You're POTUS: Would you nuke North Korea?

So I was chatting with a couple of friends about this and that and (somehow) we got onto the subject of the Cuban missile crisis. Anyway, I forget how the conversation ended but it got me thinking about what I would have done if I was JFK. Now, I don’t actually know all that much about the Cuban missile crisis so I’ve come up with a scenario instead. In order to avoid offending any of our Russian posters, I’m going to use North Korea instead (I’m assuming we don’t have any North Korean posters. If we do, sorry!)

You’re POTUS. It’s the height of a new Cold War with North Korea. The world is balancing on a knife edge. You receive intel from a spy which says:

  1. The North Koreans have a secret nuclear base somewhere in Pyongyang, fully armed with long range missiles.

  2. They will be nuking a major American city in six hours.

That’s all the message says. The intel comes from a very reliable source. Your generals recommend that the only viable thing to do is destroy the missiles before they destroy you. Since you’ve only got a few hours, and since you don’t know where in Pyongyang the missiles are, the generals recommend using your own nukes first.

What do you do?

So there’s the situation. The poll has a (long) list of possible actions you could take. Just pick the one which you think is best.

At this point, I want to remind anyone that this is a thought experiment designed to test one’s commitment to a principle. The question is really “How threatened would you, as POTUS, need to feel before deciding a nuclear first strike on Pyongyang was justified?” If you have an objection along the lines of “Well, geopolitically speaking, options XYZ wouldn’t be valid because if I did that then the Chinese would blahblahblah,” or “Destroying the missiles wouldn’t work because militarizzzzzzzzzzzz,” or “I could never be 100% certain of anything.”, then you’re not really getting into the spirit of it. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to address the central question.

P.S. - Please assume for the sake of argument that all of North Korea’s nukes were in Pyongyang so once you’ve hit it you can be sure they won’t launch nukes from anywhere else.

“Get me Russia on the hotline.”

P.S. - Just to forestall a couple of other possible objections, you can’t use satellites to tell you where the nukes are and then use conventional weapons to destroy them and you can’t intercept North Korea’s missile.

Unfortunately, I think the chances of the intel being accurate are close to zero. So I wouldn’t nuke anything.

There is essentially no chance that NK could develop long-range missiles without everyone else knowing about it. And since we know all the missiles are in Pyongyang, we would know all about it anyway.

The closest I can get to accepting the hypothetical is say I would use conventional bombs against NK and try to knock out the missiles before they get launched.


Wow, whoever ported my response over from the other thread is not doing me any favors. Though, come to think of it, I probably would still want Russia on the hotline, but, yes, figure I’d do everything I could to get in contact North Korea ASAP.

You’re not really getting into the spirit of the question, though. For the purposes of this thread, North Korea have developed long range nukes. They just have. If that’s too much of a stretch, let’s make up a country and call it Hypotheticania and say that they have them.

For the purposes of this thread, we don’t know about the missiles in Pyongyang ahead of time because reasons. Again, if that’s unacceptable, use the capital of Hypotheticania (whatever that might be).

Given the above, you must disregard your claim to know that the intel is almost certainly false. Now, if the odds of the intel being false are 0%, what would you do? If you would nuke, then keep going down the list until you find an unacceptable option, then choose the one above that.

And for everyone else, can we please keep in mind that this is a thought experiment? The logic is not designed for real-world situations. If it was, I’d have used a real-world situation!

Where’s the options for “after NK launches”? I would not wait for the US to be struck, but I would wait for them to launch.

Frankly, I doubt any missile NK puts together would be more than 50% reliable to begin with, but I would be on the phone with NK saying “The second you launch, we will also, and we will use enough warheads to reduce your country to bedrock. We’ll be able to see you glowing from the moon, buddy.”

No, it really doesn’t matter to me that intel thinks all the missiles are in a single city because Dear Leader needs to know that there is no way he will survive this in some bunker elsewhere. Also, it would be my hope that some of his subordinates realize the folly of the situation and prevent the launch through internal means.

