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There's a lot of news in the media about how close we are to nuclear war and I understand North Korea's nuclear capabilities are getting better and better.

However, I would like to know in what situation would it be likely for North Korea to actually use nuclear weapons? I can't see any situation that would not lead to their complete destruction.

Given this, why is there so much concern for North Korea's nuclear program?

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Different perceptions

Kim Jong-un has two audiences for his utterances. One is the international community. The other is the domestic community. The problem there is that the domestic community wants him to project strength and confidence. If he claims that the North Korean military is powerful and the match of any military in the world, it doesn't sound true if someone outside North Korea (e.g. Donald Trump) then says something like

However, I would like to know in what situation would it be likely for North Korea to actually use nuclear weapons? I can't see any situation that would not lead to their complete destruction.

A situation could easily arise where Kim believes that he has to use nuclear weapons to demonstrate to domestic parties that he can.

It's unclear what he expects will happen in that situation. Will the United States nuke North Korea? China wouldn't like that. Perhaps Kim might think that that would be enough protection.

Nuclear weapons aren't instantaneous. North Korea could do considerable damage to South Korea and even Japan in the minutes between launch and explosion. Some of the damage might occur after North Korea was destroyed, but that's cold comfort for those who might die as a result. As more and more time goes by, North Korea can build more nuclear missiles. So this becomes more and more dangerous.

If China convinces the United States not to use nuclear weapons, a conventional invasion allows the North to do even more damage. Plus, North Korea actually has more people with military training than the United States does. Most external parties believe that the United States has better (more expensive) equipment that will overcome that. But it's possible that Kim doesn't see it that way.

There is nothing that keeps Kim from being wrong. And we have no idea what he thinks. He recently responded to a Donald Trump tweet by saying that North Korea could destroy the United States. What if he really believes that?

You say

Given this, why is there so much concern for North Korea's nuclear program?

Apparently you, I, and probably 99% of the people who are reading this may regard that viewpoint (that North Korea could win a war with the United States) as nuts. But can we say that Kim does? If so, he isn't saying it publicly.

Even if not, what happens if Kim dies? His successor might be someone who actually believes his rhetoric.

Anger

Have you ever been in the middle of an argument and said or did something that you knew was wrong? Just because you were angry? Later, you regret it, but it's not like you can take it back.

Now assume that you have nuclear weapons and have created a system where everyone has to do what you say or risk terrible consequences. You don't have a system of two people turning keys to authorize a launch. You can do it alone.

Sure, using nuclear weapons might be stupid. But how do we know that Kim won't be stupid? It only takes once.

Future

What happens if North Korea builds as many nuclear weapons as China has? What if they build as many as either the US or Russia? Then they too could do things like invade South Korea. Or Japan. Sanctions? Those haven't stopped them so far.

Perhaps you believe that North Korea would lose a conventional invasion of South Korea. Perhaps you are right. But do they believe that?

I don't know that either South Korea or Japan would solve North Korea's problems. Yes, they are richer. But that would tend to change if they were suddenly part of North Korea. They trade for the same things as North Korea needs. But again, is that how North Korea sees things? South Korea is part of historical Korea. And Japan was their last conqueror. Both are richer than North Korea, which they might naturally resent and blame on outside forces.

Again, even if they are wrong, that doesn't matter to their perceptions. And it's their perceptions that determine their actions.

Domestic

If there were a rebellion, Kim might use nuclear weapons domestically and then claim that the destruction was the result of foreign action. Once that story was issued, there would be great pressure for him to "respond" in kind.

Eventually he might feel that the risk of international defeat is less than risk of domestic insurrection.

Japan

Japan lost World War II. They're doing pretty well now. Perhaps Kim doesn't regard losing as being as dangerous as others see it. Doubtless he has a nuclear bunker. He might lose millions of citizens, but it's not like he can afford to feed them anyway.

Sales

Let's assume that Kim believes that actually using nuclear weapons would result in his destruction. Are there any ways that he can gain from nuclear weapons without using them? If he had had nuclear weapons two years ago, ISIS was much richer then. They could have traded oil to him in exchange for one or more nuclear weapons. Then they just need to smuggle it to the right location and boom.

