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Lessons From the US-Korea Nuclear Crisis

One final lesson that applies to all nuclear crises is that the only way to assure that nuclear weapons are not used again is to abolish them.

The high-profile nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, pitting the reigning heavyweight nuclear champion, the United States, against the bantamweight nuclear contender, North Korea, is not finished and is deadly serious. The posturing and exchanges that the world has been witnessing are capable of spiraling out of control and resulting in nuclear war. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis more than half a century ago, this crisis demonstrates that nuclear dangers continue to lurk in dark shadows across the globe.

This crisis, for which the fault is shared by both sides, must be taken seriously and viewed as a warning that nuclear stability is an unrealistic goal. The elimination of nuclear weapons, an obligation set forth in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and confirmed by the International Court of Justice, must be a more urgent goal of the international community. The continued evasion of this obligation by the nuclear weapon states make possible repeated nuclear crises, nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war.

Lessons can be drawn from this most recent crisis about the dangerous reliance by nuclear-armed states on nuclear deterrence and the unrealistic quest for security through nuclear deterrence and nuclear crisis management. Here are ten lessons:

1. Nuclear deterrence encourages threatening words and actions that can escalate into a full-blown crisis. For nuclear deterrence to be effective between nuclear-armed countries, each country must believe that the other is prepared to actually use nuclear weapons against it in retaliation for behavior considered prohibited (and this may not be clear). Thus, the leader of each country must convince the other side that he is irrational enough to retaliate against it with nuclear weapons, knowing that the other will then retaliate in kind. For each side to convince the other, threatening words and actions are employed.

2. Nuclear deterrence requires leaders to act rationally, but also makes it rational to behave irrationally. This is a conundrum inherent in nuclear deterrence. A leader of a nuclear-armed country must be sufficiently rational to be deterred by a threat of nuclear retaliation; but he also must behave sufficiently irrationally to make the other side believe he is actually prepared to use nuclear weapons in retaliation against it.

3. While deterrence theory requires that leaders be perceived as irrational enough to retaliate with nuclear weapons, they cannot be perceived as so irrational that they would mount a first-strike attack with nuclear weapons. Should leaders of Country A be perceived by Country B as being ready to launch a preventive nuclear attack, it could lead to an earlier preventive attack by Country B.

4. “War games” by Country B, held near Country A’s borders, are not-so-subtle threats, particularly when they involve nuclear capable delivery systems. The US and South Korea conducted joint war games near the border of North Korea. North Korean leaders became angry and threatening, escalating the crisis. If a country conducted “war games” near the US border, one can only imagine the response. To demonstrate how little countries appear to learn from such crises, the US cancelled a Minuteman III missile test in April at the height of the crisis, but has now rescheduled the provocative test for a date in May.

5. When a nuclear crisis escalates, it can spin out of control. In an environment of escalating threats, one side may believe its best option is to launch a preventive attack, thus setting in motion a nuclear war.

6. Nuclear weapons are military equalizers; they provide greater benefit to the militarily weaker country. A relatively small and weak country, such as North Korea, can hold a much more powerful country, such as the US, at bay with the threat to use nuclear weapons against it, its troops, and/or its allies. On the other hand, when countries such as Iraq and Libya gave up their nuclear weapons programs, they were attacked by the US and its allies, their regimes were overthrown and their leaders killed.

7. Nuclear power plants are attractive targets, since they can be turned into radiological weapons. South Korea has 23 nuclear reactors within striking range of North Korea. These plants could be intentionally or accidentally destroyed, leading to reactor and spent-fuel meltdowns, and the spread of radiation throughout the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

8. The value of nuclear weapons, to the extent they have value, lies only in the bluff to use them. If the nuclear bluff is called, it may lead to catastrophic results – “Game Over.” That dangerous potential is always present in the bluff to use nuclear weapons.

9. Cutting off communications increases the risks of misinterpreting an act or intention of the other side. The two sides stopped speaking to each other except in the language of threat. North Korea shut down the Crisis Hot Line, a communications device set up to prevent misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the acts of the two Koreas.

10. Leaders in a nuclear crisis situation need to talk to each other and demonstrate rationality to reverse the escalation. Leaders on both sides of the crisis should be making overtures to talk through their differences and resolve them rather than continuing to posture in threatening ways at a distance.

One final lesson that applies to all nuclear crises is that the only way to assure that nuclear weapons are not used again is to abolish them.

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