A nuclear test in Nevada, 1953 (Courtesy U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)
As North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un issues increasingly over-the-top threats -- including intimations that he might launch nuclear strikes against the United States -- officials in Washington have sought to reassure the public and U.S. allies. North Korea, they say, may initiate cyberattacks or other limited provocations, but the leaders in Pyongyang wish to survive, so they are highly unlikely to do anything as foolhardy as using nuclear weapons.
Despite those assurances, however, the risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote. Although Pyongyang’s tired threats are probably bluster, the current crisis has substantially increased the risk of a conventional conflict -- and any conventional war with North Korea is likely to go nuclear. Washington should continue its efforts to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula. But equally important, it must rapidly take steps -- including re-evaluating U.S. war plans -- to dampen the risks of nuclear escalation if conventional war erupts.
Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength. If war erupted, the North Korean army, short on training and armed with decrepit equipment, would prove no match for the U.S.–South Korean Combined Forces Command. Make no mistake, Seoul would suffer some damage, but a conventional war would be a rout, and CFC forces would quickly cross the border and head north.
At that point, North Korea’s inner circle would face a grave decision: how to avoid the terrible fates of such defeated leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Kim, his family, and his cronies could try to escape to China and plead for a comfortable, lifelong sanctuary there -- an increasingly dim prospect given Beijing’s growing frustration with Kim’s regime. Pyongyang’s only other option would be to try to force a cease-fire by playing its