North Korea and Nuclear Strategy: Preventive War Or Counterproliferation?

South Korea and Japan have been living under the North Korean nuclear shadow for quite a while now, and when we think about nuclear deterrence in the context of North Korea’s Hwasong-12 IRBM and Hwasong-14 ICBM, which begin to put the US into the equation, we tend to forget this.

North Korea’s goal, in part, is to develop a full spectrum nuclear deterrent directed toward South Korea, Japan, US military bases in the Pacific, and the continental United States.

I have hitherto focused a great deal on the technical aspects of the HS-12 and HS-14, but here I would like to briefly touch upon matters of nuclear strategy. I say briefly because there’s much to be said, and I intend expanding upon these remarks and exploring other related matters in subsequent analysis.

One interesting point is conceptual muddiness regarding the concept “preventive war,” used most especially by Trump’s National Security Advisor, General McMaster. Looking at things as they appear it seems that the concept “preventive war” in the current context is not appropriate, rather the expression “counterproliferation” is the more apt.

But that is as it appears.

Counterproliferation, which became an important feature of US strategic planning in the Clinton administration, is the use of military firepower to reverse nuclear proliferation once it has already occurred. Preventive war, in the nuclear context, is the employment of military firepower to prevent nuclear proliferation. Israel’s air strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactor projects were a type of preventive war, not counterproliferation as often, erroneously, presented.

Interestingly, General McMaster wrote a book on the Vietnam War called “A Dereliction of Duty” where he argued senior US military commanders failed to provide hard headed analysis regarding the war in Vietnam to their political leaders, a theme that took off following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which contributed to the strategic outcome in Indochina. The problem, as far as I can see, that McMaster’s analysis articulates becomes when senior military leaders share the same political and strategic presuppositions as their civilian masters.

General McMaster was also a commander at the Battle of 73 Easting, the most important tank battle of the post-cold war era, during the first Iraq war as it pitted Iraqi MBTs, especially from the Republican Guard, of Soviet prominence employing Warsaw Pact armoured tactics and elements of US Army’s VII Corps. The Iraqi’s were smashed quite convincingly. Russian and Chinese investment in new MBTs, in Russia’s case some of which will be deployed to the revived First Guards Tank Army which faced VII Corps during the Cold War, doubtless follows on from an analysis of the Battle of 73 Easting showing serious deficiencies in their armour and concepts of operations.

The point critics of General McMaster have made is that in the North Korean context “preventive war” does not make sense. That is, military firepower cannot prevent North Korea acquiring what it already has. This view is especially associated with those who hold that North Korea pretty much possesses the following;

(a) A compact boosted fission nuclear warhead of 400kg, if not less.

(b) An ICBM with throw weight sufficient to deliver a nuclear warhead of 400kg or less to parts of the continental United States

(c) A reentry vehicle able to protect the nuclear warhead from the stressors and temperatures of reentry into the atmosphere, if not now then very soon.

I’m not sure about (a) and (c), but I very much am leaning toward this view, based on my analysis of the technical aspects, and that North Korea has (a), (b) and (c), or is not far off from acquiring the combination, based to no small degree on its indigenous efforts.

So, therefore, any US and allied military strike now would be an act of counterproliferation. There appears to be evidence that planners in Washington are weighing counterproliferation up quite seriously, and that a contingency plan, “Kill-Chain,” exists toward that end

That, in turn, could trigger a bigger operation — a plan called Kill-Chain that was named in a recent joint statement from the United States and South Korea — to systematically wipe out North Korea’s launch sites, nuclear facilities and command and control centers.

Its own authors have doubts about whether Kill-Chain could be executed swiftly enough to work, but the decision to publicly refer to it was deliberate, senior officials say. While the plan itself is classified, its goal is a systematic elimination of the North’s ability to threaten South Korea, Japan and the United States

There is, however, a sense in which preventive war would actually be the appropriate concept to apply to General McMaster’s remarks. General McMaster, in response to comments from former senior Obama official Susan Rice, argued that, with regard to North Korea, traditional notions of deterrence do not apply and cannot be tailored so that they do.

