North Korea's Nuclear War Plan: "Go Nuts" and 'Dig in"


Because no survey of newcomers to the second nuclear age would be complete without North Korea, it seems fitting to close out this series with a glance at Pyongyang’s emerging nuclear strategy and doctrine. Professor Terry Roehrig, grand wizard of the Naval War College’s Asia-Pacific Study Group, authors a chapter on the subject in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age. He splashes cold water on the idea that the six-party talks or other negotiations will bring about disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. So, let’s zero in on the operational dimension of North Korean strategy.

Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons. It must now miniaturize its warheads sufficiently to fit on missiles. Then, having produced a battle worthy arsenal, how will the North Korean military arrange its precious weapons on the map to safeguard them against preemptive attack? What kind of doctrine will the leadership adopt to deter South Korea and the United States?

Terry raises a couple of intriguing possibilities. Take the second question first. Knowing that a small force is vulnerable to preemption, the North Korean leadership might embrace a launch-on-warning doctrine. Once the military detects signs of an attack, that is, commanders will cut loose against designated targets. Threatening to go nuts at the slightest affront has been a staple of North Korean diplomacy ever since…well, ever since there has been a North Korea. Adopting such a posture—and putting prospective adversaries on notice that Pyongyang has adopted such a posture—thus would make Seoul and Washington think twice before essaying forcible counterproliferation.

With regard to force dispositions, Roehrig postulates that Pyongyang could deploy its weapons at hardened sites. It would dig in, taking advantage of the peninsula’s mountainous terrain. Deep shelters are notoriously hard to penetrate. Another option would be a road-mobile system by which nuclear-tipped missiles shifted locations randomly to complicate enemy targeting. An undersea nuclear deterrent would be yet another possibility. The former raises security concerns. The latter would depend on North Korea’s ability to master advanced submarine and missile technology. Both look like distant prospects. I’m placing my bets on the low-tech option, underground bunkers.

And where missile sites are located matters. Think about it. Emplacing nukes near the Sino-Korean frontier—as Roehrig suggests Pyongyang might—would deliberately entangle North Korean with Chinese deterrence. U.S. forces might strike at these sites with nuclear weapons or conventional bunker busters. Nuclear preemption could well create nuclear effects spilling across the border.Even conventional strikes would take place too close to the frontier for comfort. Either contingency could set loose the cross-border refugee exodus China’s leadership so fears. Beijing could not stay aloof from a conflict. Embroiling China, consequently, looks like savvy strategy for Pyongyang.

Last week I pronounced apartheid South Africa nutty to try to coerce a great power into siding with it in times of crisis. But never say never. Such a ploy just might work in this case, when the great power adjoins the theater of action and could suffer direct harm from a clash.If so, Seoul and Washington must factor in the likelihood of third-party intervention in any encounter with Pyongyang.

Such are the joys of making strategy in the second nuclear age.

October 27, 2012 at 06:33

The DPRK already has a very robust and survivable missile force by virtue of its mobility,it also would not be too difficult for the dprk navy to adapt some of it subs,probably romeos and mings,to carry short range cruise and ballistic missiles.The inherent problem in trying to destroy a small well dispersed arsenal is can you be sure you have got them all? because if you haven`t  then you`ll know about it damn quick when one of the surviving warheads incenerates a chunk of your military or one of your cities.All in all a very dangerous game its best to just not play it or even to contemplate playing it.

October 26, 2012 at 20:01

A very plausible scenario: a construction of a large-scale tunnel/underground facility beneath a dense wild forest in Chagangdo.  Being inland and isolated from just about everything, that would be a good alternative to a more predictable location in Hamgyong Bukdo or Pyong'an Bukdo (where scrutinizing eyes are constantly monitoring satellite images).  The advantage of constructing a facility deep underground, hidden by the dense forest, is that most of the movement would not be detectable.  Construction and military transport vehicles can easily be disguised as logging truck (a logging site could be located nearby as a cover) or a very common sight of people, both civilians and soldiers, using trucks as buses in rural areas.
Once the construction is very close to completion, the forest could be clear cut (again, disguised as a logging operation), then construct or install a hatch from which an ICBM could be launched.  This could happen very quickly, since all the work would have been done long before all the trees are cut and the area becomes visible to the satellite.
Chaggangdo would be a perfect location also for the reason applesauce mentioned.  It is too close to major population centres in Liaoning Province, and China would not put up with the idea of South Korean, Japanese, or American military anywhere near Yalu River.

October 23, 2012 at 20:35

looking at the placement of their nuclear sites, launched site etc, it seems forcing beijing into any kind of war situation has always been their strategy(aside from going all out immediatly). i highly doubt anyone would launched a 1st stike against NK when you have to hit within 50km of the chinese boarder not to mention if its a long ranged missile, china cannot say for certain that its not heading towards beijing instead of taechon, a conventional strike could leave the very real possiblity that you missed one or more warhead which could then land on seoul. and placing their nuclear stock pile near the chinese boarder does not require additional money or expertise, they have every reason to do it and no reason not to.

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