This leaves the west really mad at ISIS. No skin off Kim's nose so long as they don't realize that he had anything to do with it.

It leaves Kim with his own oil that he didn't have to pay real money to get. He just had to build a device.

So what if a million westerners died? From his perspective, that might even be a good thing.

Maybe if they are distracted by ISIS, the western powers would rather buy off Kim than engage in sanctions.

Covert action

North Korea might use a nuclear weapon in such a way as to make it look like someone else used it.

Maybe they don't get away with it. But if they think that they will, they might do it anyway. By the time they find out they're wrong, they already did it.

Summary

There are multiple ways that North Korea could end up using nuclear weapons. Saying that such use would be a bad idea affects but does not eliminate that. It's also unclear if North Korea agrees as to the consequences. And perhaps they think that they can use nukes without anyone knowing that it was them, either covertly or through sale to a third party.

Why were people concerned about nuclear war during the Cold War? Both sides had enough weapons to destroy the world as we know it. Obviously that would be a bad idea. But the US and Soviets still engaged in decades of provocations of each other.

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    Brillant and complete answer. A bit scary, too. – Evargalo Aug 11 '17 at 8:47
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    "North Korea might use a nuclear weapon in such a way as to make it look like someone else used it." Is were I stopped to take this answer serious. Some of your arguments felt somewhat pulled out of nowhere but I don't have the motivation to disprove, but here... How you think that would work? – dhein Aug 11 '17 at 10:34
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    @dhein The question is asking about "why" and involves some supposition because that supposition is why people are worried. – Jeff Lambert Aug 11 '17 at 11:01
  • @JeffLambert: Hmmm, I think I get that point. so its more of an hypothetical answer (and question?!) – dhein Aug 11 '17 at 11:04
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    To add to the Domestic item: the NK regime have engendered a culture where the nuclear weapons program is seen by the general population as a symbol of the country's technological advancement and prowess, this places pressure on the govt (or so they believe) to keep upping the anti and finding reasons to justify doing so. This then helps keep the citizenry believing in the greatness of the country and that the government is good. This youtube.com/watch?v=WOzY3U9xIoM covers some of the details as well as other information on the culture within the country – Toby Aug 11 '17 at 11:12
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As you say, America clearly has the capability to destroy North Korea, so it seems obvious that an attack would result in the destruction of North Korea. However there are several things that make such reasoning potentially incorrect.

  1. People aren't always logical. They sometimes do things for reasons like spite. For example, if Kim were convinced he were going to die anyway in an internal rebellion he might decide to condemn everyone else to death too.

  2. Calculated risk. Based on America's reluctance to use nuclear weapons, and America's desire not to risk American cities, Kim may believe he can attack a neighbor, perhaps even with a nuclear weapon, without fear of a nuclear response from America so long as he maintains the ability to threaten America directly but doesn't actually attack America. "Yes America, I just destroyed Seoul, and you cared about Seoul, but if you retaliate I will destroy Los Angeles too and you care a lot more about Los Angeles than you do about Seoul." America responds, "But if you destroy Los Angeles we'll destroy all of North Korea". Kim responds, "I'm willing to take that chance."

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    I'm not entirely sure the US would be North Korea's biggest problem if they deployed a nuclear weapon that close to China. – chepner Aug 11 '17 at 12:11
  • I dunno, China might find it convenient if a US military installation (e.g. Guam) were vaporized by a North Korean nuclear weapon even if they would prefer not to have anyone launching nuclear weapons anywhere. – Joe Aug 28 at 14:41
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The scenario in which North Korea could use nuclear weapons is the scenario when they are invaded, for example by US. The ability to destroy at most a few cities in US would in no way save the country and the regime - the nuclear retaliation would result in complete destruction, however it would make such scenario for every aggressor unprofitable - you have conquered an atomic desert, and lost a few millions of your taxpayers.

Even if North Korean regime believe that US are complete lunatics, that will play poker game not believing the North Korea will launch a nuclear attack (the problem is, that even being attacked by overwhelming force, surrendering is still a better option than nuclear retaliation, even if you believe your opponent is maleficent and inhuman), the fall of the Regime would wreck a chaos, in which a large part of weaponry will land in the hands of terrorists. Nuclear weapons included. Even if North Koreans would not dare launch them, there are people on the world that would do (ISIS for example).

