Vipin Narang says yes:
The strategy turns on Kim’s main calculation that the United States will say it’s not worth losing a major American city to get rid of him.
Of course he could not knock out a major American or allied target, but he could use them somewhere. And the use would boost his, uh…credibility. In fact Charles Murray is worried.
I think of the model this way. If Kim is irrational, we have obvious reason to worry, and of course a first strike could not be ruled out. Remember Pearl Harbor? (Or is that “Remember Pearl Harbor!”)
Alternatively, say all involved parties are fully rational in the selfish sense. Fully rational agents make purely forward-looking calculations. So if Kim used a nuke to kill a sparrow in North Korea, we would not attack because fear of losing an American city would far outweigh desire to retaliate for the loss of the sparrow.
How about one sparrow in the DMZ? In Japan? In the Arctic? In a Malaysian airport? Or maybe one sparrow, three sled dogs, and thirty Inuit?
At what point do we give it a go, and risk a poorly aimed North Korean ICBM being shot off into the sky?
What if Kim uses “only” a biological or chemical weapon, designed for minimum but noticeable impact, on a nearby country? You should think of Kim’s strategy space as a continuous variable, with some noise added of course.
Is the space of “boosts his credibility and domestic stature, but without too much upping the risk of massive American retaliation” really the empty set?
Maybe. Maybe not. I give it about one percent, which in expected value terms is still a real worry.