As the situation with North Korea reaches a boiling point and the Korean peninsula appears to inch ever closer to war, one must beg the question of what role nuclear weapons may play should conflict erupt. Among experts, it appears to be somewhat of a theoretical given that Kim Jong Un will attempt to use nuclear weapons in the event of a war – but how realistic is this assumption? What would happen if Kim Jong Un actually deployed, or attempted to deploy, nuclear weapons against South Korea, Japan, or even the United States?
First and foremost, it is important to paint an accurate portrayal of Kim Jong Un and the rationality behind his possible use of nuclear weapons. Far too often do we attribute the Madman principle to Kim Jong Un – meaning that he is a volatile figure liable to commit irrational acts and actively work against his own interest, to include the wanton and irrational use of nuclear weapons. It is paramount, now more than ever, for this thinking to stop. The Kim regime does not and has never, ever operated in such a way. Every single action and every single provocation is carefully planned and scripted to achieve a central goal. The chief goal of the Kim regime overall is the preservation and survival of the Kim family and the regime has never acted against this interest. We would do well to remember this concept.
While there is little known about Kim Jong Un or his personality, there are a few high priorities common to bloodline. The first and most important priority is, of course, survival. Kim Jong Un, as were his father and grandfather, is concerned with guaranteeing his own survival and enabling himself to continue to rule for decades to come. Despite this, Kim Jong Un’s destiny is not at all tied to that of North Korea. Where the DPRK ends, Kim Jong Un still has a good chance to persist – probably in China. That being the case, we would also do well to remember that Kim Jong Un still has an entire range of possibilities to consider post-DPRK, and this may affect his decision-making beforehand.
Keeping this concept in mind, while it is not difficult to imagine the death and destruction caused by a nuclear detonation over a population center, one should question what sort of benefit such an action would garner for Kim Jong Un. The facts are clear: should war erupt on the Korean peninsula, there is only one guaranteed outcome: the destruction of the Kim regime and the end of North Korea as state. This is true regardless of how war breaks out and regardless of if or how many nuclear weapons are used. Regardless of the chain of events and regardless of how long it may take, the end result is always the same: Kim Jong Un and his regime lose – in most cases, badly. Nuclear weapons would not change this fact.
What nuclear weapons would do, however, is make Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of post-DPRK survival exponentially more difficult. It is a more factual given that, if war breaks out, both Kim Jong Un and many of the country’s political and military elite will immediately attempt to flee the country into China. If Kim Jong Un is able to escape to China, it is very feasible to envision the CCP giving him some sort of asylum – in fact, China may even be able to claim some moral high ground in doing so, depending on how the conflict erupted in the first place. While China may face some (major) political and domestic pressure to surrender Kim, it will probably be able to weather the storm.
This becomes, however, far more difficult if Kim uses nuclear weapons. At that point, not only will he be wanted as brutal dictator, but he will also be wanted for deploying nuclear weapons against civilian populations, while knowing that doing so would not at all affect the outcome of the war and would only serve to cause more death and destruction. The possibility of killing Chinese nationals in the process is likely a major consideration for Kim. Over 1 million Chinese nationals live in South Korea, and many of those nationals live in Seoul. If Kim Jong Un deployed a nuclear weapon against Seoul, there will likely be a great number of Chinese casualties – needless to say this would not go over well with the Chinese. The story is not much better with Japan, as 150,000 Chinese nationals live in Tokyo as well.
With this hanging over Kim’s head, China will have an exponentially harder time, politically speaking, safeguarding him – particularly because he will also have Chinese blood on his hands. In addition to the political fallout from revelations of the unspoken horrors of North Korea’s prison camp system and China’s compliance in allowing such atrocities to occur, the CCP will face enormous amounts of both international and domestic political pressure and instability – perhaps more than it can realistically handle. Of course, there is also always the possibility that, given Chinese death factor, the CCP may refuse to safeguard Kim altogether. Nevertheless, these possibilities only arise if Kim Jong Un uses or attempts to use a nuclear weapon.
It is highly likely that Kim Jong Un understands these possibilities fully. After all, it is his own safety and well-being that are at stake. That being the case, how likely is Kim Jong Un to actually use nuclear weapons? Looking at the possibilities, it is clear that there would be very few, if any, positives for Kim Jong Un if he were to use his nuclear weapons in a war scenario. In fact, doing so would only serve to immensely complicate his position after the war and make him much more of a wanted man. Unless Kim Jong Un’s main aim within a war scenario is not survival, but to inflict as much destruction as he can before his country’s eventual defeat, it simply would not make sense for him to use nuclear weapons.
