North Korea’s Nuclear Gambit

May 29, 2009
Published on Wednesday, May 27, 2009 by

Taking North Korea at Their Word

Pyongyang has consistently said that its nuclear weapons are intended to deter aggression. And, indeed, they do.

by Tad Daley

Shortly after North Korea exploded its second nuclear device in three years on Monday morning, it released a statement explaining why. “The republic has conducted another underground nuclear testing successfully in order to strengthen our defensive nuclear deterrence.”[1] If the Obama Administration hopes to dissuade Pyongyang from the nuclear course it seems so hell bent on pursuing, Washington must understand just how adroitly nuclear arms do appear to serve North Korea’s national security. In other words, perhaps we should recognize that they mean what they say.

From the dawn of history until the dawn of the nuclear age, it seemed rather self-evident that for virtually any state in virtually any strategic situation, the more military power one could wield relative to one’s adversaries, the more security one gained. That all changed, however, with Alamogordo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the Cold War’s long atomic arms race, it slowly dawned on “nuclear use theorists” — whom one can hardly resist acronyming as NUTS — that in the nuclear age, security did not necessarily require superiority. Security required simply an ability to retaliate after an adversary had struck, to inflict upon that opponent “unacceptable damage” in reply. If an adversary knew, no matter how much devastation it might inflict in a first strike, that the chances were good that it would receive massive damage as a consequence (even far less damage than it had inflicted as long as that damage was “unacceptable”), then, according to the logic of nuclear deterrence, that adversary would be dissuaded from striking first. What possible political benefit could outweigh the cost of the possible obliteration of, oh, a state’s capital city, and the leaders of that state themselves, and perhaps more than a million lives therein?

Admittedly, the unassailable logic of this “unacceptable damage” model of nuclear deterrence – which we might as well call UD — failed to put the brakes on a spiraling Soviet/American nuclear arms competition that began almost immediately after the USSR acquired nuclear weapons of its own in 1949. Instead, a different model of nuclear deterrence emerged, deterrence exercised by the capability completely to wipe out the opponent’s society, “mutually assured destruction,” which soon came to be known to all as MAD. There were other scenarios of aggression — nuclear attacks on an adversary’s nuclear weapons, nuclear or conventional attacks on an adversary’s closest allies (in Western and Eastern Europe) — that nuclear weapons were supposed to deter as well. However, the Big Job of nuclear weapons was to dissuade the other side from using their nuclear weapons against one’s own cities and society, by threatening to deliver massive nuclear devastation on the opponent’s cities and society in reply. “The Department of Defense,” said an Ohio congressman in the early 1960s, with some exasperation, “has become the Department of Retaliation.”[2]

Nevertheless, those who engaged in an effort to slow the arms race often employed the logic of UD in their attempts to do so. “Our twenty thousandth bomb,” said Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Manhattan Project that built the world’s first atomic weapons, as early as 1953, “will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two thousandth.”[3] “Deterrence does not depend on superiority,” said the great strategist Bernard Brodie in 1965.[4] “There is no foreign policy objective today that is so threatened,” said retired admiral and former CIA director Stansfield Turner in 1998, “that we would … accept the risk of receiving just one nuclear detonation in retaliation.”[5]

Consider how directly the logic of UD applies to the contemporary international environment, to the twin nuclear challenges that have dominated the headlines during most of the past decade, and to the most immediate nuclear proliferation issues now confronting the Obama Administration. Because the most persuasive explanation for the nuclear quests on which both Iran and North Korea have embarked is, indeed, the notion that “deterrence does not depend on superiority.” Deterrence depends only an ability to strike back. Iran and North Korea appear to be seeking small nuclear arsenals in order to deter potential adversaries from launching an attack upon them — by threatening them with unacceptable damage in retaliation.

Neither North Korea nor Iran could hope to defeat its most powerful potential adversary — the United States — in any kind of direct military confrontation. They cannot repel an actual attack upon them. They cannot shoot American planes and missiles out of the sky. Indeed, no state can.

However, what these countries can aspire to do is to dissuade the American leviathan from launching such an attack. How? By developing the capability to instantly vaporize an American military base or three in Iraq or Qatar or South Korea or Japan, or an entire U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf or the Sea of Japan, or even an American city on one coast or the other. And by making it implicitly clear that they would respond to any kind of assault by employing that capability immediately, before it’s too late, following the venerable maxim: “Use them or lose them.” The obliteration of an entire American military base, or an entire American naval formation, or an entire American city, would clearly seem to qualify as “unacceptable damage” for the United States.

