What are nuclear weapons for? In four words: Deterrence, assurance, dissuasion and defeat. This is an answer given in 2007 by people on the U.S. side who were versed in these matters.
If we apply their answer to N. Korea, we find that only one word really matters: Deterrence. Critical portions of what they said about deterrence is as true of N. Korea today as they emphasized was true of America ten years ago. I quote
“…[deterrence] remains essential to national security, and nuclear weapons remain essential to effective deterrence. By helping to prevent war and the need to use force, nuclear deterrence… Nuclear weapons are an enormously valuable tool of deterrence in the contemporary strategic context and should be given up only after long and careful consideration. As Winston Churchill observed, ‘Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure and more than sure that other means of preserving peace are in your hands!’
Deterrence is as much essential to N. Korea’s national security as the authors said it was to America’s. A North Korean nuclear capability helps to prevent war and the need to use force, just as it was argued that this was true of the U.S. There is no essential difference in these two cases. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Deterrence helps to prevent N. Korea from being attacked because S. Korea and the U.S. know that the result will be that they will suffer huge losses from a N. Korean counterattack. S. Korea and the U.S. know that N. Korea won’t use nuclear weapons in a first strike because the N. Koreans are deterred by the nuclear weapons of the U.S.
If “Nuclear weapons are an enormously valuable tool of deterrence” that “should be given up only after long and careful consideration”, it is easy to understand why N. Korea wants them. Churchill’s advice also applies to N. Korea as much as it did to the West that he was thinking of. N. Korea cannot give up its quest for such a deterrent until it’s sure that it will not be attacked by S. Korea and the U.S.
We infer that the reason for N. Korea’s nuclear aims is that it believes its existence is threatened by forces of S. Korea and the U.S. that can beat it. The only way to bring N. Korea’s nuclear program to a halt, short of a major war that would probably involve nuclear weapons and escalate into a confrontation of major powers, is to reduce the threats against N. Korea and to assure that S. Korea and the U.S. do not aim to destroy the N. Korean state or intervene in the country it governs.
The authors write “U.S. policy with regard to nuclear weapons should not be based on optimistic hopes that so contrast with the actual past behavior of foes. Given past experience, the burden of proof is on those who now contend that nuclear deterrence no longer is necessary to preserve the peace.”
Applied to N. Korea, this says that N. Korean policy can’t be based on optimism about U.S. behavior that contrasts with the actual past behavior of American forces in and around S. Korea. N. Korea cannot ignore those threats, anymore than Russia can ignore the threats of a U.S. first strike. Again, applied to the N. Korean case, those in the U.S. government and world who contend that N. Korea has no necessity for a nuclear deterrent, in order for N. Korea to preserve the peace and prevent an attack on itself, have the burden of proof, not the N. Koreans.
The more that the U.S. moves its ships around, adds missiles to S. Korea and threatens N. Korea, the more that N. Korea finds it in its interest to possess a nuclear deterrent.
These basic ideas of deterrence seem to be foreign to the current administration in Washington. History shows the importance of the deterrence motivation, even if it’s not the only motivation.
Israel has nuclear weapons because of threats from surrounding countries. It is acting on deterrent logic.
Pakistan developed nuclear weapons after the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. It feared its very survival as a state was being threatened. With India’s surprise test in 1974 “the goal to develop nuclear weapons received considerable impetus…” It may be that both sides had intelligence about each other and pursued the arms race simultaneously.
South Africa developed atomic weapons as a deterrent when nearby Angola fell into disarray: “At the time, President F. W. de Klerk (who dismantled the program when he became prime minister in 1989) said the seven bombs were the minimum necessary for a ‘credible deterrent capability.’ Their development was made ‘against the background of a Soviet expansionist threat in southern Africa and South Africa’s relative international isolation and the fact that it could not rely on outside assistance, should it be attacked.’”
Iran is relatively secure because of its size and geography and because it possesses a substantial conventional military capability. However, it’s been on the receiving end of enough threats from external countries like Israel and the U.S. that it would be within the bounds of rational deterrence to develop nuclear weapons. Obama defused the situation enough that an agreement was reached that has postponed such a development. If Trump and the Congress understood the logic of deterrence, which so far neither has given the least evidence of so doing, they would not be pressing Iran with sanctions and military threats. This only increases the justification for Iran to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
The way forward with N. Korea and Iran in order to defuse the nuclear concerns is obvious — negotiations. Not all differences can be settled but important ones can. The U.S. needs to offer recognition to these regimes and assurances that they are accepted as states. The U.S. needs to halt sanctions, scale back forces, and stop its constant threats and pressures. For its part, N. Korea needs to give up its nuclear ambitions and its heady threats. The Koreans should put a peace treaty into effect and settle the war. Iran could make some concessions too, which we need not go into; however, Israel may well have to make some concessions too if more is expected of Iran.
If threats to the survival of these regimes are really reduced by enough and their existence not threatened, the need for nuclear deterrence goes down. Conventional forces will suffice. Advances in ballistic missiles would probably have to be allowable in both cases in order for the governments of these countries to feel secure.
This is a time for statesmen and diplomats in Congress and the Trump administration to emerge. The time for sabre-rattling is over. The time for major war ran out in the 20th century with two world wars, with Korea and with Vietnam. In this century, the clock of war has been rewound by enemies of peace: the neocons. They insist on remaking regimes, governments, states and nations according to the goals and patterns that take this country and the whole world onto a downward path. Their deeply-flawed thinking leads to impasses such as with N. Korea, Syria and Iran. It leads to the dangerous threats we have heard so much of in the past 100 days, the first days of a new administration. Statesmen of the world, arise.