North Korean missile test does not mean we are close to war

North Korea once again chose to ratchet up tensions with the Trump administration Saturday by firing three short-range missiles about 155 miles into the Sea of Japan. That was a disappointing development, but doesn’t mean we’re drawing close to a nuclear or conventional war with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Kim’s missile test Saturday appears to be a response to twice-yearly war games that U.S. forces are conducting with the South Korean military to prepare for a possible North Korean attack.

But despite a war of words between President Trump and Kim that’s been going on for weeks, Kim is not crazy. He is well-aware that he would be committing national suicide if he launched a nuclear attack against the U.S., South Korea, Japan or one of our other allies because we would respond with a devastating nuclear retaliatory strike that would wipe North Korea off the map. Deterrence works.

So even if North Korea could send a nuclear warhead to the continental United States with its current technology, as it claims – an idea that some highly acclaimed nuclear weapons experts doubt – such an attack is extremely unlikely.

And Kim also knows that a conventional war would be very costly for both North and South Korea and would claim an enormous number of lives. In fact, the potential for these high costs has contributed to the peace on the Korean peninsula for more than 60 years, long before the North developed a small stockpile of atomic bombs.   

During the Cold War, the idea of nuclear deterrence created a tense but non-apocalyptic stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. The theory held then, as it does now, that the credible threat of nuclear retaliation keeps one country from launching nuclear weapons against another.

The rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea is hot. President Trump famously promised to meet North Korea’s threats of war with “fire and fury.” And as the U.S.-South Korean military exercises began last Monday, North Korea vowed “merciless retaliation and unsparing punishment” against America. But the verbal hostility between the two nations is nothing new, even if the fresh rhetoric is troubling.

It’s important to note that North Korea, which launched what it claimed were two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, could have taken far more provocative action than the test of three shorter range missiles Saturday.

The North threatened last month to fire four ballistic missiles around the U.S. territory of Guam, surrounding the island that is home to two U.S. military bases with a “ring of fire.” The U.S. would have been forced to respond in some way to such a provocation.

To understand why a nuclear or conventional war is not likely to break out between the U.S. and North Korea, let’s make a sober analysis of North Korea’s nuclear threat.

During the Cold War, the idea of nuclear deterrence created a tense but non-apocalyptic stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. The theory held then, as it does now, that the credible threat of nuclear retaliation keeps one country from launching nuclear weapons against another.

Nuclear deterrence is the reason why nuclear war is unlikely between the United States and Russia, or between the United States and China.

Make no mistake. Kim Jong Un is a terrible dictator whose desire to maintain power and control has led him to continue North Korea’s decades-long atrocities, human rights violations, and collectivist economic policies that have led to widespread poverty. He has kept North Korea from flourishing like its neighbor to the south.

But the abuses that show Kim as being the top enemy of the North Korean people also show why he isn’t an imminent threat to the United States. Kim and the members of his regime loyal to his family want to maintain power and authority, along with the benefits that go along with it. This is why they go to such great lengths to remain in office.

It’s highly doubtful that Kim would give up all of his power through the act of war with the United States. He does not have a death wish for himself or his country. His father, Kim Jong Il, was similarly tyrannical and sounded just as crazy But on nuclear matters, he was coldly rational and thus could be deterred.

As long as the United States properly signals a credible commitment to retaliate and the capability to act on it, Kim has an incentive to avoid war, whether nuclear or conventional.

The horrible specter of nuclear war – or the more likely and yet still quite awful consequences of a conventional fight – is why we should all hope that President Trump and Kim will keep cool, avoid more fiery rhetoric, and focus on diplomatic attempts to resolve the tension between their two countries.

William Ruger is vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and vice president for research at the Charles Koch Foundation.