Moreover, to deter an American attack, Iran and North Korea do not need thousands of nuclear warheads. They just need a couple of dozen, well hidden and well protected. American military planners might be almost certain that they could take out all the nuclear weapons in these countries in some kind of a dramatic lightning “surgical strike.” However, with nuclear weapons, “almost” is not good enough. Even the barest possibility that such a strike would fail, and that just one or two nuclear weapons would make it into the air, detonate over targets, and result in massive “unacceptable damage” for the United States, would in virtually any conceivable circumstance serve to dissuade Washington from undertaking such a strike.

In addition, it is crucial to recognize that Iran and North Korea would not intend for their nascent nuclear arsenals to deter only nuclear attacks upon them. If the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States disappeared tomorrow morning, but America’s conventional military superiority remained, it still would be the case that the only possible military asset that these states could acquire, to effectively deter an American military assault, would be the nuclear asset.

The “Korean Committee for Solidarity with World Peoples,” a mouthpiece for the North Korean government, captured Pyongyang’s logic quite plainly just weeks after the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. “The Iraqi war taught the lesson that … the security of the nation can be protected only when a country has a physical deterrent force …”[6] Similarly, a few weeks earlier, just before the Iraq invasion began, a North Korean general was asked to defend his country’s nuclear weapons program, and with refreshing candor replied, “We see what you are getting ready to do with Iraq. And you are not going to do it to us.”[7]

It really is quite a remarkable development. North Korea today is one of the most desperate countries in the world. Most of its citizens are either languishing in gulags or chronically starving. And yet — in contrast to all the debate that has taken place in recent years about whether the United States and/or Israel ought to launch a preemptive strike on Iran — no one seems to be proposing any kind of military strike on North Korea. Why not? Because of the mere possibility that North Korea could impose unacceptable damage upon us in reply.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about UD is that it seems every bit as effective as MAD. North Korea today possesses no more than a handful of nuclear warheads, and maintains nothing like a “mutual” nuclear balance with the United States. In addition, the retaliation that North Korea can threaten cannot promise anything like a complete “assured destruction.” To vaporize an American carrier group in the Sea of Japan, or a vast American military base in South Korea or Japan, or even an American city, would not be at all the same thing as the “destruction” of the entire American nation – as the USSR was able to threaten under MAD.

And yet, MAD and UD, it seems, exercise deterrence in precisely the same way. Astonishingly, it seems that Washington finds itself every bit as thoroughly deterred by a North Korea with probably fewer than 10 nuclear weapons as it did by a Soviet Union with 10,000. Although UD hardly contains the rich acronymphomaniacal irony wrought by MAD, it appears that both North Korea and Iran intend now to base their national security strategies solidly upon it.

There is very little reason to suppose that other states will not soon follow their lead.

President Obama, of course, to his great credit, has not only made a nuclear weapon-free Iran and North Korea one of his central foreign policy priorities, he has begun to chart a course toward a nuclear weapon-free world. In a groundbreaking speech before a huge outdoor rally in Prague on April 5th, he said, “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” (Unfortunately, he followed that with the statement that nuclear weapons abolition would not “be achieved quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime,” suggesting that neither he nor the nuclear policy officials in his administration fully appreciate the magnitude and immediacy of the nuclear peril. Do they really think the human race can retain nuclear weapons for another half century or so, yet manage to dodge the bullet of nuclear accident, or nuclear terror, or a nuclear crisis spinning out of control every single time?)

The one thing we can probably say for sure about the prospects for universal nuclear disarmament is that no state will agree either to abjure or to dismantle nuclear weapons unless it believes that such a course is the best course for its own national security. To persuade states like North Korea and Iran to climb aboard the train to abolition would probably require simultaneous initiatives on three parallel tracks. One track would deliver foreign and defense policies that assure weaker states that we do not intend to attack them, that just as we expect them to abide by the world rule of law they can expect the same from us, that the weak need not cower in fear before the strong. Another track would deliver diplomatic overtures that convince weaker states that on balance, overall, their national security will better be served in a world where no one possesses nuclear weapons, rather than in a world where they do–but so too do many others. And another track still would deliver nuclear weapons policies that directly address the long-simmering resentments around the world about the long-standing nuclear double standard, that directly acknowledge our legacy of nuclear hypocrisy, and that directly connect nuclear non-proliferation to nuclear disarmament.

