Nuclear-Use Cases for Contemplating Crisis and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula

Published in: NAPSNet Special Reports (2021)

Posted on RAND.org on January 07, 2022

by Paul K. Davis, Bruce W. Bennett

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In this essay, Paul Davis and Bruce Bennett sketch ten cases in which nuclear weapons might be brandished or used in a Korea-originated crisis. They offer insights on how and why nuclear war could occur, and the corresponding circumstances that must be avoided. The authors use two distinct lenses to identify the conceivable nuclear-use scenarios: a logical/ taxonomic reasoning lens and a decision-making lens that asks how a national leader might decide to use nuclear weapons first. Based on the first lens, they identify three possible types of first use cases: peacetime mistakes, unintended escalation in conflict, and intentional first use. Based on the second lens, which asks how a national leader might decide to use nuclear weapons first, they consider human factors such as fear, fatalism or grandiosity, and mental and physical health. Some cases are more plausible than others under present circumstances. Rather than estimating their likelihood, the authors contend that the challenge is to avoid the circumstances that could make the identified nuclear-use cases more likely.

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