A Game Theory Assessment of a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea

The North Korean missile crisis has proven who the real lunatics on the world stage are:  America’s anti-Trump pundit class.

Given the risk an exchange of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia is rising everyday one would be right to say anti-Trump should grow the fuck up and worry about war instead of non-issue like parades.  But, then, anti-Trumpers were never adults, are not adults, and never will be adults.

Unlike our children pundits, Kim’s goals are quite rational when it comes to nukes.  Unfortunately for Kim, his nuclear goals are in direct conflict with Trump’s strategic goals.  And it is game theory that teaches when objectives conflict war is often the result.

Putting aside all of the ludicrous foreign policy commentary about North Korea for the past 25 years (often made by the same people who are now terrified of parades), there is only one objective of Trump’s to keep an eye on that tells us whether he will attack the North:  whether Kim’s capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons has been ended.

There are only two ways for Trump to achieve this; the first is Kim voluntarily agreeing to dismantle it.  If Kim refuses, Trump will have to dismantle it through military power.

Since the North refuses to negotiate at all about their nuclear capabilities while their diplomatic entreaties appear to be nothing more than empty gestures and time stalling, the only remaining option to expect Trump to choose is a military one.

One of the military options being bandied about is a so called “bloody nose” strike.  The other is a wider campaign against Kim’s nuclear facilities.

To decide which of the two military options is best we look to the risk-reward calculus of game theory.

Simply, the risk and reward outcomes in this case depend on how extensive or limited the opening strike is because Kim’s reactions to it will likely be proportional to how extensive the attack is.

A bloody nose attack is supposed to be narrow in scope, perhaps directed at a single nuclear testing launchpad.  Assuming narrow scope, it is unlikely Kim would significantly retaliate because of the certainty he would be immediately locked in an artillery duel with 500,000 South Korean soldiers backed by American airpower.  The likelihood of narrow or no retaliation by Kim makes a bloody nose strike the least risky option.

But it also yields the smallest reward because it leaves standing the greater bulk of his capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons.

And after the strike it is unclear what benefits will flow from it or how this achieves Trump’s strategic objective.  Because the program would still be active the stalemate between Trump and Kim would remain much as it is now, i.e., unresolved, albeit with Kim perhaps more cautious handling future nuclear tests.

The second option is a full scale, simultaneous, air assault against Kim’s entire nuclear program and anything remotely connected to it.  This is the option that is most certain to achieve Trump’s objective but also the option that, due to it’s widespread nature, carries the risk of the fiercest retaliation.

Whether we should attack their conventional artillery placements at the same time we attack their nuclear program depends on how much artillery can be destroyed in an opening attack:  Whatever artillery can be destroyed immediately cannot then be used by the North against South Korea.

I was informed by acquaintances who served in the military that it would take a week of round the clock bombardment to neutralize the North’s conventional artillery batteries.  But this was some years ago and it is possible we can now destroy them much faster.  If they can be destroyed quickly we should consider doing so.  The greater the percentage of artillery that can be immediately destroyed, the more attractive it becomes to include artillery positions as beginning targets.

Which option is Trump likely to go for based on the risk reward calculus?

Unless there is a major provocation by the North (such as by carrying through on his threat to detonate a test nuclear bomb over the Pacific) I lean towards him opting for a narrow warning shot against a test facility followed by a full scale assault later on.  But because a warning shot doesn’t bring him meaningfully closer to his objectives, he may simply skip it and go straight for a full scale air campaign to settle the score once and for all.

In my opinion, the second option is the strategically optimal one and the one I would choose as President.

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6 thoughts on “A Game Theory Assessment of a “Bloody Nose” Attack Against North Korea”

  1. Those artillery batteries are the sum total of the story. Nothing will happen until they can be neutralized.

  2. Another exemplary piece of work. You have an uncanny ability to zone in on the essential and to express the necessary course of action without recourse to any sentimentality or faux morality. Bravo.

    A couple of footnotes.

    1: How much confidence can be put in the intelligence estimates that Kim, as come reports indicate, is “months away” from being able to attack the American homeland?

    2: How probable is it that Kim already has such an ability?

    3: How probable is it that if Trump attacks Kim in a comprehensive manner – your “strategically optimal” one – Kim would launch a nuclear attack, either against America or against South Korea or Japan? (Assuming this ability exists?)

