To engage in nuclear deterrence is to play Russian roulette, and to think that we can eliminate the risk of a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States by deterring the Kim regime is a delusion.
The logic of deterrence requires that your nuclear-armed opponent put into place the capability to retaliate if you launch a first strike at them. Unfortunately, this capability necessarily creates the possibility that your opponent launches a first strike at you by mistake.
The U.S.-Soviet experience with deterrence shows beyond any possible doubt that military misunderstandings, human error, and technical malfunctions will generate false alarms of an enemy attack and that these false alarms can easily lead to accidental nuclear war. Indeed, using engineering methods designed to examine system failure probabilities, Barrett, Baum, and Hostetler estimate that the U.S. and the USSR had up to a 7 percent chance per year, or up to a 50 percent chance per decade, of accidentally nuking each other.
So, when members of the foreign policy establishment such as Susan Rice push the deterrence option by writing "we can ... tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea — the same way we tolerated ... Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War," you should be terrified rather than reassured.
But you are still not terrified enough. The U.S.-Soviet experience with deterrence roulette shows that the chance of a deterrence failure increases as: 1) episodes of political tension become more frequent and/or more severe; and 2) your opponent's ability to tell that a false alarm actually is false declines. Both factors imply that deterrence roulette with North Korea is far more likely to end in disaster than was deterrence roulette with the Soviets.
North Korea has a long history of engaging in highly provocative behavior, and nuclear weapons won't change that. We can be certain that U.S./North Korean relations will be extremely tense most of the time.
Dealing correctly with false alarms requires that the officers in North Korea's nuclear command and control chain exercise (in the words of a recent Chatham House report) independent and "prudent judgement, which might involve disobeying previous orders" to figure out what is really going on. How likely is this?
Studies of human error in the context of airplane crashes show that people from cultures with a more collectivist orientation and that are more uncertainty averse tend to deal with complex and stressful situations by following rules and avoiding independent judgements (and so are more likely to crash planes). South Korean culture is among the most highly collectivist and uncertainty-averse in the world, and it is safe to assume that North Korean military culture will be even more extreme along these dimensions.
Of course, culture is not destiny. Kim Jong Un could take active steps to counter these cultural tendencies. But, any steps that Kim does take must be consistent with his highest priority of preserving his regime.
The biggest threat to Kim's regime is a military coup. And if one fears a military coup, the very last thing that one will instill in one's officer corps is an ethos that emphasizes independent judgement. Kim does not want military officers who think for themselves, he wants military officers who unquestioningly follow orders. In short, the North Korean officer corps is spectacularly ill-suited to exercise the prudent judgement that avoiding accidental nuclear war requires.
There is now no non-military option that will prevent North Korea from developing the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. Once that capability is in place, we are playing deterrence roulette. There is then a very high chance over the next decade or two that North Korea will treat a false alarm as an actual attack and respond by launching a nuclear attack on the US that kills millions of Americans. In this case the US will of course retaliate and eradicate the North Korean regime and destroy its military, but this war will do nothing to repair the catastrophe that North Korea's first strike inflicts.
Or, instead of playing deterrence roulette and hoping for the best, we could eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat by getting our retaliation in first.
Kevin R. James is a Research Fellow in the Systemic Risk Centre at the London School of Economics.
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