How to Worry Kim Jong-il
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

How to Worry Kim Jong-il


In the past 18 months, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, and bombarded Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. Together, these two attacks killed 50 South Koreans.  Moreover, it seems like further provocations might be on the way. These brazen acts threaten the credibility of US security commitments in Northeast Asia and have led to calls in South Korea for the United States to base nuclear weapons there and in Japan for building an independent nuclear deterrent. One Japanese academic has even posed the question, ‘Did deterrence against North Korea fail in 2010?’

Japanese and South Korean strategists have long worried that North Korea views its small nuclear deterrent as a shield. They argue that from behind this shield, and with the protection afforded by his hardened and deeply buried bunkers, a risk-taking Kim Jong-il believes he can launch limited offensive military operations against his neighbours with impunity. Strategic stability, our Asian allies argued during the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, isn’t the same thing as regional security. On the contrary, a stable ‘balance of terror’ may embolden Pyongyang to continue attacks like the ones against the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong.

In response to North Korea's provocations, the United States and South Korea have agreed upon a series of measures to provide effective conventional military responses to North Korean provocations. Although such conventional retaliatory options are necessary, they aren’t sufficient. The United States must also find ways to make Kim significantly less confident in the protection he is provided by his elaborate tunnelling campaign. In particular, the United States must find a way to make him worry about the thing he most values: himself.

Getting at Kim means putting at risk North Korea’s growing number of hard and deeply buried targets. North Korea has sought to preserve its leadership and other valued assets, such as its nuclear and missile forces, by constructing underground facilities ranging from relatively shallow ‘cut and cover’ facilities to complexes buried beneath hundreds of meters of hard rock. Although most of these facilities can be threatened with conventional earth penetrators, a few may be too deep for conventional options, especially those where Kim himself might plan to hide. For the near future, only nuclear weapons could hold such targets at risk.  

Yet the current earth penetrating warhead in the United States nuclear arsenal, the B61-11, is ill-suited for certain North Korean targets. The United States has long had an official requirement for a hard rock penetrator, but this requirement has been unmet since the Clinton administration – rightly in our view – decided to retire the aging B53 penetrator warhead because of safety and reliability concerns. The Clinton administration developed the B61-11 to replace the B53, but this newer warhead was designed to penetrate frozen tundra, like that found in Russia, and not hard rock like that found in North Korea.

Today, however, we don’t have to choose between safety and meeting reasonable, existing military requirements to hold at risk targets in hard rock. This is because the United States could meet the military requirements previously met by the B53 by modifying an existing warhead, the B83. (The National Nuclear Security Administration had planned to begin looking at B83 lifetime extension options soon, but it now appears this has been unnecessarily deferred to the mid-2020s.) Specifically, this military requirement could be met by simply changing the external casing of the warhead, providing better attitude control, and confirming that the configuration of internal components would survive the rapid deceleration accompanying penetration into a few meters of hard rock. As a first step, we would recommend that Sandia National Laboratories conduct a ‘sled test’ of a B83 (using a test assembly with no nuclear material) to assess the ruggedness of the non-nuclear components in a penetrator mode.

Jonathan Oldfather
October 28, 2011 at 10:55

It is an absurd use of our nations resources to build weapons that are not needed. To imply that North Korea would blackmail our nation with a nuclear strike on the west coast, when the response would result in a North Korea that does not exist using the weapons we already possess is conceivable but crazy. To say that Kim would not be deterred because he is down in his bunker safe and sound while his country is a radioactive wasteland implies insanity that cannot be deterred by anything. We would be better off buying food with the money spent and giving it to Kim so his people aren’t starving. Money for US agriculture, healthier Koreans, fewer nukes because they will never be used. Leave it to the S. Koreans to deal with this nut job. Leave him in his hideyhole as long as he wants.

October 8, 2011 at 07:40

Kim Jong-il’s aggressive behaviour demonstrates the continuing ineffectiveness of so-called nuclear deterrence.

October 6, 2011 at 05:43

anon, you are mistaken when you claim north korea is not “able to hurt the US in any significant way.” they are building missiles that can reach the western US, possibly with nuclear and chemical/biological weapons. north korea will be able to blackmail the US into concessions and aid once they achieve this capability.

whereas once they bullied south korea into aid with mutually assured destruction, now they will be able to bully the US. act now, or forever hold our peace.

September 27, 2011 at 09:10

The Chenoen a U.S plotted incident? John Chan I truely feel sorry for you, whatever you went through to have thoughts like that must have been really devastating. My condolences to the people you know in real life that have to deal with your deranged thoughts and actions.

September 25, 2011 at 21:11

It comes down to who you listen to. I choose to listen to engineers, PhDs, and experts in their relative fields. You choose to listen to bloggers who misinterpret diplomatic leaks. Science is science, and North Korea sank a warship.

Even if it was a fabrication (which it’s clearly not), that doesn’t condone North Korea for it’s heinous acts against it’s own citizens, it’s constant threats to the rest of the world, and it’s multiple assassination attempts just to name a few.

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