[Viewpoint] On deterring a nuclear attack

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[Viewpoint] On deterring a nuclear attack

In a recent confirmation hearing, Defense Minister nominee Kim Tae-young told lawmakers that if North Korea indicates the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the South, the South could decide to make a pre-emptive attack to destroy the North’s nuclear arms after a discussion with the United States. He has suggested that the U.S. guarantee of a protective nuclear umbrella over South Korea includes military attacks on North Korean nuclear facilities. But can we be assured that the American umbrella will work that easily and extensively?

As deterrence against nuclear weapons remains a theory, how it would work in practice is unknown. The idea is that any use of nuclear weapons would lead to a nuclear response and, therefore, annihilation. The theory has helped maintain equilibrium and peace on the global stage. The strategy dubbed “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, has been in effect since the Cold War to keep full-scale confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in check.

In theory, the strategy appears effective, but is nevertheless not without drawbacks.

If one country attacks another with nuclear weapons without warning and immediately declares an armistice, how should the assaulted party react?

The state leader would be at a crossroads. He could retaliate, which would translate into the total destruction of all. Or he could opt for reconciliation to protect the lives of the surviving countrymen as well as the rest of the world.

A rational leader would choose the latter because he cannot jeopardize the entire global community over damage already done. That would be as senseless as going on pouring good money after bad into a poor investment.

Some American strategists worried that such a quandary could invite a nuclear provocation. So they came up with the idea of an automated retaliatory system, leaving the decision of nuclear weaponry use to computers and not humans. The so-called doomsday machine, which has never actually been created, highlighted the perils of the MAD doctrine.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan launched the strategic defensive missile system to replace the suicidal MAD policy. At that time, such deterrent missile technology sounded fictional and Reagan’s vision was derided as far-fetched as the sci-fi film “Star Wars.”

But as technology advanced, the strategy became a reality and a part of the nuclear deterrence system.

If North Korea strikes us with nuclear arms, would the umbrella over our heads really work as planned?

It is a question none can answer as the umbrella has never been tested.

But whether the American president would actually order the firing of ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads against North Korea remains unknown. The U.S. chief executive may hesitate to chance nuclear apocalypse over a relatively small North Korean nuclear provocation if it doesn’t pose immediate danger to Americans. Washington may close the affair with sanctions or similar action if the North gives an explanation and apologizes for its attack.

There is no guarantee that North Koreans won’t exploit this weakness in the American nuclear umbrella. They have gotten away with atrocious terrorist attacks before. Even if they don’t actually launch a strike, they could use the threat to achieve other ends.

Whatever the case, we cannot tolerate North Korea as a nuclear power.

Unfortunately, many are beginning to accept North Korea’s position as a nuclear power.

When one possesses something for a long time, its ownership becomes acceptable and seemingly justified.

The United States and a few others were grandfathered into rights to nuclear arms because they already possessed them before the non-proliferation pact. So the duration of possession does make a difference.

Hence, there are some suggestions coming from China to permit North Korea to hold onto existing nuclear arms if it promises to stop making more. Washington may buy that as it is becoming worn out by a long tug of war with the North.

If North Korea becomes a nuclear weapons state, we too have to develop a doomsday machine, or nuclear weapons.

We must speak up. The weakness in the American umbrella is too risky and perilous and the North Koreans are too belligerent.

We must pronounce that if North Korea is recognized as a nuclear power, we cannot do anything but develop weapons ourselves.

That is the only deterrence against North Korea becoming a nuclear arms state.

*The writer is a novelist.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Bok Koh-ill

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