“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.… But the whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers)

“In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain.… Regarding it as a whole, we must despise it. But regarding each part, we must take it seriously. It has claws and fangs. We have to destroy it piecemeal.… If we deal with it step by step and in earnest, we will certainly succeed in the end.” Mao Zedong 

Is North Korea in possession of a doomsday machine, under a crazy leadership that will spark a devastating regional war it knows it cannot win, or is it a paper tiger, more bluster than action? This is the fundamental question being asked as the United States reviews, updates and considers military action in North Korea.

Dr Strangelove was explaining the cinematic Soviet doomsday machine, a device designed to wipe out all life on Earth, and thus the perfect deterrent (were its existence shared). North Korea does not possess such a device, and its handful of nuclear weapons are not enough to ensure mutually assured destruction with anyone.

But it does possess a strong conventional capability that could quickly escalate from a punitive strike by the United States to a regional conflagration drawing in not only the US and South Korea, but also China, Japan and even Russia. In the 1964 film Dr Strangelove, the argument is made that no sane person would be willing to employ the doomsday device (thus it was automated), but Pyongyang has happily cultivated the image that it is not run by sane persons, building off of South Korean anti-North propaganda.

For his part, Mao Zedong was asserting that the United States was a paper tiger – armed with very real fangs and claws, but ultimately pursuing a weak strategy and destined for destruction. North Korea is clearly armed with missiles, artillery, weapons and a massive military.

But is the North Korean strategy viable? Are the North’s repeated assertions that it is ready to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, or launch a devastating attack on the United States, credible? Is Pyongyang really crazy enough to respond to a US military strike with a military response that would almost inevitably lead to the destruction of the North Korean military and government? Has Pyongyang avoided military action for decades by tricking the United States into believing it was crazy enough to be suicidal, when in reality it would be too afraid of its own destruction to respond?

The United States has never taken the military option off the table in dealing with North Korean terrorism in the past, or its pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. At different times, Washington has emphasized talks over action, but even discourse has been backed by the underlying threat of US military might. As North Korea moves rapidly toward the completion of a long-range nuclear-capable missile, its ultimate deterrent, the window for military action to pre-empt Pyongyang’s program is as rapidly closing. The question of Pyongyang’s likely response to pre-emptive or punitive military strikes remains a critical uncertainty in the US calculus.

The doomsday scenario is based on the assumption that the North Korean regime is calculating or crazy enough to escalate conflict after a US strike, ultimately willing to accept its own destruction rather than see its power fade in the face of foreign military intervention.

This is the essence of North Korean deterrence. But a deterrent is only viable if it is believed. A failure to respond to military action would erode the viability of that deterrent, leaving the country susceptible to further military and political actions to overturn the regime. Maintaining the deterrence requires not only the technical capacity, but also the willingness to follow through.

If the deterrence is no longer believed, it opens North Korea up to further direct action by the United States to overturn the Kim regime. North Korea’s nuclear weapon then becomes another layer in the deterrence, and the risk of escalating a conventional strike into a nuclear confrontation.

The counter-view is that despite the bombastic threats of retaliation, the North Koreans are more paper tigers, likely to find ways to contain any later war if the United States struck their nuclear or missile facilities. At least one Chinese scholar has publicly posited that North Korea would be more likely to hide targeted strikes from its own population than to respond militarily and trigger the broader war that would likely lead to the regime’s own removal.

In this scenario, North Korea’s leaders would rather survive, even if weaker, than risk losing their lives and their country. If North Korea could be expected to respond like Syria, with angry statements rather than military action, then Washington would view a punitive or disruptive strike on Pyongyang’s programs as a more viable option.

And this is the basic dilemma for Washington. In the cost calculation on physical intervention, a major unknown remains the likely response. Pyongyang has telegraphed that it has a doomsday device, that war would be inevitable. But the counter-view is that its leadership is so jealous of power that it would stomach targeted military strikes and seek to preserve the regime through shifts in its diplomatic behavior and its domestic propaganda.

If the assumption is that North Korea is ready for a suicidal war should the United States militarily intervene to stop the final stages of the nuclear and missile programs, then a military strike, even after a missile test, could trigger another East Asian war – the doomsday machine in operation. But if that assumption is wrong, then the United States is simply allowing North Korea to attain a long-range nuclear weapon, destabilizing the regional balance of power and triggering the fall of the nuclear dominoes, with Tokyo, Seoul and perhaps even Taipei seeking their own nuclear weapons.

Even more so than the location of North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities and materiel, this is the critical intelligence question. Just what are North Korea’s leaders thinking?