The power decisively to adjust all those variables, of course, does not reside in Pyongyang or Tehran. It resides instead in Washington.

[1] The Washington Post, May 25, 2009.

[2] Quoted in Daniel Lang, An Inquiry Into Enoughness: Of Bombs and Men and Staying Alive (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 167.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 38.

[4] Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971 — first published in 1965), p. 274, quoted in Sarah J. Diehl and James Clay Moltz, Nuclear Weapons and Nonproliferation: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002), p. 34.

[5] Quoted in The Nation, Special Issue Containing Jonathan Schell’s interviews with several nuclear policy professionals and intellectuals, February 2/9, 1998, p. 40.

[6] Quoted in Securing Our Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, Tilman Ruff and John Loretz, eds. (Boston: IPPNW, 2007), p. 37.

[7] Don Oberdorfer, PBS, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, October 9, 2006, quoted in Jonathan Schell, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), p. 141.

Tad Daley is the Writing Fellow with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Nobel Peace Laureate disarmament advocacy organization. His first book, Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in January 2010.


May 24, 2009

Josh Stieber, who will begin his on-foot and bicycle, cross-country journey just after Memorial Day on May 27th in Washington, D.C., is now available for phone interviews or in-person interviews if you are able to meet him somewhere along his route. Please see website for listing of cities and expected dates and email to schedule either type of interview.  He plans to be in the following states:  Washington, DC; Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Montana, Washington and California.

With the military announcing successes in Iraq and seeking to repeat it’s surge strategy in Afghanistan, the nature of these policies begs further examination. Are these tactics as successful as the military proclaims? What were the costs and human factors of these accomplishments? What are the effects?

A first-hand testimony can be heard from Iraq veteran Josh Stieber.  Stieber was deployed to Baghdad as part of the Surge from Feb 07 to Apr 09. He spent the majority of his deployment living outside of larger military installations, working with his infantry company in converted warehouses and police stations. Spending time as a humvee driver, machine gunner, detainee guard, radio transmission operator, and a little bit of everything in between, Stieber has a broad range of firsthand experiences within the Army and of daily Iraqi life.

Upon return from his deployment, Stieber’s experiences lead him to apply as a conscientious objector. Nearly a year of investigation into the sincerity of his claim was conducted until he was unanimously approved by the Department of the Army Conscientious Objection Review Board. He spent the meantime studying and preparing his cross-country trip where he hopes to share his experiences while learning about alternatives to military involvement.

Josh Stieber’s background as a staunch supporter of war for nationalistic and religious reasons, helps him explain his former point of view towards peace organizations and draw upon the common good will of people of differing inclinations and beliefs.

His journey highlights twelve various organizations that actively and peacefully involve themselves in bettering the world around them. After removing himself from violent means of solving problems, he seeks to learn about and promote nonviolent means. These organizations are diverse, including everything from micro-loans to adoption to school building in the Middle East. Along the way, Stieber welcomes opportunities to share his experiences and learn from others who are proactive as he conducts his “Contagious Love Experiment,” as his project has been named.

The web page for his project includes Stieber’s brief biography, a map of the route he will travel, and explanations of the organizations he’ll be visiting and why he chose them. It also includes a sample letter for a letter-writing campaign he will be encouraging along the way, asking people to express their appreciation of soldier’s dedications while respectfully presenting other points of view. The page, will also serve as the blog he will be updating throughout his travels.

You may see a map of Stieber’s tour at:


May 21, 2009


I’m posting this from the hearing room…Paul

You can view the protest on C-SPAN. Protest starts at 32:11 and ends at around 34:40

Activists scatter blood money in Senate hearing on Afghanistan and Pakistan

WASHINGTON — A group of anti-war protesters challenged U.S. senators Thursday during a foreign relations committee meeting chaired by Senator John Kerry (D Mass.) held at the Dirksen Building. Four were arrested as the committee discussed future U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.

Among those arrested, were DC resident Eve Tetaz, 77, Ellen Barfield, 52 of Baltimore, Md., and Stephen Mihalis, 52 from Elmyria, Ohio who interrupted the hearing by throwing money stained with the blood of Tetaz and Barfield in the room.

“Stop pouring blood money into warfare,” Tetaz shouted as she and the two other activists were quickly taken from the hearing and arrested.

DC resident, Pete Perry, 39, repeated Senator Kerry’s own words spoken at the height of the Vietnam War: “How do you ask someone to be the last American soldier to die for a mistake?”

