmouth Professor Daryl Press examines the issue’s military dimensions. Professor Press warns of a real threat for nuclear war and weighs the costs and benefits of potential policy responses while pushing back on some of Ambassador Gregg’s claims about North Korean artillery.

You’ve warned that if a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula, it would likely escalate into a nuclear conflict. Why?
There are two principal reasons that a war on the Korean Peninsula would likely escalate and become a nuclear conflict. First, the objective of U.S. and South Korean war plans for the peninsula is the destruction of the North Korean regime and the unification of the peninsula under South Korean control. If our objective in a war is to destroy the adversary’s government, his back will be up against the wall, forcing him to escalate to try to get us to halt our operations. The second problem is that even if we restrain ourselves and adopt limited wartime objectives, the way we fight makes it hard for us to convey our restraint to the North Korean. The modern American way of war involves blinding the adversary, attacking their leadership, and disabling their command and control. If we’re doing those things, it’s hard to convince the North Koreans that we have limited objectives.

What do you recommend changing in those war plans?
A key step is creating flexible and limited military options, such that the U.S. and South Korean governments can choose during a war whether they’re going to seek the destruction of the North Korean government, or whether they will seek more limited military objectives.  It is also essential that our military operations align with our military goals so that war plans designed to achieve limited objectives do not involve air strikes or missile strikes that threaten the North Korean leadership.

With these options, are you concerned a U.S. President would be more willing to go to war when tensions escalate?
There’s no enthusiasm for war in Seoul or Washington, and, therefore, having more flexible war plans would not entice South Korea or the United States to begin a war.

The bigger concern is that if we have limited objectives in our war plans, perhaps that would free the North Koreans to be more provocative. Telling the North Koreans, as we currently do, that any war on the peninsula would necessarily result in South Korean forces marching on Pyongyang maximizes the effectiveness of pre-war deterrence. The cost of that position, however, is that if war occurs, it’s going to be difficult to deter North Korea from escalating.

In the event of war, the North Koreans have enough artillery that 24 hours of fighting would destroy Seoul. What makes their nuclear weapons different from that?
Although North Korea has a large artillery force north of the DMZ, only a small fraction of those weapons—approximately 500 tubes—can reach targets in central Seoul. In war, those 500 long-range North Korean artillery tubes would be top-priority targets for the artillery and airpower of the United States and South Korea. Although a war on the Korean peninsula would be very costly for South Koreans, the argument one frequently hears about Seoul being in mortal danger from North Korean artillery is exaggerated.

You proposed a couple of years ago developing counterforce capabilities for the United States to deal with nuclear threats from North Korea or China. Given the advances in mobile missiles and hardened silos, are you confident that counterforce capabilities can work in the future?
Whether a counterforce strike can work or not depends on the circumstances. It depends on what steps the North Koreans and Chinese take now to protect their forces. It depends on how many resources we invest in various counterforce capabilities. The United States has enhanced its counterforce capabilities dramatically since the Cold War. There have been important improvements in U.S. nuclear capabilities, big increases in the capabilities of U.S. conventional forces, new missile defenses, improved anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and things in the cyber domain which are intended to allow the United States to interfere with adversary command and control. Ultimately whether or not this multi-pronged effort succeeded in a given conflict would depend heavily on the circumstances, but I think we are in a better situation if we have the capabilities to destroy North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal than if we don’t.

In one of your articles, the benchmark was that a 95% chance of success is acceptable. Given the high expected value, or expected damage, of the 5%, why should we ever consider counterforce attacks as a first-strike or pre-emptive measure?
The threshold for “good enough” in a counterforce strike depends on the circumstance. In peacetime I think the implication of your question is exactly right: even small possibilities of failure will loom large in the minds of decision-makers. However, in wartime, and especially if an adversary starts to threaten or use nuclear weapons, the risk calculus shifts. If North Korea were to use one or two nuclear weapons in a war—for example, against U.S. forces in the region, or against Japan—then a 95% chance of destroying the remaining North Korean weapons might look quite attractive to U.S. leaders.

Are you concerned that developing U.S. counterforce capabilities would provoke North Korea and China to escalate their nuclear weapons development?
The danger of triggering an arms buildup depends on the adversary.  A country like North Korea, with a small nuclear force, probably already perceives a grave threat to its nuclear arsenal from existing U.S. conventional and nuclear capabilities. I think North Korea is already building nuclear weapons roughly as quickly as it can. The decision for the United States becomes much more difficult when it comes to China. For all the talk by Beijing’s leaders about believing in a minimum nuclear deterrent posture, China spent the last 20 years trying to build a truly survivable arsenal. I think it’s a fair criticism to say that, to the extent we sharpen U.S. counterforce capabilities, we may energize China to enhance their deterrent force.

Do you support the U.S. strategy in East Asia right now: primacy, forward deployment?
I think a better U.S. strategy for East Asia would focus on energizing our allies and partners to do more for their own defense. One of the costs of the current U.S. strategy is that it leads to allies and partners who are unable to do much for their own defense, and unable to support the United States much.  In the long term, we might be better off having true partners in Asia and elsewhere: countries who share our values and interests, and who have real capabilities they can contribute to shared endeavors.  Interestingly, although many U.S. allies build little military capabilities for themselves, South Korea is an exception. South Korea does more for its own national security than almost any of U.S. allies anywhere.  But in general, I think a U.S. strategy toward East Asia that forced allies to do more for themselves would put the United States in a better position in the long run.