So developing nuclear weapons by North Korea is fully rational. There's no better insurance policy for a state on that world.

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    MAD worked pretty well in the Cold War. With the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Ghaddafi in mind, one can understand why states like Iran or North Korea would want to have nuclear capabilities. Nukes are always about the potential use, not the actual use. – Dohn Joe Aug 28 at 12:57
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The DPRK are unlikely to ever use Nuclear weapons unless attacked first. MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction applies to the DPRK as much as any other nuclear armed country. There is absolutely no reason for Kim Jong-un to believe that he could use nuclear weapons on any neighboring country without massive retaliation that would certainly bring about the destruction of his government.

  • No, MAD does not apply to North Korea because North Korea does not have the capability to completely destroy the United States. Further, DPRK is likely to lose a conventional war as well, so the rational strategy for them to pursue if a conventional war starts is to escalate asymmetrically by launching a single nuclear strike on a military target (e.g. Guam), and then threaten to destroy a major city in range of their missiles (e.g. San Fransisco) if the US doesn't stop. – Joe Aug 28 at 14:50
  • What threshold are you using for "completely destroy"? It gets pretty murky when you talk about nuclear war. I would guess that even a dozen hydrogen bombs detonated on top of large US cities would meet most people's definition of "completely destroy". You're right, for now. – tnk479 Aug 28 at 15:40
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Kim Jong Un is the third in a line of dictators that achieve power by inheritance. Like most brutal dictators, he maintains his hold on power largely by a cult of personality - he appears so strong that no one in his own government will challenge him. The two who might have: his uncle and his brother, were both killed on his orders, as were a couple of high ranking military officers.

Other such dictators have held power by similar means: Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Mohammar Qaddafi, to mention a few.

The moment he appears weak, he's dead. There are any number of people within his own government who would kill him, either to take over, or a more idealistic person might just want to end the nightmare... if they thought they might succeed.

His hostile rhetoric towards the more prosperous nations also fires up the 'us versus them' mindset - another common tactic to take people's minds off of their own wretched lives. Galtieri of Argentina attacked the Falklands largely to take his people's minds off of the decaying economic conditions and to create a burst of nationalistic fervor.

That is especially important as North Korea is right next door to South Korea, a nation that has become an economic powerhouse, whose people definitely live in a far higher standard than his own. Can't let his own people ponder that inequity too much.

Would he actually attack a western nation? Probably not. But, he can't let his own people think that. He must appear to be so tough and ruthless that any potential challengers are cowed into inaction, and at the same time, he appears to be 'fighting for the people'.

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Related to my answer to a different question:

Let's play a game. Each of us has two buttons, Red and Blue. At the start of the game, both of us are on Blue (peaceful); once either of us presses Red, that cannot be undone. After some time we'll score points, based on our settings:

  • If both of us press Blue, we each score 10 points.
  • If I press Red, you score -10 points and I score -100 points (regardless of what you pressed).
  • If you press Red and I press Blue, you score 20 points and I score -50.

Each of us wants to maximise our own points.

(In this game, you are the USA and I am North Korea; Blue options are peaceful, your Red corresponds to "use limited military force against NK" and my Red corresponds to "use nuclear weapons against USA, provoking a devastating counterstrike".)

There are a few ways I can play this game.

The simplest analysis: if I stay on Blue, I score either 10 or -50 points, depending on what you choose. If I switch to Red, I'm guaranteed -100 points, which is clearly worse either of my Blue outcomes, so clearly I should always choose Blue.

From your side, knowing that I will always choose Blue, your best choice is Red, which gives you 20 points and me -50. This isn't the worst possible outcome for me, but it's not a great outcome.

Now, let's complicate the game. Suppose I am able to show you that I've wired my button to yours, so that if you press Red, my Red will automatically activate.

You then get to choose between Blue-Blue (+10 points for both of us) or Red-Red (-10 for you and -100 for me). Since your object is to maximise your own points, your best option here is Blue-Blue.