On that assumption, that is regarding the nonapplicability of nuclear deterrence, General McMaster’s remarks are consistent with the concept of preventive war because the object of a large scale military campaign would be to prevent North Korea from engaging in a future first strike given that deterrence cannot be made to apply with regard to North Korea.

Attacking now prior to an inevitable failure of deterrence in future is a type of preventive war, or preventive counterproliferation if you will.

Should that be the advice General McMaster be giving to President Trump then we have here a “dereliction of duty,” for surely General McMaster knows that the common assumption, that the rationality criterion of traditional deterrence theory doesn’t apply to North Korea, is false.

There exists the view, with regard to North Korea, that traditional deterrence does not hold because the nature of the regime means it lies outside the rationality criterion. However, North Korea has throughout the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, from Clinton onward, shown itself to be a rational actor and the first axiom of international relations is that there’s no logical correlation between the internal polity of a state and its external behaviour.

Whatever you think of traditional deterrence theory, and I don’t happen to think much of it, its key rationality criterion, nonetheless, is consistent with the fundamental axiom of international relations.

That being the case General McMaster is engaging in a type of dereliction of duty should his private remarks match his public, and that for interesting reasons. Namely, he shares the same political presuppositions, irrationality of Pyongyang, that many in Washington do and have. As a strategic planner he has no intrinsic need to share those assumptions. It seems that McMaster’s remarks are made to be consistent with Trump’s absurdist Tweets and statements, in which case we really would have a dereliction of duty should McMaster not be applying the brakes in the Oval Office.

We have seen Kim Jong-un put on hold plans to test launch the HS-12 IRBM toward Guam, and over flying Japan, and the US appears to have lowered the number of troops participating in current military exercises with South Korea. However, it is clear now that Washington has threatened military action, perhaps an attempted BMD intercept, should Pyongyang engage in an MET missile test that overflies Japan. One would expect that North Korea’s scientists and engineers would prefer an MET test prior to operational deployment, but also planners in the KPA Strategic Force as an MET test boosts reliability. Another day for all that, alas.

I hope that in the near future General McMaster is not compelled to pen an addendum to his book.

To return to the opening point of this post. South Korea and Japan have lived with the reality of a nuclear North Korea, and any US led strike, whether preventive or counterproliferation, would require their approval because the consequences for them most likely will be severe. The new President of South Korea has explicitly stated this.

My own view is that North Korea’s growing strategic nuclear capabilities do not pose a first strike threat, as often claimed especially in the US media, but it could undermine the credibility of US extended deterrence in Northeast Asia. Washington takes the credibility of extended deterrence very seriously, it is a foundational pillar of the post World War Two system of world order that Washington largely created, and anything that undermines extended deterrence is seen as undermining of the system of world order.

That’s a big deal. General McMaster’s remarks, and various reports such as the above on US planning, should be seen in the context of concerns about extended deterrence.

One of the interesting things regarding General McMaster’s remarks, but also Trump’s rhetoric on this, is that it could be argued that they undermine extended deterrence. I say this because an inference that can be made is that the rhetoric on preventive war stems from a desire to limit damage to the United States no matter the foreseeable consequences to South Korea and Japan. Similar fears, that the US, seemingly, was angling to limit a nuclear war to Europe provoked widespread concern regarding the credibility of extended deterrence within NATO during the Cold War.

If I were in Tokyo and Seoul I would be concerned that US statements indicate it is looking after number one, and that can’t be good for extended deterrence.

As stated I have more to say about these, and related themes regarding North Korea and nuclear deterrence. Just as an aside toward that end, notice that even if General McMaster is correct regarding the deterrability of North Korea, which is he isn’t, neither preventive war nor counterproliferation need be necessary given that the US has the Ground Based Midcourse Ballistic Missile Defense system.

General McMaster’s remarks demonstrate just how much confidence the Pentagon has in GMD BMD.