Only a handful of nations have ever attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon—the ultimate status symbol—but once they did so, all took seriously the responsibility of managing their nuclear arsenals. Now, a new member is joining the club, one whose track record of recklessness, aggression, and inscrutability make terrifying the idea that it, too, will possess the ultimate weapon. Yet the real worry with North Korea becoming a nuclear power is one U.S. officials have so far ignored: Will Kim Jong Un respect the power of his nukes enough to make sure they are safe and safely controlled?
Despite official pronouncements that the U.S. will never accept a Pyongyang with nuclear weapons, the reality is that, short of a massive war that removes the Kim regime, North Korea appears unstoppably headed to becoming a nuclear-weapons-capable state. It may seem counterintuitive, but the U.S. needs to worry less about the risk of a North Korean nuclear war than about a nuclear accident. And as President Trump embarks on his trip through Asia, he would do well—as crazy as this sounds—to consider how the U.S. can help Kim keep his nukes safe. The best partner in this effort might well be China, the North’s only official ally and its major supporter. Regardless of the state of Sino-North Korean relations, which appear to be in a rough patch right now, Beijing remains the only actor close enough to Pyongyang to even try to instill some nuclear responsibility.
The Trump administration could reach out to the Chinese to encourage them to try to offer some friendly advice to Kim. Kim undoubtedly wants to keep the details of his program as secret as possible, but Chinese President Xi Jinping might offer some basic technical assistance on issues like launch authentication or setting up permissive action links. Helping train missile technicians in damage control and critical repair of launch systems might add another layer of certainty to the daily maintenance of nuclear weapons. And despite the distaste for accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear power, considering some U.S.-North Korean confidence-building mechanisms, perhaps even midwifed by Beijing, may come to be seen as a necessary evil in the new nuclear world.
It’s worth remembering that it was the specter of inevitable nuclear mistakes that spawned the greatest nightmares of the Cold War—dystopian visions, in books and movies like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, of a world incinerated by an atomic fireball due to a madman, a blown fuse, a garbled message, or a simple computer game. And the public had good reason to worry.
On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov may have single-handedly prevented a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. As a lieutenant colonel in Soviet air defense headquarters, Petrov was the ranking duty officer that night. Just past midnight, the early warning radar alarm sounded, and Petrov looked up to see a single U.S. ballistic missile being tracked inbound toward the Soviet Union. Petrov had just 15 minutes to decide whether the attack was real. A few minutes later another alarm sounded, and the screens warned that four more U.S. ICBMs were rocketing toward Russia. Once Petrov confirmed that a nuclear attack was imminent, Soviet leaders would almost certainly order an equally devastating counterstrike on U.S. and European territory.
Despite unimaginable pressure and the near-panic of those around him, Petrov did not believe the attack was real. Based on what Soviet nuclear officers thought they understood about U.S. doctrine, a surprise first strike would be massive, designed to destroy the USSR’s retaliatory capability. Just five U.S. missiles did not make sense. But if Petrov were wrong, then not only would the Soviet Union soon suffer at least five thermonuclear detonations, there might not be enough time to retaliate if the Soviet leadership or key command and control nodes were destroyed.
Petrov decided the alarm was a false one. With bated breath, he and his subordinates waited to see if he had made the wrong call. When no reports came in of warheads detonated, they could breathe again, shaken by the realization that they had come within minutes of a global thermonuclear exchange. An investigation to determine why the false alarm occurred concluded that what Soviet early warning satellites had identified as the flashes of ICBMs being launched was actually just sunlight glinting off cloud tops.
Such stories of near-mistakes illustrate why “nuclear surety” has become paramount. According to former nuclear-weapons officers I talked with, from the previous commander of U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) down to a retired U.S. Air Force Minuteman III launch officer, it was the single most important thing they thought about, trained for, and responded to, day in and day out, every minute that they were on patrol, in the silo, or making national-level decisions about America’s nuclear force. Nuclear surety, in other words, is the business of nuclear weapons.
“We have a culture of asking ‘What aren’t we doing right?’ to try and avoid mistakes,” said retired U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney, who was the commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2013 to 2016, during which time he was the senior nuclear war-fighting officer in the U.S. military. But, he asked, “Will North Korea take shortcuts in a very expensive enterprise?”