    4: Kissinger has stressed the importance of not only having a clear, practical view as to what North Korea will look like after Kim is gone, but that it involve the Chinese. We do not know what the Chinese (privately) think. How do the Chinese factor into this problem?

    5: How probable do you think A: a “bloody nose” strike is? and B: how probably a “strategically optimal” strike is?

    6: In our post, we estimated that a “bloody nose” attack between now and the next two months to be as high as 70%:
    https://imperialenergyblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/north-korea-prospects-of-war/

    Others, including Lindsey Graham, have given estimates as low as 30%.

    7: Would you agree that now is the most dangerous time?

    8: How likely do you think an attack during the Olympics is? An attack on Kim during the Olympics might be the optimal time for a “bloody nose” attack because if Kim attacked the South with vigor he would kill some-many civilians from other nations and this would give America a “free pass” to launch a larger attack. Alternatively, if Kim does not retaliate because of this reasoning he has to absorb the “bloody nose” attack.

    9: It would be interesting to hear how you think America should have handled North Korea from the end of the Cold War until now.

  3. Nothing will happen until they can be neutralized.

    Quite the contrary.

    In game theory there are higher objectives and lower objectives subordinate to them. Sparing Seoul is a subordinate objective to preventing Kim from developing a nuclear weapon that can hit the US:

    i.e., protecting US territory > protecting Seoul.

    Since the lesser objective of keeping Seoul safe is subordinate to protecting US territory we are heading to war no matter how much destruction South Korea suffers because we can’t guarantee the first, subordinate, objective unless we completely abandon the second, higher, objective.

  4. 1: How much confidence can be put in the intelligence estimates that Kim, as come reports indicate, is “months away” from being able to attack the American homeland?

    I have some confidence in the DoD’s assessments. As for the rest of the American intelligence community, I have 100% confidence they are watching porn or playing Candy Crush on their iPhones all day.

    2: How probable is it that Kim already has such an ability?

    Zero because his optimal strategy is to deter us from attacking his program.

    If he’s already completed the last problems in the way of producing usable ICBMs – warhead miniaturization, reentry surviveability, targeting, etc, etc, – he would have demonstrated it through tests to ward off a future preemptive attack.

    3: How probable is it that if Trump attacks Kim in a comprehensive manner – your “strategically optimal” one – Kim would launch a nuclear attack, either against America or against South Korea or Japan? (Assuming this ability exists?)

    He will probably try to fight with conventional forces at first because he knows that if he uses his existing arsenal of short range nuclear weapons he loses the war instantly when we go nuclear. A nuclear strike would be a last desperate measure if his conventional forces are broken or close to it. On the other hand, if he waits until his conventional forces are nearly beaten he may not have any functioning nuclear weapons left.

    If he has only a few left he will probably try firing them at South Korea, not Japan, because his arsenal will be depleted.

    4: Kissinger has stressed the importance of not only having a clear, practical view as to what North Korea will look like after Kim is gone, but that it involve the Chinese. We do not know what the Chinese (privately) think. How do the Chinese factor into this problem?

    If the regime collapses the Chinese can occupy the whole country as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to spend much on peacekeeping missions again.

    Reunifying North and South Korea will make German reunification look as easy as merging the Czech Republic with Slovakia again.

    5: How probable do you think A: a “bloody nose” strike is? and B: how probably a “strategically optimal” strike is?

    I’ll give option A a 55% to 45% edge.

    6: In our post, we estimated that a “bloody nose” attack between now and the next two months to be as high as 70%:

    I’m not keen on focusing on the exact percentage. I’m more interested in the major factors leading to particular outcomes.

    You could be right.

    However, since option A doesn’t really break the stalemate, option B is coming one way or another.

    7: Would you agree that now is the most dangerous time?

    Anytime this year is when war could break out.

    8: How likely do you think an attack during the Olympics is?

    It’s very unlikely he would retaliate if we launch a narrow strike during the Olympics, if only for PR reasons.

    However, because he probably doesn’t want to fight during the Olympics he’s also unlikely to do testing that may bring down an attack. Another reason he may want to take a breather on testing is because the sanctions are biting into his economy, and thus, his ability to adequately resource his nuclear tests.

    9: It would be interesting to hear how you think America should have handled North Korea from the end of the Cold War until now.

    We should have destroyed their nuclear program in 1994. At that time they had no nuclear weapons. If we had destroyed their production capabilities earlier it would be much easier to contain them than it is today when they already have several dozen short range nuclear bombs.

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