© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Military Planners Consider Game Theory In Possible North Korea Response


The Pentagon has been gaming out potential responses to North Korea for years, if not decades. But the latest move by North Korea, yesterday's successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, escalates the threat to the U.S. in a new way. Scientists have calculated the missile could reach Alaska. And right now, the response focuses on diplomatic efforts, but that doesn't mean military planners aren't hard at work.

To talk about this, we are joined by Anthony Cordesman. He's a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: The Drug Administration at this point is calling for global action to limit North Korean guest workers or economic benefits to the country. But what are the military or non-diplomatic options that are likely being presented to the president right now?

CORDESMAN: Well, there's a wide range. You can begin with very small, demonstrative actions, flying in bombers, larger military exercises. You can go up to having more U.S. forces, more anti-missile missiles. And then there is the idea of preventive strikes - the U.S. hitting at either some of their nuclear facilities or some of their key missile facilities.

MCEVERS: And up to now, that option obviously has not been deployed. And why is that - because the thinking is that there would be grave consequences, yeah?

CORDESMAN: If you hit at a nuclear reactor, there are obvious risks. Every form of preventative strike has a North Korean counter option.

MCEVERS: And so there are people who spend their careers gaming this stuff out. How does the idea of game theory or the study of conflict between decision makers apply here?

CORDESMAN: Well, it applies in broad terms because you're never going to take any action against a country like North Korea without considering all of the ways it can respond. You're not going to act as if this was what is sometimes called a two-person, zero-sum game. You've got to consider the attitudes of Russia, of China, of Japan and other states.


CORDESMAN: In terms of game theory, you can't address North Korea without considering the implications for another potential proliferator like Iran. So this is not a simple, easy game to play.

MCEVERS: How does this new missile launch change the game?

CORDESMAN: It only changes it in terms of time. And like almost every headline, the reaction tends to be a bit exaggerated. We already knew that North Korea had what are called boosters. That's very large rocket systems that could launch a heavy payload. They'd already put satellites in space. What we didn't know was they could couple that capability to launch to an effective re-entry system although we can't fully understand how well the re-entry worked. But we've known for years that this was coming. We've been warned again and again by North Korea that they planned to do this. And it was a matter of months I think in terms of timing.

MCEVERS: And President Trump has made it a cornerstone of his foreign policy - this idea of keeping America's adversaries guessing. Will that be effective with North Korea or not effective, do you think, in this case?

CORDESMAN: Well, the problem with any kind of position that involves keeping people guessing is that always that means, at least initially, you're playing a bluff. You either act, or you don't act. You can't pressure or intimidate people with an endless series of threats, potential actions and uncertainties.

MCEVERS: Anthony Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much for your time.

CORDESMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.