Nuclear buttons and sunsets

We’re barely into 2018 and two major crises confront the world, both with significant nuclear dimensions. On the Korean peninsula, Kim Jong-un has once again reinforced his growing nuclear weapons capability and apparent willingness to make nuclear threats. In a New Year’s Day address, he suggested that North Korea had achieved its nuclear ambitions and said a ‘launch button’ was ‘always on the desk in my office’. However, Donald Trump’s ill-considered riposte on Twitter—‘I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my button works’—only heightened international concerns over his mindset on using nuclear weapons.

Rather than respond to North Korea by Twitter, Trump needs to speak softly but carry a very big stick. That could be achieved by strengthening the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees to South Korea and Japan, as well as other allies, including Australia, and making that step explicit in the soon-to-be-released Nuclear Posture Review. Extended deterrence could also be bolstered through more visible steps such as forward deployment of land-based tactical nuclear forces into South Korea or deployment of sub-strategic nuclear forces, including nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, on US submarines.

That would lessen the risk of Seoul deciding to go nuclear itself and send a strong message of dissuasion to Pyongyang. Forward-deployed US nukes would also ease Japanese concerns, both about North Korea and about China, and decrease the likelihood of Tokyo going down the very short path to its own nuclear weapons. If Japan and South Korea got nukes, it would generate a series of cascading aftershocks as China responded to Japanese nuclear acquisition in particular, and India responded to China’s moves, and so on. The end result would be the collapse of non-proliferation norms in Asia and the risk of a much more serious crisis in the near future.

As I’ve explored in the past, developing the ability of the US and its allies to strike at North Korean offensive capabilities pre-emptively using non-nuclear capabilities, and strengthening the effectiveness of ballistic-missile defences, would enhance deterrence by denial against North Korea. Developing prompt-strike capabilities will take time, and BMD capabilities are still to be put through realistic testing. Both will demand very effective intelligence of North Korean activities on a constant basis.

Unless there’s meaningful diplomatic dialogue that eases tensions, the crisis will build rapidly towards a climax, so time is running short. The Trump nuclear-button tweet coincided with a surprise North Korean diplomatic approach to South Korea, for talks about a possible dispatch of a delegation to the winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. It may be that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, and exploit South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s desire for diplomacy. Talks with the South Koreans would constrain the US’s ability to respond to any new North Korean nuclear and missile tests, because the US will need South Korea’s full support if the crisis continues on its current trajectory. So the diplomacy tactic may serve Kim Jong-un’s interests, and there’s little price for North Korea to pay by pursuing it. The North has no plans for denuclearisation, after all.

If North Korea does get close to a full nuclear capability—perhaps demonstrated by an atmospheric nuclear test over the North Pacific—the pressure on the US to consider preventive war becomes much greater. A likely consequence would be the first use of nuclear weapons in anger since Nagasaki in 1945, and, as my colleague Andrew Davies opined, a truly ‘ruinous war’.

The other nuclear crisis that’s brewing is in Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is at risk of collapse as the Trump administration considers ceasing waivers of sanctions against Iran. If the US does end the waivers, it effectively withdraws from the JCPOA. Trump has already described the JCPOA as ‘one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into’. Certainly the Iran nuclear deal only kicks the can down the road rather than solving the problem because its provisions sunset in about 15 years. Iran can then choose to acquire nuclear weapons. As I’ve argued previously, the key weakness of the JCPOA is that it’s based on a strategy of hope. That approach didn’t work with North Korea during past diplomatic efforts, and it may fail with Iran as well.

If Trump decides not to waive sanctions, Europe probably won’t follow suit, leaving the US diplomatically isolated. And the US would then be under more pressure to act against the prospect of a renewed Iranian nuclear weapons program, perhaps just as the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities was reaching its apex. With two major nuclear crises poised to occur nearly simultaneously, 2018 looks set to be a dangerous year indeed.