4 Frightening Ways North Korea's Nuclear Weapons May Actually Be Used
Kim Jong-un has been at it again: another intercontinental ballistic missile test and a further verbal threat against the United States. Yet, despite all of North Korea’s technical developments and rhetorical bluster, the United States and its allies are almost certainly safe from a deliberate nuclear strike. Kim Jong-un is a rational actor driven by one all-consuming goal: survival. To intentionally attack the United States or its allies with nuclear missiles would almost certainly result in nuclear retaliation or a regime-change driven invasion. As Robert Kelly noted in the National Interest, “Pyongyang knows there is no way to use their weapons for gain that would not immediately provoke massive counter-costs.”
This does not mean, however, that the world is entirely safe from a North Korean nuclear attack. There are at least four scenarios that could lead to the pariah state’s nuclear weapons being used: foreign invasion, domestic uprising, nuclear accidents, or acquisition by terrorists.
Scenario One: Foreign Invasion
The high-costs versus low-reward calculus that currently holds Kim Jong-un back from using his nuclear weapons could change if the Trump administration responded to North Korea’s ongoing missile provocations, nuclear threats and abhorrent human-rights record with a major military intervention. In that situation, Kim could feel sufficiently certain that his regime was destined for collapse and his own life forfeit that he decides to use nuclear weapons. These might be deployed against the invaders as a weapon of last resort—hoping to destroy either their material means or political will—or as a final act of vengeance against their homelands.
It is difficult to gauge whether Kim would act in this way because in the two most recent interventions—America’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and NATO’s push to depose Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—the regimes in question had abandoned their Weapons of Mass Destruction some years earlier. Would either dictator have used nuclear weapons as a last-ditch survival attempt or as revenge for their imminent demise had they possessed them? We will never know.
To gain a better understanding, we must reach back in time to the end of World War II, when Adolf Hitler ordered vast swathes of Nazi occupied territory to be destroyed (albeit using conventional methods) once it became clear that his forces were all but defeated. He issued two famous orders: that Paris be turned “into a pile of Rubble” and Warsaw be “levelled to the ground.” Hitler thought that this would impede allied progress as a scorched-earth strategy and help to stamp out all partisan resistance against the German occupiers. He also wanted to deprive the world of these two cities on the basis that if Germany could not have the cities, no one else should have them. At the same time, Hitler felt able to disregard the risk of retaliation from the allies in response to these atrocities because they were already engaged in a total war with the Nazi regime.
In Paris, the unthinkable never happened because the general assigned to carry out the command—Dietrich von Choltitz—was not a member of the Nazi party and had come to believe that Hitler was sufficiently insane that this order should be ignored (although von Choltitz was scarcely a saint—he had previously destroyed other population hubs). Tragically, in Warsaw, the task was assigned to the ideologically fervent and high-ranking SS Officer, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who executed his task with horrifying brutality and razed Warsaw to the ground, killing 150,000–180,000 people. Unfortunately, the political indoctrination and subordination of the armed forces to the regime in North Korea means that the commanders to whom Kim Jong-un would issue his nuclear attack orders would be more likely to be party loyalists like Bach-Zelewski than more independent thinkers like von Choltitz.
Scenario Two: Domestic Uprising