Six hours of warning should be enough time to get surveillance in place to detect that kind of launch reliably.

In the meantime, a +1 on Waldo’s approach. I would pretty much call every country in the world, but Russia, China, South Korea and Japan first on the list. At the very least, they need to know my intent to launch, but some of them have more leverage with NK than I do.

I didn’t consider there being much difference between that and option 2. Remember, you can’t intercept the missile (as per post 2) so just pick the option which is closest. Thanks.

Also, everyone, please note I didn’t include an ‘other’ option. That was by design. Please stick exclusively to the options I’ve already provided. Cheers.

I did pick that option.

Still, I consider it a substantial difference. Getting an ICBM accurately to its destination is not an easy task and I don’t think NK can pull it off with any reliability. I don’t need to be hit in order to retaliate, but I won’t fire first either.

Unlike the Russia one I start the nukes flying the first time someone mentions North Korea.

I’m picking two, with the clear caveat that I would have someone on the phone immediately to the DPRK to tell them that we would launch every weapon in our arsenal if they launched even one, and I’d almost certainly only launch on evidence that they had launched first.

The point of this would be to attempt to de-escalate the crisis before tens of millions of innocent people ended up being killed, which should be an absolute last resort.

Not to mention that it is theoretically possible for North Korea to have been preparing a nuclear strike, but had a last minute change of heart… but then if they saw hundreds of incoming missiles, they might change their mind once more and decide to launch.

While tempting, that would make Japan and SK very unhappy (radioactively unhappy).

How is that “unfortunate”?

No, I don’t. A single, unconfirmed report, from one spy, about missiles capable of reaching the US? That nobody else spotted, during the whole process from developing the technology and testing and deployment? I wouldn’t hang a dog on that kind of evidence.

And they are just going to nuke us, out of the blue? I don’t care if it’s North Korea or Hypotheticandia - any country that attacks the US is going to cease to exist almost immediately after it launches its nukes. That’s the idea of MAD.

Okay, so we live in a magic universe where I can be 100% sure. Then I launch my magic conventional bombers and prevent the nuclear strike.

The spy report said he knew where they were. If the hypothetical has now changed to “we don’t know where they are coming from” then how do we know where to nuke? Are you asking if I would flatten the whole country with nukes? No, I wouldn’t. If it were North Korea, I suspect the South Koreans are going to be a little peeved at massive clouds of radioactive fallout being blown into their part of the peninsula.


I meant we don’t know where in Pyongyang. Apologies for any confusion.

Fine. Call it a hundred reports. Call it whatever you want to just get you to answer the question. It doesn’t make a difference. This is a thought experiment designed to test a principle, not formulate a workable battle strategy.

Yes they are. Because I said so.

Oh for crying out loud…

Look, if I’d constructed a hypothetical scenario which covered every possible base and which pre-empted every potential objection the damn thing would have been about three pages long. Is it really so hard to get into the spirit of the hypothetical? I know you know how thought experiments work. I’ve seen you use them in GD. All I’m asking is what level of uncertainty would be necessary for you to refrain from using a nuclear first strike. It’s a simple question. Is it 1%? 10%? 90%? If you knew there was a 99% chance that the intel was accurate and that in six hours North Korea would wipe DC off the map, would you use a nuclear weapon to pre-empt that or not? There’s no wrong answer. Just pick the one which feels best.

I think I would, yes.

I was going to write a lengthier answer but that suffices.

Very true, but it’s not like they’re going to be happy about any outcome here. There’s no upside for them if NK escalates to being a nuclear aggressor. Their interest are aligned with ours in that the only good outcome here is that Dear Leader wets himself and backs down.

I cannot vote, because there is no option for “I’d nuke, but only if DPRK launches first”.

Do you think an American president would choose to spare Japan and South Korea radioactive fallout in lieu of saving, say, 5 million American lives?

So you are saying the case for a North Korean first strike is a slam dunk?