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The risks of a nuclear program start with the very act of building a bomb. Americans just don’t know how lax the standards may be in the laboratories and assembly plants where North Korea’s bombs are ostensibly made, nor how many safety mechanisms will be built into their warheads. The danger of lax standards is compounded by normal wear and tear on nuclear systems. The more use one makes of these systems—by flying bombers, sailing submarines, or moving missiles—the more likely accidents are to occur. During the Cold War, the relentless pace of constant nuclear alerts led to numerous mishaps. In Operation Chrome Dome, for example, U.S. B-52s carrying thermonuclear bombs were kept constantly in the air, flying to predetermined points around the Soviet Union, for eight full years. Between 1960 and 1968, five major accidents occurred, ultimately leading to the cancelation of the program.
Nuclear-weapons accidents such as these, called “broken arrows,” nearly turned into catastrophe more than once. In 1961, a B-52 participating in Operation Chrome Dome flying out of Goldsboro, North Carolina, developed a leak during its airborne refueling. Before the bomber could make it back to base, the crew was forced to eject, and the plane broke apart in midair, releasing two live nuclear bombs. When one of the bombs hit the ground, a firing signal was sent. The four-megaton weapon did not detonate only because its fourth and last safety switch held in place, the other three 50-cent pieces of equipment having armed themselves.
North Korea almost certainly won’t have nuclear bombers, but the bulk of its ground-based force will likely be dispersed onto mobile launchers, which can pose its own set of problems. Though some of the North’s missiles are apparently solid-fueled, most are liquid-fueled. Even the more stable liquid propellants used today are among the most toxic substances on earth, and transfer accidents have been a hazard of the job. These mobile launchers are fitted onto large trucks that roam the countryside, making them difficult for enemies to target and destroy, but the very nature of such a decentralized force also means a localized response to any problems. Only on-site North Korean nuclear launch teams would be available to correct an electrical glitch that starts a firing sequence for a loaded missile, or repair a faulty missile or one that has been damaged in some other way while being transported, in order to prevent a potential explosion or unauthorized launch. Such expertise may not be available or reach the problem in time.
It may well be that Kim cannot risk instituting anything near the level of America’s nuclear safety regime, since dictators rule by instilling fear, not trust. We have no idea if Pyongyang is planning on developing a similar crisis response infrastructure, since to do so would be to call into question the reliability of the Dear Leader’s awesome arsenal. Equally, Kim may feel there is no need to develop such an infrastructure, since he has probably only been assured of the program’s unquestioned success.
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Let’s assume for the moment that Kim’s technicians and maintainers manage to keep his missiles safe and operationally reliable. The next major piece of the nuclear surety puzzle is people.
Not surprisingly, dealing with the world’s most powerful weapons requires an extraordinarily highly-qualified cadre of specialists and some of the most rigorous training of any military specialty. Even so, U.S. military personnel have made grave errors. “We are continuously moving towards zero mistakes,” said retired Lieutenant General James Kowalski, the former deputy commander of Stratcom, yet others have argued that the pressure to make no mistakes leads to more shortcuts, cheating, and more stress on the human element of the nuclear force.
Whether the North Koreans will instill a culture of zero mistakes is unknown. Clearly fear will be a major incentive not to mess up, as officers who lose Kim’s trust are more likely to be shot than reprimanded or retired. Yet fear can easily become counterproductive, forcing more errors, especially during times of crisis. North Korea might well wind up with a system that buries mistakes (and those who make them), thereby failing to learn to do things better and more safely. That, in turn, makes ever more serious mistakes far more likely, some of which could one day start a nuclear war.
The danger of an unreliable or insufficient command and control system in North Korea is chilling to contemplate. The use of American nuclear weapons is controlled solely by the president, and there is little reason to assume that Kim would allow anything less. But the chain of authority in the U.S. system is clear, from the president to the secretary of defense to the commander of Stratcom. Nobody knows how Kim will delegate authority down his chain.
Each stage of getting a nuclear weapon ready for use, from taking the warhead out of the bunker, to mating it to the missile, to targeting and launching, is fraught with the potential for miscommunication. The more launch systems on alert or fully armed and fueled, the higher the probability for some kind of error over time. As former Stratcom commander Haney asked, “How do you know that nuclear weapons will be taken out only when you want them to be, or that you have a trusted teamwork approach?”
Just as vitally, will North Korean nukes be armed and ready for detonation as soon as they are mated to missiles? In the U.S. case, nuclear weapons can be enabled only by entering a 12-digit code, known as the “permissive action link” (PAL), into the weapon itself. Without the PAL, the weapon remains in a safe mode, thus providing yet another layer of negative control, preventing the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. We may never know whether North Korea has enabled such a system or not.
