North Korea and the Potential for a Nuclear Catastrophe

Stanford experts offer context and advice about the increasing threat of war.

Stanford Magazine
Dec 1, 2017 · 11 min read
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On November 29, North Korea launched what was believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile that traveled 1,000 kilometers before landing in the Sea of Japan. It was the 23rd missile launched in 16 tests since February, according to CNN.

In the past year, as North Korea has ramped up its weapons testing program, those within its sights have begun to take its posturing more seriously. Hawaii has resumed tests of Cold War-era nuclear sirens. A video by the Ventura County (Calif.) Health Care Agency offers tips such as “Get inside. Stay inside. Stay tuned.” Public safety officials in Guam have distributed a two-page pamphlet on how to prepare for a nuclear strike. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has drawn up a day-after survival blueprint for cities.

As Americans struggle to assess the risk of the tests to their country and others, Stanford asked three scholars of nuclear deterrence and Korean affairs to share their perspectives about the national security dilemma posed by North Korea.

Through essays and conversation, Siegfried Hecker, William Perry and Scott Sagan discuss the growing threat from the North Korean regime and some ways to combine diplomacy and pressure to ensure our safety and security and that of our allies. Hecker, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and at its Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), opens with a summary of North Korea’s rise as a nuclear power and characterizes the extent of the threat. Perry, BS ’49, MS ’50, former U.S. secretary of defense, follows with advice for Americans on how to get involved with efforts to deter nuclear war. And Sagan, also a senior fellow at Freeman Spogli and at CISAC, closes with a recommendation for where we go from here.

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I. Placing North Korea’s Nuclear Program in Perspective

By Siegfried S. Hecker

Are we reliving the fears and dangers of the Cold War with a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula? I think not, but the crisis has reached such dangerous levels that it warrants immediate and direct talks between the Trump administration and the Kim Jong Un regime to avoid nuclear war.

What? North Korea now likely has nuclear weapons that it can mount on short- and medium-range missiles to reach all of South Korea and Japan with warheads that have the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although it has also made rapid progress on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the continental United States (including the most recent long-range missile test, on November 28) and may carry hydrogen bombs with explosive power 10 times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, it will likely take at least two years and additional missile and nuclear tests to be able to do so.

The size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal depends primarily on its ability to produce plutonium in nuclear reactors and highly enriched uranium (HEU) in gas centrifuges. Estimates of stockpile size and production rates are highly uncertain. My estimates, based on four visits to the Yongbyon nuclear complex and continuing analysis, are that as of September 2017, North Korea possessed a stockpile of 20 to 40 kilograms of plutonium and 250 to 500 kilograms of HEU, sufficient fissile materials for as many as 25 to 30 nuclear weapons, and an ability to produce roughly seven more bombs per year. The number of these that are hydrogen bombs, and the country’s ability to produce more, is likely quite limited for now.

How? North Korea received assistance from the Soviet Union in the early years to pursue peaceful applications of nuclear technologies and to educate nuclear professionals. However, Soviet nuclear cooperation ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, although collaboration with Russia on missile technologies continued for some time thereafter. North Korea took advantage of a leaky international export control system to acquire key materials for the production of fissile materials, particularly for gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. However, for the most part, North Korea built the nuclear facilities and bombs themselves.

When? Their efforts stretch back over 50 years, but they have been particularly determined over the past 15 years. After a dispute with the Bush administration, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and built the bomb in 2003. It conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006 and has conducted five more since, along with a flurry of medium- and long-range missile tests in 2016 and 2017.

Why? The primary reason for Pyongyang’s drive to a nuclear arsenal has been and continues to be the security of the country and the regime. Pyongyang continues to justify its nuclear weapons as a response to the hostile policies of the United States. International prestige has been a factor, particularly since North Korea is now one of 10 or fewer countries with nuclear weapons. Domestic considerations have become increasingly important because the regime justifies its huge military investments and blames the economic hardships its people have to endure on the need for nuclear weapons.

