Is the United States at risk of engaging in nuclear war with North Korea? That was the question at hand for a Tuesday afternoon panel discussion at SUNY Cortland.
Students, faculty, and staff gathered in Brockway Hall’s Jacobus Lounge to learn a “practitioners’ view” regarding the policies of the United States toward the nuclear weapons of North Korea and the nuclear program of Iran.
David Duryea, SUNY Cortland Vice President of Finance and Management, was one of two expert panelists discussing the risk of nuclear war with North Korea. Duryea is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, who served on four nuclear submarines and commanded the ballistic missile submarine USS Florida and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Duryea was accompanied by expert panelist Edward Erickson, PhD, retired professor of Military History, Marine Corps Command & Staff College, Quantico, VA, and a retired US Army lieutenant colonel. During Erickson’s career, he served as a commander of a NATO nuclear custodial detachment and nuclear target analyst.
According to CIA World Factbook, as of 2015, North Korea had 3.2 million mobile phone subscriptions. Thatmay sound like a lot, but in a country of 27.4 million, that’s roughly 1 in 10 people having a cell phone. Its infrastructure is limited—transportation, communication, and electrical generation have been severely neglected over the last few decades.
Duryea showed a map of light observed from space at night in the Korean Peninsula, and while South Korea is almost completely illuminated, North Korea is almost entirely black—frequent blackouts are a regular part of North Korean life.
Both Duryea and Erickson detailed their outlooks on the tenuous situation with North Korea, both of them iterating their opinions are merely speculation.
“If you think I’m going to provide the answer on what to do with North Korea, you are sadly mistaken,” Duryea said. “To give you some perspective on this, in 1994, the US signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The agreement was to freeze operation and construction of nuclear reactors suspected of being part of a covert nuclear weapons program in exchange for two proliferation resistant nuclear power reactors. We signed this deal in 1994, and where are we today? Through several administrations of both parties, we’re really in a bad situation right now. The challenge comes in—or something to think about—that I’m not sure anyone knows yet, what is the right end state we want to have with North Korea?
North Korea has the capability to build a warhead, conduct bomb tests, successfully launch medium-range and long-range missiles, enrich uranium, and use plutonium for a warhead. Iran, in contrast, cannot build a warhead, conduct a bomb test, successfully launch a long-range missile, or use plutonium for a warhead. However, Iran can successfully launch a medium-range missile and enrich uranium.
Will Strategic Deterrence Work?
Nuclear weapons have extreme destructive power, and according to the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the key to avoiding nuclear war is maintaining a nuclear arsenal sufficient to convince a potential enemy that attacking the US with a nuclear weapon would be suicidal. Many scholars and officials have called the US and North Korea relations a game of “cat and mouse.”
Another crucial aspect of deterrence theory is the assumption that an opponent is a rational actor.
“Thomas Schelling is the one who came up with the idea of deterrence, and even Schelling, who was instrumental in formulating this theory, said it was inherently uncontrollable,” Erickson said. “Deterrence theory, in a nutshell, has three main tenets, and they are proportionality, reciprocity, and coercive credibility. What’s the problem? What’s the criticism? Here’s the problem: it assumes the opponent is a rational actor. If the assumption is wrong, it negates the entire proposition.”
While not all scholars agree, Erickson believes Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, is a rational actor.
A member of the audience asked why the U.S. doesn’t currently have a peace treaty with North Korea, and Alexandru Balas, PhD, Assistant Professor and Coordinator in SUNY Cortland’s International Studies program and moderator of Tuesday’s panel, responded, pinpointing the impediment to such an agreement.
“I think a peace treaty in this case would mean diplomatic recognition of the North Korean regime, and that is not something that South Korea would necessarily want and neither would the United States,” Balas said.