North Korea and the Issue of Nuclear Culture

Paul Rogers
31 October 2017


With President Trump disavowing the Iran deal, about to visit South
Korea and mulling a Nuclear Posture Review widely expected to
introduce new lower yield warheads and a lowered threshold for use,
the issue of nuclear weapons ‘usability’ looms larger than at any time
since the 1980s. This briefing explores the persistence of ‘nuclear culture’,
or the idea that a nuclear war can be survived and won. Despite the
prevalence of talk of strategic deterrence and mutually assured
destruction, the resurgence of nuclear culture is driving an interest in
‘usable’ nuclear weapons in several countries.


When Scilla Elworthy founded Oxford Research Group in the early
1980s, the focus of the work was to understand how nuclear decision
-making worked in the major nuclear powers and, wherever possible,
to open up dialogue with them. In due course, and especially after the
end of the Cold War, the concern with dialogue broadened out to
encompass other issues of international security. A major element of
this was, and remains, conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa
and this was also extended in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to have a
particular emphasis on the war on terror and the many problems
that have arisen with its conduct.

Within these areas of work in ORG, the issue of nuclear weapons
remains, less at the level of the Cold War confrontation, even if
relations with Russia are fractured, and more with the potential
for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and
East Asia. The nuclear issue that has come to the fore in recent
months has been the potential for Iran and North Korea to
acquire a nuclear capability. Both these states are causing
considerable concern for the Trump administration, which has
signalled its intent to withdraw from the Iran deal negotiated
by the Obama administration and insists that it will not allow
North Korea to develop a nuclear capability that could target
the continental United States.

Meanwhile there is serious talk of nuclear war amidst reports
that the US Air Force may raise the alert status for its nuclear-
armed strategic bombers. Furthermore, Mr Trump has just
received details of his planned Nuclear Posture Review,
which is reported to include the development of new nuclear
weapons, including low yield ‘tactical’ warheads and the
re-introduction of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise
missiles, and the lowering of constraints on their use.

Nuclear Culture

It is in this context that this briefing examines the issue of
nuclear culture – the belief in the usability of nuclear weapons
extending to the potential to survive a nuclear war. One caveat
is that the examples discussed here are drawn primarily from
thinking in the United States but what applies here is an indication
of more general attitudes among the eight other nuclear powers
and, presumably, the five other NATO states that still host US
tactical nuclear weapons.

Although security analysts may retain knowledge of the development
of nuclear weapons policy, posture and targeting, knowledge in the
public arena is far lower than thirty years ago, with nuclear weapons
typically viewed in terms of a reliably stable state of deterrence through
the risk of mutually assured destruction. At a general level there are two
problems with this attitude that should cause concern. One is that since
the start of the nuclear era, the nuclear posture has been much more
about the potential use of nuclear weapons, including the idea of limited
nuclear wars that do not escalate to global catastrophe. This was the
subject of August’s briefing. The second is the history of nuclear
accidents and crises, covered in a recent Open Democracy article and a
more extensive analysis from Chatham House.

The Global 95 Wargame

Overlying all of this is the more general idea of usability. Back in July 1995,
four years after the end of the Gulf War, the Global 95 Wargame at the US
Naval War College was a “twin crisis” exercise centred on Korea and the
Persian Gulf. Within the terms of the exercise both crises escalated to the
use of chemical weapons against US forces, but a resurgent Saddam Hussein
regime in Iraq went further, using biological weapons to devastating effect
against US military forces and Saudi civilians. The United States responded
with a nuclear attack on Baghdad, ending the war. The wargame was reported
in the US military journal Defense News, (28 August 1995) as raising a number
of critical issues:

“The United States has virtually no response to the use of such potentially
devastating weapons other than threatening to use nuclear weapons,
a Joint Staff official said Aug. 22. But it is unclear whether even nuclear
weapons would provide a deterrent, unless the US was willing to take the
difficult moral step of destroying a city, he said. On the other hand, if the
United States did launch a nuclear attack in response, ‘no country would
use those weapons for the next 100 years’ the official said.”

In practice, many independent analysts would argue otherwise, taking the view
that any such nuclear use would make further nuclear attacks more likely. In
particular, if the United States had used nuclear weapons against a country
in the Middle East it would be wise to expect that at some time in the following
years, or perhaps even a decade or more, a covert nuclear, chemical or biological
assault would be mounted on Washington, New York or another major US city.