What to do now? Nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula resulted from Pyongyang’s determined drive for a nuclear arsenal. The crisis and nuclear angst being experienced now in the United States and much of the world is the result of Washington’s unpredictable and undisciplined response. Yet the nuclear crisis differs dramatically from the Cold War. Pyongyang’s stockpile of 25 or so nuclear weapons pales in comparison to 39,000 Soviet and 25,000 U.S. nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War. Its several hundred kilograms of fissile material bomb fuel is minuscule compared with past Soviet and U.S. inventories of roughly a million kilograms each.

North Korea deters the United States from military aggression because its small arsenal can still inflict unacceptable damage to the United States and its allies. The United States is able to deter North Korea through assured destruction. So, instead of mutually assured destruction, we have an asymmetric situation that is nevertheless capable of deterring both sides.

Because the crisis is here now and continues to be fueled with incendiary words from Washington and Pyongyang, it is crucial for the Trump administration to talk to the Kim Jong Un regime now to avert a nuclear war through misunderstanding or miscalculation. Such talks may also lay the foundation for negotiations to halt, roll back and eventually eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons. In the meantime, Washington should focus on restraining and deterring Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un is not crazy, nor is he suicidal. He is young and wants to stay in power. He is deterrable.

Siegfried S. Hecker is a professor (research) of management science and engineering, and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

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II. What Americans Need to Know

A conversation between STANFORD and former U.S. secretary of defense William J. Perry.

STANFORD: Most of us didn’t expect to be back in Cold War tensions. What do Americans need to know in thinking about the current tensions with North Korea?

A: I believe that the danger of some kind of nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. That puts a frame of reference around the discussion. One of the reasons is the increased hostility between the United States and Russia. I don’t believe the United States and Russia are going to go to nuclear war, but the danger of that is now being awoken. For a decade or so after the Cold War, that danger went away, but it is coming back. Beyond that, there is the danger of a nuclear terrorist attack. I think that that is not a remote possibility.

There is a very real possibility of a regional nuclear war between Pakistan and India, for example. That would be catastrophic not only for the people of those two countries; it would be catastrophic all over the globe.

North Korea built nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of their regime. If they were to make an unprovoked attack against South Korea, for example, that would ensure the destruction of their regime, so it is not what they are seeking. The danger is we will blunder into some kind of conflict that would escalate into a nuclear conflict. I don’t think it is a high probability, but the consequences are so disastrous that we have to pay a lot of attention to it.

A military strike with the purpose of causing North Korea not to use nuclear weapons could have the opposite effect. If North Korea felt they were in imminent danger, they might use a nuclear weapon as a last resort.

Beyond that, there is the possibility that with all this heated rhetoric, some minor military conflict takes place. There is a history of North Korea taking provocative minor military actions to which South Korea could respond, and we might get a minor conventional conflict going. If that happened, then it is too easy for that to get out of control by the leaders of the countries, and it could escalate. If it escalated into real conventional war, it is one North Korea would lose, so then North Korea would use nuclear weapons.

None of these scenarios I am describing is a likely scenario. But they are possible outcomes of actions under way today, and we should understand them so we don’t do anything to escalate them.

STANFORD: How can people become involved on this issue?

A: Get educated on the issue. There are lots of ways of getting educated. You can read my book, for example, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink; you can take courses I am teaching online. I have two MOOCs [massive open online courses], and one of them just started a few weeks ago. Get associated with some of the organizations working in this field: the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C., co-chaired by Sam Nunn; Ploughshares, [which] has a major office in San Francisco. [Both are] dedicated to lowering the dangers of nuclear war. Read what they are writing, go to their meetings, and if you believe in what they are doing, support them. It is hard for one person to do anything. Organize yourself with a larger source.

