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Scott Sagan on why nuclear deterrence can work on North Korea

The same logic – deterrence – that kept the United States and the former Soviet Union from nuclear war is the best option to deal with North Korea, scholars said Tuesday at Stanford.

GettyImages/Chung Sung-Jun
Nov 21 2017

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By Clifton B. Parker

Nuclear decision-making

The discussion revolved around whether North Korea will have the ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear warheads, and can the U.S. depend on a deterrence strategy like it did during the Cold War?

Deterrence theory holds that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear weapons, through the promise of retaliation and possibly mutually assured destruction 

Sagan, who recently wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine on the North Korea nuclear crisis, said he has come to decide deterrence is the best approach to the issue.

“I am not one who gladly listens to the siren song of nuclear deterrence,” he said, noting that while he is a self-described dove on disarmament issues, he is more hawkish on allowing countries to obtain nuclear weapons, which deterrence implies. “I accept deterrence reluctantly.”

In North Korea, he said, no military alternatives exist to solve the problem. For example, even if a decapitation strike were successful – and several U.S. attempts have failed in the past with regard to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi – there’s no way to know if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already given his generals the green light to unleash nuclear or powerful conventional attacks in the case of his demise.

For Sagan, deterrence is a more complicated issue today than during the Cold War when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were rational actors with thousands of nuclear weapons. He is especially concerned with the rhetoric and the preventive war suggestions emanating from the Trump Administration.

Senior U.S. military leaders, Sagan said, have a duty not to follow “impaired-decision making” that might come from the president. He invoked the prospect of using the Cabinet and the 25th Amendment to halt such an order and remove the president from office. Currently, he belives the nuclear decision process is problematic, as the president alone can directly order the Strategic Air Command to launch nuclear weapons.

Sagan advises that a revised nuclear chain of command should include both the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Attorney General. A U.S. Senate hearing, led by Sen. Bob Corker, is actually studying the nuclear authorization process due to concerns with Trump's rhetoric and escalation of the North Korean issue.

“We need more checks on how we decide to use nuclear weapons,” said Sagan, who studies nuclear strategy, ethics and war, public opinion about the use of force, and nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.

He noted that U.S. National Security Advisor H.R McMaster recently criticized his predecessor, Susan Rice, for saying the U.S. could "tolerate" nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way we tolerated nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union​.

He quoted McMaster: “'A regime that poses a continuous threat to the its neighbors in the region and now may pose a threat, direct threat, to the United States with weapons of mass destruction? A regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of his own family, using sarin nerve gas in a public airport?'”

But Sagan said we have long tolerated such authoritarian regimes that have nuclear weapons. 

Stumbling accidentally into war with North Korea also seems like a rising risk. On Sept. 27, several U.S. service members and their families received a fraudulent “noncombatant evacuation operation” order via text and social media, he said. The fake notices were quickly reported up the chain of command and the U.S. issued a statement denouncing their validity – the perpetrators have not been found. But Sagan says it illustrates how easy it is to create a situation where North Korea felt a U.S. invasion and attack is imminent – and as a result, could choose to unleash a nuclear first strike.

To be continued...