Late last month, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats called North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a “potential existential threat to the United States.” Coats hedges a bit by throwing in the modifier “potentially,” but he has spoken this way before. Unless he has spectacular secret information, this is woefully inaccurate . North Korea is a growing threat to the United States with its nuclear missile program, and it is indeed an existential threat to South Korea and Japan. But the threat Pyongyang poses to the United States is not actually existential as, for example, Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals are. And is unlikely to become so.
Language is important here. North Korea is a indeed a threat to the United States, but it is a greater threat to America's regional allies. Pyongyang’s ability to strike the United States with a nuclear warhead is, after all, still hotly disputed. Hitting the United States with a missile is not the same as hitting the it with a reentry-survivable nuclear warhead that could evade U.S. missile defense. Nor, even, does one or two or a dozen North Korean nuclear strikes on the American mainland constitute an “existential” threat.
Such a scenario would be terrible, but for North Korea to actually threaten the existence of the United States would take dozens of nuclear strikes across almost all of America’s major cities. The humanitarian costs of even one nuclear detonation would be enormous, of course, and the national psychological shock would be akin to nothing in U.S. history, bar perhaps the Civil War. But this is not the same thing as hitting the United States hard enough that its society begins to fragment and its government collapse. DNI Coats does not use those terms, but presumably that is what an “existential” threat is. Large numbers of civilian casualties, even in the millions, and the loss of several American cities is not existential. Horrible, yes. A dramatic reorientation of American life, absolutely. But not the end of America.
In fact, the United States is actually well postured to survive, or ‘ride out,’ in nuclear war parlance, a nuclear strike. The United States is a large country, with a widely dispersed population. According to the Census Bureau in 2015, it has only ten cities whose populations exceed one million people. And 20 percent of its population lives in rural areas, distant from any realistic North Korean target. That is sixty million people. Residents of large cities like New York and Los Angeles are threatened, but much of the U.S. population is not. It is important to be honest about this.
The American government’s federalism is another benefit. Even if Washington D.C. and other large U.S. metropolitan centers were devastated, multiple other levels of government would continue to operate. States, counties, and cities would continue to function, uphold law and order, and provide points from which to rebuild damaged national structures. By way of example, the collapse of government in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina did not lead to cascading collapse across Louisiana or the Gulf Coast. Even Imperial Japan in 1945, after months of punishing U.S. bombing, managed to ride out the nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a national breakdown.
Nuclear strikes in America will not necessarily lead to apocalyptic outcomes, and we should be cautious about using Coats’ frightening language. Highly centralized states are at greater risk than America. Where one national capital represents the national center gravity—as with Seoul in South Korea, or Paris in France—the risk of a nuclear ‘decapitation strike’ throwing the country into chaos is real. Hence North Korea’s greater threat to highly centralized, and more proximate, Japan and South Korea. But America’s thick decentralization makes it more resilient.
Finally, long-term U.S. political stability suggests socio-political resilience. Assuming again that North Korea strikes Washington and America’s other large cities, it is not obvious that the United States would then fall into some manner of political anarchy or revolution. America is a wealthy, stable state with the world’s longest running constitution (230 years). It’s population has never had any meaningful political traditions besides liberal democracy. There are no serious revolutionaries waiting for social chaos to strike, like in Tsarist Russia or Weimar Germany.
Indeed, Coats himself likely knows all this, which is why he appended “potentially” to his comments. By calling the North Korean nuclear missile threat “existential,” he is probably trying to capture and focus attention, both in the United States and, especially, China. But adding “potentially” allows him to pull back so that he does not appear too alarmist and incur the jeering of the analyst community over something that is really not true. This political and somewhat contradictory phrasing leaves Coats’ actual beliefs rather unclear.
His exaggeration is understandable, however, due to China. In fact, I imagine much of the overheated rhetoric coming from the Trump administration about North Korea is intended to pressure China to finally do something on the issue, rather than accurately portray the threat from Pyongyang. But this is risky threat-inflation. Scare-mongering contributes to the growing drumbeat for airstrikes against North Korea which could ignite a disastrous regional conflict, even though North Korea almost certainly does not intend to offensively strike the United States with its nuclear weapons.