You could also study the two bills before Congress. One, by Rep. Conyers, would prevent the president from making a preemptive attack against North Korea. This would limit the power of the president. If people are worried about this issue they can write to their congressman or woman, trying to get a head of steam behind it. It is not likely to pass at the moment. The other is a bill by Sen. Markey of Massachusetts and [Rep.] Lieu from California, which would require the president to come to Congress before making the first strike with nuclear weapons. That bill is entirely consistent with the Constitution.

Learn something about these bills, then if you agree, provide some support.

My role in this, as I see it, is education. I am trying to get across to a large audience, so most of my efforts are in educating online.

William J. Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor, emeritus, at Stanford, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the co-director of CISAC’s Cooperative Nuclear Risk Reduction Initiative and director of its Preventive Defense Project. In 2013, Perry founded the William J. Perry Project to engage and educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

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III. What America Should Do Next

By Scott D. Sagan

In August, President Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, explained the administration’s rejection of what he called “classical deterrence theory”: “[H]ow does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea? A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people? A regime that poses a continuous threat to its neighbors in the region and now may pose a direct threat to the United States with weapons of mass destruction?”

The answer to Lt. Gen. McMaster’s question is that “classical deterrence theory” was developed precisely to apply to regimes like Kim Jong Un’s government in North Korea. The United States was successful in deterring the brutal and threatening regimes of Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Deterrence can work against Kim Jong Un. The United States needs to accept that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state and that it now holds American, South Korean and Japanese cities at risk.

Deterrence is a risky strategy, however, and it will require more prudent decision-making in Washington than we have seen recently. During the Cold War, Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote about the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” problem caused by U.S. and Soviet preemptive nuclear doctrines. Today, we are experiencing a more complex and dangerous “three-way fear of surprise attack” problem. Even if North Korea, South Korea and the United States seek to avoid war, each is postured to launch a preemptive attack if it fears that an enemy attack is imminent. In such an unstable hair-trigger situation, the risk of an accident or a false warning leading to a war is high.

In addition, we need to reject the proposals that some in Washington have made to launch a “decapitation” strike, directly targeting Kim Jong Un in an attempt to destroy the regime and prevent retaliation. This would be a gamble of epic proportions. The repeated U.S. history of unsuccessful decapitation attempts against Moammar Gadhafi in 1986 and against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003 provides a strong warning against such dangerous wishful thinking. Moreover, we have no reason to think that Kim Jong Un has not sent orders to his generals, as did Hussein, to launch all available weapons of mass destruction against the enemy if he is killed in a first strike. And we have no reason to think that the fully indoctrinated North Korean military would refuse such orders.

The United States should strengthen its extended nuclear guaranties to South Korea and Japan to reduce the incentive for Seoul or Tokyo to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. While some have argued for a return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to air bases in South Korea, such weapons would be vulnerable to a North Korean first strike. A better option would be to keep dual-capable bombers at Guam on enhanced runway alert. The United States could do what it did after we removed the Jupiter missiles from Turkey following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. We assigned some Polaris submarine missiles to cover retaliation targets and paid a port visit to Turkey. An occasional U.S. submarine port visit to South Korea could enhance deterrence without provoking North Korea.

Finally, there is an important role for sanctions and anti-smuggling efforts. Sanctions, even more robust sanctions, are unlikely to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Sanctions should be continued or strengthened, nevertheless, to make further nuclear developments by North Korea more difficult and to signal other potential nuclear proliferators that illegal nuclear weapons development will lead to severe punishment. Sanctions will also, however, give even more incentives to the North to engage in nuclear-related smuggling. They have been caught in the past smuggling nuclear technology to Libya and Syria. Strengthened sanctions must therefore be accompanied with even stronger nuclear security and anti-smuggling programs.

Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, the Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is project chair for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Initiative on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology and War. •

Photos: iStockphoto (top); Rod Searcey (3)

Stanford Magazine

A Publication of the Stanford Alumni Association

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