North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities: A Warfighting Tool

North Korea is rapidly expanding and modernizing its missile capabilities in a way that suggests it sees military value in nuclear weapons.

Instead of limiting itself to those missile systems necessary for a minimal deterrent, Pyongyang has developed hundreds of nuclear-capable missiles. It may have enough nuclear material for as many as 100 nuclear warheads by 2020. Its weapon programs are more troubling given its history of threatening its neighbors with nuclear weapons. If allowed to do so, Kim Jong-un is likely to take even more provocative steps in his bid to delegitimize the South Korean government. Therefore, the US and its allies must strengthen deterrence against North Korea and impose intolerable costs should deterrence fail.

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are not only for regime survival. They are rapidly moving past that point. In the last two years, Pyongyang has conducted as many nuclear tests – three – as it had in the previous decade combined. It possesses thousands of short-, medium-, and intercontinental-range missiles, and it is developing sea-launched, tracked mobile and solid-fuel systems. Last year Pyongyang paraded and tested a capability likely equipped with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV), the Kn-18. The pace of qualitative and quantitative improvements does not suggest that Kim Jong-un wants a minimal deterrent.

Pyongyang already possesses a number of minimal deterrence options: for decades, the threat its conventional forces pose to Seoul has prevented US and allied aggression; and its shorter-range missiles can employ biological and chemical weapons against South Korea and Japan. Only a portion of the advances noted above are needed to credibly challenge US and allied missile defenses and response options.

North Korea’s history of provocations raises serious stability concerns about what it might do when supported by a nuclear deterrent. When the Kim regime could depend on the Soviet Union’s nuclear deterrent, it attempted multiple assassinations against South Korean leaders, committed acts of terrorism, and killed US Service members. From the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea attempted to coerce the US, South Korea, and Japan into meeting its negotiating demands with the threat of nuclear weapon acquisition but stopped short of its prior provocations. Since 2006, however, it has sunk a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan; shelled a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong; and repeatedly violated Japanese territorial sovereignty with missile overflights. These are not the actions of a regime focused exclusively on its survival.

Instead its actions and rhetoric indicate it believes it can freely attempt to coerce the US and its allies. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, has said he thinks as much, “…we don’t think it’s the case that he’s simply going to use this tool set for self-preservation. We think he’ll use it in a way that is… call it what you will, call it coercive” Kim Jong-un’s expanding capabilities will likely embolden him to provoke crises or escalate them.

It is also important to distinguish between the fact of Kim’s nuclear threats and the low probability that he will carry them out in any but the most extreme circumstances. But while the likelihood of him employing nuclear weapons is low, there is a danger that he sees value in doing so: Although dual-capable aircraft, armed with non-strategic nuclear weapons can provide a forward presence, they may be considered less survivable and responsive , which Kim Jong-un may try to exploit. Additionally, were North Korea to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons, potentially in support of an invasion of the South, US employment of strategic nuclear weapons may have escalatory implications and create concerns in Russia and China. And while conventional capabilities play a role in deterring North Korean aggression, they must do so alongside nuclear capabilities. Kim Jong-un may use underground facilities to hide during a conflict and emerge to govern again, for example: nuclear weapons may hold these tunnels at risk where conventional weapons cannot.

The US must modify its deterrence strategy to meet these advances. Washington needs supplements to its existing nuclear capabilities to deny Pyongyang any plausible advantage from nuclear employment. A low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead and sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) provide flexibility and responsiveness that existing strategic options do not. . This flexibility will help to deny Kim Jong-un an escalatory advantage, without which the success of violence at lower levels of escalation will be doubtful. Therefore, ensuring the US has the nuclear capabilities necessary to meet North Korean aggression will have benefits beyond deterring nuclear conflict.

Kim Jong-un has spared no expense to expand and modernize his missile and nuclear weapon programs. His armament blitz would have stopped years ago had he only been focused on regime survival. Instead, he possesses an increasingly advanced and diverse missile program clearly intended to coerce his opponents, and, ultimately, to support his aim of delegitimising the South Korean government. Consequently, Washington must possess a more diverse range of response options. Improving our ability to impose intolerable costs is vital to deterring Kim Jong-un’s aggression and aim of ultimately reuniting Korea on his terms.

Davis Florick is a strategic policy analyst for the US Department of Defense, detailed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is also a James A. Kelly Non-resident Fellow with the Pacific Forum and a Senior Fellow with the Human Security Centre.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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