Nor do we know how North Korea’s launch orders will be electronically or physically transmitted. Moviegoers remember scenes of nuclear launch officers cracking open the thin red “wafers” holding the alphanumeric codes, in movies such as War Games and Crimson Tide. Will there be similar electronic “emergency action messages” confirmed by opening “sealed authenticator envelopes” that contain the unique codes for launch, thus ensuring that only proper commands are received? Perhaps a simple telephone call from Pyongyang will suffice to launch nuclear weapons, but that is less secure and possibly more vulnerable to third-party interference, or possibly even misinterpretation.
Will North Korea institute the inviolable two-person rule adopted by the United States, whereby no single individual has launch authority, or even the ability to be alone at any time with a nuclear weapon? In the case of U.S. missile silo crews, not only must both launch officers turn their launch keys at exactly the same time, but a second two-man crew in a separate complex must also do so at the same instant, thereby launching all the missiles under the control of the two groups. Will Kim trust two officers to work together, or does he believe fear is enough to keep a single officer with launch authority in line?
Here is where communications becomes so vital. The stress of maintaining the required level of training and proficiency, not to mention ensuring operational readiness of nuclear weapons, is all-consuming. The last thing any launch officer needs is to worry about making any autonomous decisions about when to use his nukes. That means having absolute confidence in the communications system that tells him what to do. A former U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine commander, who requested anonymity due to his current job, recalled that his number-one priority was to stay in communication constantly. That is obviously of critical importance in the seaborne submarine fleet, but is hardly less important on land. Dropped phone calls and network interruptions during a crisis could inadvertently unleash a nuclear strike. However Kim decides to send the orders for strategic operations, a former senior U.S. nuclear commander noted, they likely would come through systems including the country’s fiber optics network, as well as occasional line-of-site radio transmitters to the road-mobile launchers. But how reliable will such systems be?
And all these uncertainties are magnified a dozen-fold when talking about sea-based nuclear systems. Pyongyang apparently also wants to develop an indigenous ballistic-missile submarine, which is one of the most technologically complex weapons systems in existence. While it remains years away from having such a capability, operating missile submarines would tax North Korea’s untested command and control systems in even more acute ways, not least in the absolute confidence of the stability and reliability of the submarine’s senior officers.
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North Korea may soon face the challenge of having to correctly identify perceived threats and decide how to respond. Because Kim will not have the multiple forms of early warning that the United States has, he may well be more likely to interpret bits of intelligence and raw analysis in the most negative light. In fact, it makes sense for him to do so, since the risk of missing the signals of an impending U.S. attack may be existential for him and his regime. Forward observers, North Korean spies, and possibly even hacks into foreign satellite systems all may give incomplete information that lead Kim’s senior military officials to urge him to launch a preemptive attack of his own. Fear that the United States, along with its allies, may be able to target and destroy command and control nodes could be enough justification to start a preemptive attack, as any destruction of Kim’s military capability might be seen by him and his inner circle as an existential threat.
This is as much a political question as a technical one, and what can be called “national warning” is where the human and technical elements come together closest to the decision-making process. Even after the Cold War, when the ideological passions of that struggle had abated, Russia and the United States came perilously close to war. In 1995, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin unlocked his nuclear football and gave orders to Russian ballistic missiles submarines to prepare for a nuclear retaliatory strike. Just minutes earlier, he had been advised that Russian early warning radars had picked up what looked like an incoming submarine-launched U.S. ballistic missile.
Unlike in 1983, the radars were not malfunctioning. A real rocket was shooting through a narrow air corridor that could lead to Moscow. And even though it was only a single missile, the Russians thought it might be designed for an electromagnetic pulse attack. Detonated high in the atmosphere, the gamma rays of a thermonuclear explosion can cause a massive overload on a country’s electrical networks, shutting down military and civilian systems alike, including radars vital to air defense. The Russians feared that such an attack would be a precursor to a larger U.S. attack crippling the nation’s command and control capabilities.
Yeltsin’s senior officers had 10 minutes to decide if the missile was real and was heading toward Moscow. If they couldn’t determine the trajectory with confidence, they would have to make a recommendation and Yeltsin, whose nuclear briefcase was open and ready, would have had to make the ultimate decision. It took eight minutes before the air defense officials decided the missile was heading out to open sea, rather than to the Russian capital. Within hours, they discovered that the missile was a joint Norwegian-U.S. scientific mission—to study the aurora borealis.
In today’s North Korea, nuance during a crisis is likely to be lost on Kim’s senior officers. There is every reason to suspect that a combination of self-preservation, ideological fervor, and even true loyalty to Kim would predispose officers to nuclear aggressiveness. The fate of Asia may rest on whether North Korea has its own Stanislav Petrov.
But the U.S. would be wise to do what it can. Trump’s trip to Asia is, strange as it sounds, an opportunity to help safeguard North Korean nukes—and, by extension, American interests.
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