“We are here to tell the Senate they must stop automatically approving more blood money for these disastrous occupations,” said Barfield, a US Army veteran. “Bring all the troops home now!”

Barfield, Mihalis, and Perry are all members of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, which has as its mission the ending of aggressive and immoral wars and holding those in government, responsible for such policies, accountable to law. This group is dedicated to the teachings of nonviolence of Gandhi, King and Dorothy Day.

This week the Senate is expected to pass its version of the war funding supplemental, totaling approximately $91 billion. Last week the House passed a $96.7 billion version of the supplemental, with only 51 anti-war Democrats voting against it.

Other anti-war activists speaking out during the hearing included members of Code Pink Women for Peace and Peace Action, member groups of the United for Peace and Justice coalition. Among this national coalition’s demands regarding Afghanistan are the fact that most Afghans want the US troops out, the realization that the presence of US troops is the cause of violence for ordinary Afghans, not the solution, and that an occupation by US military forces will not resolve the crisis.

Founded in 1957, Peace Action (formerly SANE/Freeze), the United States’ largest peace and disarmament organization, with over 100,000 paid members and nearly 100 chapters in 34 states, works to abolish nuclear weapons, promote government spending priorities that support human needs, encourage real security through international cooperation and human rights and support nonmilitary solutions to the conflicts with Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. The public may learn more and take action at For more up-to-date peace insider information, follow Peace Action’s political director on Twitter.

Young, Afghan Peace Activists contact Peace Action

May 20, 2009

I hope you are as touched by this message as I was.  Paul Kawika Martin

Dear Martin,

Thanks for your peace action peace blog articles Afghanistan and Pakistan Myths vs. Facts and Call Now To Stop War Funding

We are also trying to do what we can here in Afghanistan to just touch the silence on truth, albeit with almost ZERO results.

What has humanity become when it’s almost a ‘shameful’ matter to struggle for peace? No wonder some of my Afghan college student friends have concluded that peace is NOT possible. It certainly isn’t where the money is. J

WE are merely asking questions through our effort but have realized that even our questions will not be heard.

Please watch one of our clips where Afghan youth working at Bamiyan Peace Park ask :
Where is humanity in Obama’s 83 billion++ American war?

Many thanks and much peace!
Young / Hakim
On behalf of Our Journey to Smile

Urgent: Call the Senate to oppose increased war funding

May 19, 2009

The Obama Administration asked Congress for another $83.4 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the House approved the funding with only 60 Representatives voting against it.

The funding is now going before the Senate for a vote and we need to build more pressure for an end to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Contact your Senators office today and ask for the foreign policy director. Tell them you want your Senator to “oppose the supplemental war funding, and support amendments that:

1. Provide timelines for bringing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq
2. Promote Afghan- and Iraqi-led aid and development while increasing funding for refugees 
3. And supports women’s rights”

Click here to look up your Senators contact information.
Or call the switchboard directly at 202-224-3121.

The answers congressional staff tell you is very important intelligence for the coalition of groups working to change policy in the Afghanistan region.

Please post your Senators name, who you talked to and what they said.

Congressional politicians and some progressives still think that Afghanistan is the good war, but after eight years and no end in sight, it’s clear that the United States should not continue occupying Afghanistan.
To help build the case for an end to the war in Afghanistan, Peace Action distributed the following press release “Afghanistan and Pakistan: Myths vs facts”, in Congress. After you’ve made the call sign our petition “A better plan for Afghanistan”, and forward this email to friends and family.

Thanks for all that you do.

Paul Kawika Martin
Political and Organizing Director
Peace Action

PS Please call now, it will only take 2 minutes. Follow me on twitter for more updates on my work on Capitol Hill.

The Senate takes up war supplemental this week

May 18, 2009

Senate sources tell me that the supplemental will start after the credit card bill finishes on Tuesday at the earliest, more likely Wednesday.  It seems unlikely they will finish the supplemental in one day, but they want to finish this week. Not sure when conference will happen.

The only amendment that I know for sure is Boxer’s S229 for Afghan women’s rights.

We may “know” more late Monday afternoon.

Keep calling and writing the Senate asking for no more funding of the oocupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Nation Blogs about today’s House war vote

May 15, 2009

The great reporter, John Nichols, at The Nation blogged about today’s war vote in the House.  We’re not just calling him great because he quoted us, but because The Nation provides superb progressive analysis.

You may also see how your Representive voted by clicking here.


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