James Holmes

North Korea’s Nuclear War Plan: “Go Nuts” and ‘Dig in”

With a small nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang may need to adopt a truly frightening atomic doctrine.

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.

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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.