Paradoxically, even though I've voluntarily reduced my own choices in the game by making them completely dependent on yours, I've actually improved my outcome. Instead of -50 from the simple strategy, I now achieve an outcome of +10 - the best possible outcome I could hope for.

Now let's complicate it a little more:

Suppose I wire my button up to yours, but with a randomiser in the circuit:

  • As long as you stay on Blue, I will stay on Blue. (Your outcome: +10.)
  • If you press Red, there is a 40% chance that my button will switch to Red (your outcome: -10), and a 60% chance that it stays on Blue (your outcome: +20).

If you do press Red, your expected outcome is -10*0.4 + 20*0.6 = 8 points, slightly worse than if you stayed on Blue.

So your best option is still to stay on Blue (which gets me my best outcome). But even if for some reason you choose Red, there's only a 40% chance of me getting the worst outcome.

So, even though pressing the red button always ends up badly for me, being willing to behave "irrationally" and activate that red button, framing it as a potential consequence of your actions, can actually improve my position. What's irrational in the narrow context becomes part of a rational strategy in a broader context.

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I would like to know in what situation would it be likely for North Korea to actually use nuclear weapons?

All that North Korea needs to do is make an invasion too expensive for any potential attacker. This was the logic behind Mutual Assured Destruction during the Cold War; that even the "winner" will pay a horrific and unacceptable price.

I think a passage from Moby Dick (and replicated in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan):

to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

Spite, hatred and revenge are powerful human motivators. Never underestimate the power of hatred, malice, contempt, loathing, cruelty and spite.

Iraq chose to make the rest of the world believe that they had WMD. They were invaded and destroyed to ensure that they didn't get them. Libya had an actual nuclear weapon program. They were convinced to end their program. Afterwards, the country was invaded and conquered, with the dictator being murdered on video. Kim Jong Un is not stupid. He can see that overwhelming force is necessary to keep his feudal aristocracy alive: not having WMD is suicidal, agreeing to give up WMD is suicidal.

Keeping American focus on North Korea serves the interests of both China and Russia. It takes attention away from themselves. It lets them play "good cop" to a country they have long political connections with.

Finally, North Korea does not need to "attack" the continental US, nearby allies of the US serve as "suitable" human shields. Seoul is within artillery range of North Korea. Japan is within range of short range missiles. Any attack targeting North Korea would result in appalling damage. Repairing that sort of damage would bankrupt every nation.

  • The problem with this answer is that no one actually wants to attack North Korea. The only reason anyone might want to do so is to remove the nuclear threat. Nor was Libya "nvaded and conquered": Gaddafi was overthrown by a home-grown revolution and executed by the revolutionaries, which is a fairly common fate of dictators, e.g. Mussolini and Ceaucescu. – jamesqf Aug 28 at 4:45
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    Yeah, yeah, home-grown revolution. With international support and western jets in the sky. Don't you think that it is ridiculous to claim such things? – user2501323 Aug 28 at 5:58
  • @user2501323 just because a home-grown revolution gets international support it does not mean that it isn't home grown. – Display name Aug 28 at 7:10
  • It is disputable. Western-based revolutions are always based on existing problems in a target country - to init protests and social activity. But that does not mean, that it is clearly home-grown. It MAY be called home-grown to distance from the result, however. – user2501323 Aug 28 at 7:15
  • @user2501323: No, I don't think it's ridiculous, since it is absolutely the norm for successful revolutions to get foreign support. For a notable example, consider French support of the American Revolution. Further, the international support just reinforces the point WRT North Korea: if the Gaddafi regime had not proved itself an international threat, by e.g. carrying out jihadist attacks, would anyone have cared enough to bother supporting a revolution? – jamesqf Aug 28 at 17:28
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The only problem is, that they keep producing nuclear weapons. At some point they have so many that they can destroy half a country, maybe even remove an entire country from the world map. When that point of power is reached, you can be sure that whoever is at power, if it is an unstable and power hungry person, those weapons will be used to spread fear and force people to obey.

Regardless, once either side hits the magic button, it's going to have the entire world involved. The when and why won't matter anymore, only the "who", and then it's another million innocent people who were just living their lives blindly murdered.

Mankind never learns from it's history and mistakes - you see it everyday.

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