There is yet another factor to consider: and that is the risk of nuclear fallout in China. The CCP is on the record as stating that China will not tolerate the nuclear contamination of its northeastern provinces bordering North Korea. If Kim Jong Un detonates a nuclear weapon on the Korean peninsula, it is almost certain that China will feel the radioactive effects. The radioactive cloud resulting from a nuclear strike may happen to drift north – where it would affect Northern China – or west over the Yellow Sea – where it could affect Beijing and Tianjin to the North or Shanghai and Nanjing to the South. Again, these possibilities put Chinese citizens, cities, and interests at risk. If that is the case, then, once again, using nuclear weapons emerges as very much against Kim’s own interest. In addition to the expected political pressure China will face without their use, China will also face even greater amounts of internal, domestic pressure to do away with Kim Jong Un – but this only occurs (to a great extent) if Kim Jong Un deploys nuclear weapons in this way. Again, the logic is clear: it would make far more sense for Kim Jong Un not to use his nuclear weapons.
Thus, while we cannot presume to know Kim Jong Un’s exact plan of action in the event of war, what we do know speaks volumes: if we are correct in assuming that Kim Jong Un’s number one priority will be survival (specifically, long-term survival), then using nuclear weapons would only make that goal exponentially more difficult for him. The dangers of the political backlash against him, the backlash against the Chinese for sheltering him, as well as the threat of nuclear fallout and radiation affecting China and inevitably killing Chinese citizens in nuclear strikes, would make an otherwise reasonable goal significantly less attainable, politically speaking. Kim Jong Un would do well not to (further) anger or inconvenience the country – China – which controls his fate. Using nuclear weapons would do just that on a number of significant levels.
But yet, despite this logic, we still tend to assume that Kim Jong Un would throw rationality and common sense to the wind and use nuclear weapons anyway. We have made this sort of mistake in the past with other brutal dictators. In the 1991 Gulf war, there was constant fear that Saddam Hussein would use his chemical weapons inventory against coalition forces. Indeed, he had used them against Iran and had ample opportunities to use them against the coalition – including when he began firing scud missiles at Israel. However, critically, Hussein did not use his weapons. While there are a number of reasons why this may have been the case, one very plausible reason is that key word: survival. Coalition forces made it clear that, had he used chemical weapons, it would open the possibility for a further escalation of the conflict – a veiled implication that coalition forces may not have stopped at Kuwait, and may marched all the way to Baghdad. Where the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ended, Saddam Hussein had a way out; and thus, Saddam Hussein, whom we can all agree was a madman, did not squarely act against his own interests.
We were wrong – we were wrong in attributing that sort of mentality to him – and this is the same mentality we attribute to Kim Jong Un.
Again, we cannot presume to know if Kim Jong Un himself works on this logic; however, if he is as rational and values his own survival as much as his father and grandfather, and there is good reason to believe that he does, then he probably understands the vast army of consequences of using nuclear weapons. Does this mean we should discount the use of nuclear weapons? Absolutely not. And, perhaps, if Kim Jong Un was an irrational actor bent on destruction, backed into a corner, and with nothing to lose, perhaps we would be correct in assuming he absolutely would use nuclear weapons; however, he is not an irrational actor and has much more to lose after the fall of North Korea – despite how much the KCNA would have us believe the Madman Theory about Kim Jong Un.
In actuality, despite committing “more” provocations than his father, Kim Jong Un has committed almost no direct, kinetic military provocations since coming to power. While his father shelled an island and sank a South Korean warship among other things, with the possible exception of the (deniable) DMZ mine incident, Kim Jong Un has done nothing of the sort. Even as a B1-B bomber with fighter escort crossed the NLL, in plain view of North Korean radar and anti-aircraft systems, North Korea did not respond. Most likely because doing so risked war – and they aren’t wrong about that. Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea are cautious actors, not irrational despots bent on wonton destruction.
Thus, returning to the original question: would Kim Jong Un use nuclear weapons? In short, if he knew what was good for him – and there is much evidence to suggest that he does – he would not. In long, there is a distinct, perhaps even somewhat strong possibility that he would not; but the fact that we often take it as a given that he would use them in any conflict scenario is reflective of our ultimately poor understanding of the rational goals that drive a brutal, but otherwise rational regime. Is Kim Jong Un a psychopath? Probably. But even Saddam Hussein wasn’t crazy enough to act directly against his own interest. Kim Jong Un has not (yet) and we should not automatically assume that he would.
But let’s deploy a few more THAAD batteries, just in case.
Author’s Note: This article works on the assumption that China is still willing to harbor North Korean elites in the event that North Korea falls. While there is some reason to believe this may be changing, that is a different topic for a different day.