How to Worry Kim Jong-il (Page 2 of 2)

We should be clear that this would not require development of a ‘new’ nuclear weapon because it would be based on an existing weapon and a long-standing military requirement. Such an approach would be consistent with the policy of the Obama administration that stockpile modernization will ‘use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.’

Even so, our recommended effort might still evoke comparisons with the Bush administration’s controversial ‘Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator’ study. To allay these concerns, however, the United States should make clear that, should an underground nuclear explosive test be necessary to confirm the reliability of a modified B83, it would look for other options to meet this military requirement.

Our proposal wouldn’t threaten strategic stability with Moscow or Beijing because of both the number and the nature of the weapons. First, the number of converted penetrators would be kept small, consistent with a niche capability against North Korea, which means they couldn’t threaten the redundant and variegated forces of Russia or China. In any event, we doubt Russia or China would be genuinely threatened by such an effort. Russian officials didn’t object to the development of the B61-11, even though that penetrator was clearly intended to defeat Russian targets in frozen tundra. Indeed, it’s also likely that many important Russian facilities are much too hard for even nuclear weapons.

Nor would our proposal make the B83 ‘more usable’ or lower the threshold for nuclear use. Such a penetrator could only be used, as the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states, in extreme circumstances. Consistent with that reality, the United States should make clear that it would also invest heavily in conventional penetrators and functional defeat approaches that would provide the president with credible, indeed more desirable, non-nuclear options for holding at risk targets in hard rock. Kim will only be more cautious if he knows that the president has a full suite of options, including non-nuclear ones, to get at him wherever he may hide. Until then, however, his realization that he isn’t immune may help him reconsider some of his more reckless behaviour.    

Our first priority at this moment is to ensure the security of allies, particularly Japan and South Korea. It is our security umbrella that allows each state to remain non-nuclear even in the face of North Korea’s provocative behaviour, including its testing and development of nuclear weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the United States has deemphasized its tactical nuclear weapons, affirming that ‘it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula’ in the 2005 Six Party Agreement and announcing plans to retire the nuclear-armed Tomahawk missile by 2013. In response to North Korea's provocative behaviour, calls have arisen in Japan for an independent nuclear capability and in South Korea for the emplacement of US tactical nuclear weapons. Neither of these would be positive developments, but they reflect genuine and reasonable security concerns. Compared to these outcomes, a new casing for the B83 seems a reasonable response to North Korea’s dangerous behaviour.

Kim Jong-il’s aggressive behaviour demonstrates the continuing importance of deterrence. The best US response is to maintain capabilities that clearly demonstrate to him that the United States has a credible and effective option to hold at risk what he values most, while preserving stability and respecting our international non-proliferation commitments. Such a capability would help encourage Kim to err on the side of caution when contemplating provocations that might escalate, such as the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong. A modified B83 is just such a capability.

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Programme at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He also founded and maintains the leading blog on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, Before joining CNS, he was Executive Director of the Nuclear Strategy Initiative at the New American Foundation. Elbridge Colby is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he focuses on strategic, deterrence, proliferation, and related issues. From 2009 to 2010, he served as policy advisor to the Secretary of Defence’s Representative for the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

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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