Experts on North Korea’s latest threat: ‘This is how war by miscalculation starts’

Zack Beauchamp writes: Nuclear weapons can deter war, as we observed during the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union worked hard to avoid outright conflict because no one believed they could win a nuclear war. In that sense, nuclear weapons enhance stability.

But the sense of security that nuclear weapons grant — because who in their right mind would attack a nuclear power? — can also encourage lower-level bad behavior. In 2010, for example, a North Korea submarine sank a South Korean destroyer, the ROKS Cheonan, without things escalating to war. The North gambled that the South wouldn’t risk being hit by Northern nukes (and its conventional arsenal) over one destroyer, and so wouldn’t respond with all-out war. It was right.

This paradox — where nuclear weapons deter full-scale war but at the same time encourage lower-level provocations — is why Kim thinks he can get away with threatening, and perhaps even firing on, US bombers.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, compares this dynamic to what happened when car manufacturers first began putting seat belts in cars: “There is some research about seat belts — early on, it seems, drivers with seat belts drove more aggressively,” Lewis says. “Nuclear weapons, for some leaders, do the same thing.”

North Korea hasn’t fired on any US warplanes since becoming a nuclear power in 2006, despite the US conducting many defensive flights like the one on Saturday. The reason it’s flexing its muscles now, experts say, is that Trump’s threats — like his tweet on Sunday warning that North Korea “won’t be around much longer!” if it keeps threatening the US — makes the North wary that the B-1B flights might be a prelude to an actual bombing run.

“DPRK really hates the B-1B flights,” Narang tweeted. “They’re clearly making the regime nervous about surprise attack.”

Now the Trump administration has two choices: stop doing these flights and look like you’re bowing to the North’s threats, or keep doing them and risk an actual exchange of fire. If the administration chooses the latter, then what happens if Pyongyang isn’t bluffing and actually fires on a US warplane? Does Trump back down, or does he respond with a strike of his own?

Lewis calls this scenario “the nightmare I’ve been warning about,” in which a war no one wants becomes plausible. [Continue reading…]

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