WHEN SOMEONE SAYS he’ll give you a ‘bloody nose’, the likely setting is a school playground. But ever since the 2018 State of the Union address by US President Donald Trump, speculation has mounted that the recipient of that schoolboy tactic may be North Korea, a country that has violated all canons of reasonable behaviour expected of a nation-state.
The trouble is that the ‘bloody nose’ may end up hurting the US and its ally South Korea more. The danger arises from the North Korean capability to execute a nuclear strike on the US, as it has long-range ballistic missiles in its arsenal now. The South Korean capital Seoul is less than 100 km from its border with the North.
At another level, the problem is one of signalling: there is no effective way to separate a mere ‘bloody nose’ from a full-blown attack involving nuclear weapons. It is in Pyongyang’s interest to exaggerate the threat of any hostile action by the US and claim that its existence is at stake. This situation is similar to India’s vis-a-vis Pakistan. Islamabad often claims that South Asia is ‘the most dangerous place on earth’ and portrays even minor military exchanges as potential nuclear flashpoints.
When nuclear weapons were invented in the late 1940s, their deterrent effect was expected to secure a peaceful future. The use of these weapons was seen as a ‘great taboo’, as former US Secretary of State Robert McNamara described them. But with the invention of less powerful, low-yield nuclear weapons, that logic has vanished. And it is rogue states that are exploiting these in the most cynical manner. The practical use of such bombs lies in their limited destructive power. Unlike the weapons that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a low-yield bomb can be thrown at an advancing army in a desolate area like a desert or mountain wasteland as a warning signal. But any use of a nuclear weapon can trigger panic enough for a full-scale retaliation. In such an event, the idea of a ‘warning’ shot is rendered futile.
North Korea has been exploiting this ambiguity against the US to its hilt. But ultimately it is the nature of the Pyongyang regime that is at work here and not the alleged power of the nuke that the US may or may not hurl at it to give it a ‘bloody nose’. As with other totalitarian systems, the internal structure of the state determines its external course of action. This is the dilemma that democratic countries face in a world that unfortunately has rogue states armed with nukes.