… There’s a sobering essay in Foreign Affairs which argues that the most rational strategy that the infant Kim could follow is the one that NATO used in Europe against the threat of overwhelming Soviet forces on the ground.
It’s impossible to know how exactly Kim might employ his nuclear arsenal to stop the CFC from marching to Pyongyang. But the effectiveness of his strategy would not depend on what North Korea initially destroyed, such as a South Korean port or a U.S. airbase in Japan. The key to coercion is the hostage that is still alive: half a dozen South Korean or Japanese cities, which Kim could threaten to attack unless the CFC accepted a cease-fire.
This strategy, planning to use nuclear escalation to stalemate a militarily superior foe, is not far-fetched. In fact, it was NATO’s strategy for most of the Cold War. Back then, when the alliance felt outgunned by the massive conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact, NATO planned to use nuclear weapons coercively to thwart a major conventional attack. Today, both Pakistan and Russia rely on that same strategy to deal with the overwhelming conventional threats that they face. Experts too easily dismiss the notion that North Korea’s rulers might deliberately escalate a conventional conflict, but if their choice is between escalation and a noose, it is unclear why they would be less ruthless than those who once devised plans to defend NATO.