The point here is that the attitude represented by that report suggests something
different and is indicative of a wider culture that extends to long-term thinking
going back right to the start of the Cold War. By the 1950s the United States and
the Soviet Union already had nuclear arsenals and there were complex plans for
fighting nuclear wars. Planners on both sides argued that it might be possible to
strike first in an escalating crisis and nuclear targeting analysts were tasked with
target selection. In essence, these were people within a wider system that saw
nuclear weapons as just one part of a much wider arsenal of essentially usable
weapons. There are worrying signs that this view extends to elements of the
current Trump administration specifically in relation to North Korea.

The Bureaucratization of Homicide

Some indication of thinking at a lower level of organisation was given nearly
forty years ago in a hugely informative article, “The Bureaucratization of Homicide
published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 1980) and written by
Henry T. Nash. For most of his career Nash was a professor of political science
at a liberal arts college but before that he was an analyst with private companies
contracted to the Pentagon. Part of his time was spent in a nuclear target analysis
centre in Washington and he describes in detail the culture of the place and the
motivation of those whose job it was to advise on the importance of military,
political and other targets in the Soviet Union.

Part of this was down to routine bureaucracy, hence the title. Take, for example
an analyst working to assess the political and economic importance of a major
communist party headquarters in a regional capital. The task might have involved
utilising information from open and classified sources to rank the significance of
the centre in relation to other such sites across the Soviet Union. If there was
evidence that the centre could be of importance in an attempt by the Soviet Union
to recover from a major nuclear exchange, then the recommendation might have
been that it should be assigned two intercontinental ballistic missiles with their
H-bomb warheads instead of just one. If the recommendation from the targeting
analyst was accepted, then it might have been an occasion for a celebratory drink
with other analysts after work. More importantly, such success might have led to
a higher level of security clearance and the possibility of promotion.

In a sense this is similar to just about any organisation, whether it is the armed
forces, police, civil service, retail outlet, school, university or other. However, Nash
argues that this is not enough to explain why people in that nuclear analysis cell
were prepared to work on a system that promised millions of deaths. His assessment
is that it was a combination of patriotism and the sense that there were people on the
other side who were doing exactly the same thing and were the enemy. What is perhaps
the most valuable aspect of Nash’s article is that it combines this overall sense of need
with the routine behaviour of bureaucracies.

Protect and Survive

This also comes through in the UK government’s Protect and Survive pamphlet
of May 1980 which seriously promoted the idea that an all-out nuclear attack on
the UK was survivable. In practise this was subject to much ridicule, not least in
E. P. Thompson’s campaigning booklet Protest and Survive, published later that
year which served as a powerful catalyst for the emerging anti-nuclear campaigning
of the early 1980s. Many years later government sources did show that UK post-nuclear
war planning was based on the probability of 40 million people killed out of the
population at the time of 56 million.

In Robert Scheer’s 1982 book, With Enough Shovels, about the nuclear attitudes
of the Ronald Reagan era, the author cites a conversation with a senior Pentagon
official who believed strongly that, provided civil defence systems were adequate,
the United States would survive a central nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union,
recovering within two to four years “with enough shovels”.

For its part, the Soviet Union also seems to have believed not only that nuclear
warfare in Europe was survivable but that it was a near inevitable phase of initial
combat which could be absorbed and overcome by a rapid conventional forces
offensive. From Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to the Battle of Stalingrad, this
deeply engrained idea that Russia can absorb more damage than other countries
and emerge victorious is a particularly worrying counter-weight to the idea of
strategic deterrence in Europe.


Cause for concern over the risk of a crisis with North Korea or, indeed, Iran,
stems basically from the outlook of President Donald Trump and his
administration, especially towards North Korea, which is already a
nuclear-armed state. This must be seen in the wider context of a
long-lasting nuclear culture which goes far beyond the public perception
of the function of nuclear weapons solely as a means of deterring war.
Add Nash’s analysis to the persistent idea that limited nuclear wars
can be fought, with all the experience of mistakes, accidents and untoward
crisis escalation and we see added reasons for arguing as forcefully as
possible that alternative approaches to the North Korea confrontation
should be sought as a matter of urgency.

Image credit: Uwe Brodrecht/Wikimedia.

About the Author

Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. His Monthly Global Security Briefings’ are available from our website. His new book Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threats from the Margins will be published by I B Tauris in June 2016. These briefings are circulated free of charge for non-profit use, but please consider making a donation to ORG, if you are able to do so.

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