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

Published in: Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament (2022). doi: 10.1080/25751654.2022.2053426

Posted on RAND.org on April 05, 2022

by Paul K. Davis, Bruce W. Bennett

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This paper motivates and sketches a set of nuclear-use cases involving conflict on the Korean peninsula. The cases reflect a wide range of ways that nuclear weapons might be brandished or used in a Korean crisis. We identify possible cases by using two different lenses: a "logical" or taxonomic lens and a decisionmaking lens that asks how an actual national leader might decide to use nuclear weapons first. We then select cases from the space of possibilities to reflect that range usefully. The use cases consider mistakes, unintended escalation, coercive threats, limited nuclear use to reinforce threats, defensive operations, and offensive operations. They also consider the potential role of fear, desperation, responsibility, grandiosity, indomitability, and other human emotions. Some use cases are far more plausible than others at present, but estimating likelihoods is a dubious activity. The real challenge is to avoid circumstances where the use cases would become more likely.

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