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Why nuclear war with North Korea is less likely than you think

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority editor Elizabeth Saunders details the constraints that lessen the risks of war – even when global leaders escalate their threats. Her analysis with Michael C. Horowitz was originally published in the Washington Post on January 3, 2018, after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasted about their respective nuclear buttons. 

On January 2, 2018, in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim to have a nuclear button on his desk, President Trump tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

This is not the first time that things have gotten personal in the U.S.-North Korea standoff. Much of the rhetoric between the two leaders and media commentary about the risk of war has focused on the leadership of Trump and Kim – or “Little Rocket Man,” as Trump has called the North Korean leader.

But how much could two singular leaders really propel us to a nuclear war? Trump’s tweets and other actions certainly can increase the risk of conflict – consistent with our research on how the decisions of individual leaders affect military conflict.

However, in this case, other factors, including geography and military capabilities, will matter more than tweets or the characteristics of leaders. And these factors reduce the likelihood of war.

Leaders can be important for international conflict

For the past few generations, political scientists who write about the outbreak of conflict mainly argued that leaders were irrelevant, focusing instead on international factors such as great power relations or domestic political factors such as whether the two countries involved had democratic institutions.

But more and more scholarship suggests that leaders make a large difference in determining whether and how countries go to war. And it’s not just in dictatorships such as that of North Korea; even more constrained leaders, such as U.S. presidents, matter. Leaders’ beliefs and experiences before coming into office can be critical in determining whether a country goes to war and what military strategy will be used in the event of war.

Structural forces are strong in this case

Even if leaders have discretion, they are constrained by material and situational constraints. No U.S. or North Korean leader can realistically change or avoid some of these constraints.

One constraint stems from the two sides’ formidable military capabilities, which mean that a general war with North Korea would be devastating, as political scientist Barry Posen argues. Even before North Korea acquired a nuclear capability, its artillery put tremendous pressure on South Korea. Add to that its missile arsenal – which, as nuclear experts have chronicled, can probably deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead against the United States.

A second unavoidable constraint is geography, which may make war less likely. North Korean artillery points directly at Seoul, just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ). South Korea may oppose a war, which could influence U.S. behavior. North Korea also borders China, a powerful country whose economic support keeps North Korea afloat.

But China faces its own geographic reality with respect to North Korea, and China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s behavior. In the event of war, China does not want refugees flooding across the border into China. Yet China also does not want a unified Korean Peninsula with U.S. troops on its border.

Indeed, in the Korean War, the United States tested geographic constraints by pushing beyond the pre-war dividing line, the 38th parallel, in an attempt to unify Korea. China intervened to prevent such an outcome, and the conflict stopped where it started.

All sides know that a war would be a huge and difficult military and political problem. So there are strong incentives to try to deter the other side, rather than escalate.

U.S. and North Korean leaders have reason to make war even less likely

Although the focus on Trump and Kim almost always suggests that their behavior increases the risk of war, both leaders actually have strong incentives to reduce the prospect of war.

Despite the rhetoric about North Korea’s irrationality, Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles was rational. He wants to stay in power – and nuclear weapons constitute invasion insurance. But a war probably would spell the end of the Kim regime, giving North Korea little reason to start a war.

On the U.S. side, few wars probably have been war-gamed more than a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. decision makers know how costly a war might be. Knowledge of these costs makes war less likely.

A leader-driven war would have to overcome strong structural pressures

If “leaders matter” for military decision making, then with different leaders, we might get a different outcome. So what about Trump and Kim might lead to conflict?

One factor from Trump’s side could be risk acceptance. Trump could decide that he wants to start a war despite the costs, and count on U.S. missile defenses to shoot down North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launches and protect the homeland (an awfully big gamble). In theory, Trump’s lack of experience also could make him less cognizant of the costs of war and less able to draw on his more experienced advisers.

From Kim’s side, studies suggest that dictators – who face fewer checks and balances – are more risk-acceptant. With fewer people to tell them no, they are more likely to escalate in general.

If war occurs, one pathway is through a misreading of one side’s incentives by the other. For example, Kim’s desire to stay in power could lead Trump to believe that, even in the face of limited U.S. strikes against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, Kim will back down instead of escalate. But it would be hard to credibly signal that those strikes would be limited, and if Kim believes the United States is coming after him, escalation becomes more likely.

Of course, war could also come via miscalculation and, entually, some kind of preemptive strike. But research suggests that war spirals of that sort are extremely rare.

In war, as in elections, the fundamentals matter

Many questions in political science and history boil down to this: Do individuals or structural forces shape events?

Although recent evidence in international relations scholarship points to the importance of leaders, the North Korean standoff reminds us of the power of structural factors. That may provide some comfort to those who read the president’s tweet and worried about the risk of war.

Co-author Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz) is professor of political science and the associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of “Why Leaders Fight.