Could simple miscalculation lead to a Korean war?

Unpredictable nature of two key leaders brings real and frightening risks

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump: “The risk that Kim is miscalculating, by potentially provoking an American attack, is raised by the unpredictability of Trump.” Photograph: Saul Loeb, Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The great wars of the 20th century were often preceded by a catastrophic miscalculation. The Germans failed to anticipate that Britain would fight over Belgium in 1914. Stalin failed to anticipate Hitler's invasion of Russia. Japan and America repeatedly misunderstood each other's motives and reactions in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. In 1950, the US failed to anticipate that China would enter the Korean war.

A similar threat – that miscalculation could lead to war – hangs over the Korean peninsula today. The two key leaders, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the US, are unpredictable. The dangers that they will miscalculate each other's actions, with catastrophic consequences, are real.

North Korea is such a closed society that even academic specialists struggle to interpret its behaviour. The mainstream view is that Kim's pursuit of advanced nuclear weapons is motivated by a search for security. The North Korean leader has seen what happened to other dictators who failed to acquire these weapons – Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gadafy of Libya – and concluded that only nukes can guarantee his survival.

This view is relatively reassuring because it suggests that Kim is unlikely to use nuclear weapons first. But there are aspects of the North Korean leader’s behaviour that may not fit this relatively comforting picture. If deterrence is his only concern, why is Kim apparently going out of his way to provoke the US, Japan, even China?


This week, North Korea staged its largest-ever nuclear test. Last week, it sent a ballistic missile over Japan. It may be that these actions are necessary steps on the way to achieving the ultimate form of deterrence: a nuclear missile that could hit the US. But the rapid succession of nuclear provocations also makes it much more likely that the Americans will conclude that Kim really is an irrational actor, the proverbial "madman with nukes". That, in turn, makes it easier to make the case inside the White House for a pre-emptive strike.

The risk that Kim is miscalculating, by potentially provoking an American attack, is raised by the unpredictability of Trump. He has vowed that North Korea will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons that can threaten the US. He has also repeatedly suggested that he is prepared to stage a pre-emptive military strike, at one point threatening Kim with “fire and fury”.

Credibility of threats

But the US president's efforts to use brinkmanship to force North Korea to back down are undermined by doubts about the credibility of his threats. Steve Bannon, formerly the president's chief strategist, has stated that the US cannot attack North Korea because of the risk of massive retaliation against South Korea that could kill millions.

Trump's reaction to the latest and most powerful North Korean nuclear test has increased the dangerous confusion about US policy. Rather than stressing American unity with South Korea, the president chose to criticise Seoul for its "appeasement" of Pyongyang. This, combined with the news that Trump is actively considering scrapping the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, risks encouraging North Korea to believe its nuclear provocations are working, by splitting the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

The president has also damaged US credibility, at a crucial moment, by tweeting that America is considering “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. Read literally, this would involve ending trade between the US and China, the two largest economies in the world; an action that would throw the global economy into chaos.

Trump’s threat underlines his naivety about both trade and international relations. It also suggests the president remains buffeted by competing instincts, with his instinctive protectionism potentially overriding his desire to combat the North Korean nuclear threat.

Confusing signals

The confusing signals from the White House increase the dangers of miscalculation, not just in Pyongyang, but in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. With the North Korean threat mounting, the normal reaction for South Korea would be to move in lockstep with its American protector. But if the government of Moon Jae-in concludes the biggest danger is not that North Korea will attack but that Trump will stage a pre-emptive strike, then the south's incentives change. At that point, it might become rational to break publicly with Washington.

The Chinese government faces a similarly complex set of calculations. Trump has repeatedly tried to persuade Beijing to exert more economic pressure on North Korea, threatening that the US will take unilateral military action if China fails to force Kim into line. China has sought to placate Trump by toughening sanctions on Pyongyang. But the Chinese also have to consider how Kim might react if he is forced into a corner. The risk that the North Korean leader will use nuclear weapons first will surely rise if he is faced with the prospect of the collapse of his own regime – and his own certain death.

These risks would be difficult to manage even with rational, experienced leaders in power. But the key decision makers are a 71-year-old businessman with a volcanic temper and no relevant experience, and a 33-year-old dictator, surrounded by frightened sycophants.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017