Could Donald Trump Stumble Into Nuclear War With North Korea?

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Test-fire of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 on July 4. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The ratcheting up of tensions and bellicose language this week between the Trump administration and North Korea began with a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency saying that Pyongyang has mastered the technology to shrink a warhead to fit on a missile that can fly to the continental U.S. A few things to keep in mind about that report, before building a fallout shelter in your backyard: The DIA has made this assertion before, only to be contradicted by other government intelligence agencies. This time too, there is no consensus across the U.S. government, or among close Korea-watchers. Even more, no one believes that the North’s long-distance missiles, or ICBMs, are yet reliable enough that Kim Jong-un will wield one with confidence this week, or this month.

But, of course, with the leaders of the two countries exchanging nuclear threats over social media — North Korea said yesterday that it was considering a missile strike against the U.S. territory of Guam, while Trump dangled the prospect of “fire and fury” — there is no room for complacency either. North Korea will credibly be able to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland, if not this year than next year or the one after. And Kim Jong-un’s threats to hit U.S. troops in Asia, create a “ring of fire” around Guam, or put a nuclear target on our allies in Tokyo or Seoul are credible right now.

So it’s time to start assuming our North Korea policy must play out on a nuclear field, even one that remains hugely tipped in Washington’s favor. Kim’s bombs, whether a few or a few dozen, would quickly be wiped out in a U.S. retaliatory strike — along with North Korea’s government and people. But all of America’s (very limited) policy options in dealing with North Korea still rest on the core assumption that Pyongyang’s leaders may be self-interested to the point of depravity, but they are not suicidal, and they will be able to read Washington’s intentions clearly.

It is this assumption’s fragility that keeps the experts awake at night. They fear a scenario where the North perceives that it is already under attack, and would certainly respond. While it might seem relatively simple to avoid triggering a sense of suicidal desperation in Pyongyang, consider these scenarios: What happens if an accident, or a hack, compromises one of the North’s nuclear facilities, or the country’s power grid? What if a U.S. jet wanders into Pyongyang’s airspace? Suppose the U.S. retaliates with conventional force after Pyongyang sinks a South Korean naval vessel or misfires a test missile into Japanese territory?

It’s conceivable that any one of these situations could escalate quickly to the point where the North assumes that President Trump is following through on his threats of “fire and fury,” and takes what they see as their final opportunity to fire off their nuclear weapons. Most likely, for now, they wouldn’t hit the continental U.S. — but striking closer to home could have a horrendous death toll, American servicemembers among them.

So Americans must worry about the risk that the North Korean leader, though rational, has boxed himself in with red lines, aggressive rhetoric, and a perception that enemy attacks are everywhere.

Regrettably, our own leadership’s actions raise the same concerns.

Nuclear deterrence has functioned well with Russia and China for decades, and we have survived crises from airliner downings to flocks of birds triggering launch warnings in no small part because each side had great predictability about how the other would behave. After the anxious early Cold War decades, all sides’ security Establishments developed hot lines, military exchanges, and, in the case of the Soviet Union and the U.S., a web of arms control, verification, and confidence-building measures. All of that is the opposite of the ambiguity and unpredictability that President Trump favors. No president, for example, ever thought it was a good idea to claim that the U.S. had dramatically upgraded its nuclear capabilities in six months, as Trump did Wednesday morning. Nor did any administration ever make upgrades that quickly, by the way.

Since April, administration officials have taken every position from suggesting that Washington and Pyongyang could talk without preconditions to suggesting that military action would be necessary in a matter of months. If Cabinet members cannot tell what the U.S. policy to deter the North is, there is no possibility that Pyongyang can read it correctly and choose to be deterred.

Moreover, the American security Establishment, across both parties, developed considerable confidence that it could correctly predict and deter Soviet and Chinese behavior. Compare this to statements from the Trump White House today and yesterday — and Trump’s personal comments going back 20 years — suggesting that the North is not actually deterrable.

Even if North Koreans wanted to start negotiations tomorrow, they would have a difficult time figuring out what American interlocutor could reliably deliver a deal. Senior military figures, Republicans and Democrats, and Henry Kissinger have been urging the Trump administration to open negotiations which offer North Korea some of the nonnuclear reassurances they want. The administration says it will preserve peace by preparing for war. But it doesn’t seem to be preparing to do what Trump claims to love most — negotiate and win.

While it is true that aren’t any great policy options in the North Korea standoff, there is clearly a worst one: creating a situation so unpredictable that odds of a historic and tragic mishap are higher than they need to be.

Could Trump Stumble Into Nuclear War With North Korea?