When a Collapsing, Paranoid North Korea Turns to Nukes. . .

Does the logic of deterrence extend to a dying regime?

On February 7, North Korea conducted another long-range missile test, disguised as a satellite launch. The test comes after a nuclear test on January 6 and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test in December of last year, indicating that the Kim Jong-un regime is intent on developing a secure and deliverable nuclear deterrent. If the regime achieves its objective, North Korea could become the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world, not because the Kim regime is irrational, but because North Korea is the only existing nuclear-weapons state that could conceivably collapse at any moment. Then, U.S. policy makers will have to ask a very, very uncomfortable question: Should the United States come to terms with North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state and seek détente?

The conventional logic with regard to nuclear deterrence rests on the principle that states are rational, care about self-preservation above all, and will not willingly commit suicide by attacking another state capable of exacting devastating retaliation. The general idea behind this school is that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons would more or less prevent their use and would reduce, if not eliminate, a state’s incentive to start or escalate a destructive conflict. History has so far backed this argument. To be sure, there were the Berlin crises culminating in the Cuban missile crisis, the Able Archer exercise, the India-Pakistan crises and others, which nearly resulted in nuclear wars. Humanity may have been fortunate, rather than wise, with these crises. But strictly speaking, the fact is that nuclear deterrence, at least in today’s world with a small number of nuclear-weapons states, has stood its ground so far.

According to this principle, North Korea should not be much of a threat. After all, Pyongyang’s motive for seeking a secure and deliverable nuclear arsenal is security, as the North Koreans themselves have stated many times. Of course, the Kim regime might launch provocations and even increase them with better nuclear capabilities. According to the logic of nuclear deterrence, however, Pyongyang will make rational calculations and will never escalate to a point where the regime would critically endanger its own security. Moreover, given North Korea’s military and economic weakness, the country is in no shape to expand beyond its borders. Unlike China, for example, North Korea will never become a potential regional hegemon or a serious competitor to the United States.

But North Korea is not an ordinary nuclear-weapons state. The country is the only existing nuclear-weapons state that could see a sudden internal collapse. Critics might argue that predictions about the regime’s demise have been wrong before, but this logic does not stand: the fact that an event has not happened yet does not mean that the event will never happen. Indeed, the Iranian revolution began on January 7, 1978—one week after Jimmy Carter touted the country as “an island of stability.” How about the Soviet Union, which Robert Gates, during the 1980s, said would never collapse during his or his children’s lifetime? Then there is the Arab Spring, which caught the entire world by surprise. The common theme from these cases is that regime instability could manifest itself before analysts realize that it might be possible. Only with hindsight, can one point out why these uprisings happened at the time of their occurrence.

Moreover, North Korean society has been changing gradually since the famine of 1994–98, with the emergence of a pervasive black market economy and massive corruption. Black market activities in North Korea are widespread. Even North Korean government officials use the black market to reap their own private profit. Yet the North Korean state cannot crack down on the informal system, since doing so could lead to public unrest and economic collapse. Indeed, the North Korean regime’s 2009 attempt to uproot private-market activities, by implementing currency revaluation that wiped out the savings of many North Koreans, sparked rare incidents of protests in Pyongyang.