The Debate

With North Korean Nukes, More May Be Better

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The Debate

With North Korean Nukes, More May Be Better

South Korea’s active deterrence policy combined with a small, vulnerable DPRK arsenal would be the height of instability.

As noted on Flashpoints today, South Korea held its largest Armed Forces Day ceremony in a decade this week, parading around some “11,000 troops, 190 weapons systems and other equipment and 120 aircraft.” Among the impressive display was South Korea’s new long-range cruise missile, the Hyunmu-3, which has a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). In other words, it can reach all of North Korea.

This was clearly intended to send a message to Pyongyang. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, however, ROK President Park Geun-hye gave a speech at the ceremony hammering the point home to the North.

In the speech, Park said that, “against the backdrop” of North Korea’s budding nuclear arsenal, “it is imperative that the South builds a strong deterrent against the North until it abandons the nuclear programs.” She followed this up by saying:

“By quickly securing abilities to counter nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, including through the Kill-Chain system and the Korean Air and Missile Defense system, while maintaining a strong ROK-US combined defense system, I will make sure that the North Korean regime recognizes that the nuclear arms and missiles to which it clings are no longer useful.”

With this statement Park reaffirmed the ROK’s military’s new “active deterrence” policy, which was unveiled in the spring. As I’ve described before, with the Kill-Chain Korean Air and Air and Missile Defense systems, South Korea is trying to acquire what amounts to a conventional first strike/counterforce strategy to handle North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Thus, it is acquiring the necessary ISR and prompt strike precision-guided missile capabilities to preempt any launch by North Korea of its nuclear warheads.

Under this scenario, South Korea would try to detect when Pyongyang is about to launch a suspected nuclear-armed missile and destroy the launch site before the missile is airborne. Presumably, if it decided to attack one nuclear site, it would simultaneously try to destroy all of North Korea’s nuclear warheads and/or delivery systems at that time. Its budding missile defense system would be in place to try and catch anything that was missed in the first strike.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey were in attendance for Park’s speech. They were in country not just to celebrate South Korea’s Armed Forces Day but also to participate in the 45th ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and 38th ROK-U.S. Military Committee Meeting (MCM).

In the joint communique coming out of the former meeting between Hagel and his ROK counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, the two allies laid out a new strategy they referred to as the “Tailored Deterrence Strategy Against North Korean Nuclear and other WMD Threats.” By all appearances this amounted to a U.S. endorsement of South Korea’s first strike counterforce strategy against Pyongyang.  

It’s entirely understandable why South Korea and its U.S. ally would want to acquire the capability to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a first strike, and indeed it might have even been perplexing if Seoul had not sought such a capability. Nonetheless, it is likely to help destabilize the Korean Peninsula.

I’m in firm agreement that the U.S. and South Korea should refuse to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state, and demand its complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament. Acknowledging Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state would offer no tangible benefits that I can see, and North Korea surrendering its arsenal would be a very welcome development.

Nonetheless, I would like to believe I remain in touch with reality enough to realize that North Korea, at least under the current regime, is most likely not going to agree to these terms. Instead it is almost certainly on its way to acquiring some sort of usable nuclear capability. As such, it will have to adopt a nuclear doctrine, which, like all other nuclear powers, is contingent on (among other things) its nuclear capabilities and the threats it faces.

Nuclear powers are particularly concerned with ensuring their nuclear forces are not destroyed by an adversary’s first strike, which would tempt the adversary to carry out a first strike in the first place and if successful leave the former nuclear state completely at the mercy of this adversary. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union went to absurd lengths to protect their huge nuclear arsenals from a first strike by the other, and Pakistan is nearly as vigilant today.

Protecting its arsenal from a first strike is a particularly thorny issue for countries that have small nuclear arsenals and limited delivery systems. On these counts, North Korea will exceed every prior nuclear weapon state. For one thing, it doesn’t have the capability to make enough fissile material for more than a bomb or two a year. Thus, it will take many years to build up a sizeable nuclear arsenal regardless of how much money it is willing to invest. Secondly, it simply doesn’t have that much money to invest in building and maintaining a nuclear force large enough to give it some confidence that it would survive a first strike.

Thus, North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is likely going to be geared towards keeping its nuclear-armed missiles on hair trigger alert, ready to launch at a moment’s notice to avoid being destroyed by a preventive or preemptive attack (assuming it can build solid-fuel missiles at some point, which doesn’t seem a stretch). Given America’s precision and nuclear capabilities, this was always inevitable to a degree.

Yet South Korea’s active deterrence strategy will make the dangers inherent in such an unstable situation all the more severe. Pyongyang will be especially conscious of not wanting what it considers its equal to forcibly disarm it with a preemptive attack. Moreover, South Korea’s close monitoring of North Korea’s missile sites creates the possibility that it will mistakenly believe that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear attack against it, and thus order a preemptive attack. On the flipside, North Korea could mistakenly conclude that South Korea is trying to destroy its nuclear arsenal and order it launched immediately. All of this is of course possible if the U.S. alone was monitoring these sites. Yet superior U.S. ISR and precision-strike capabilities, and the distance between North Korea and the U.S. homeland, makes it far less likely than is the case with South Korea.      

The best option on the Korean Peninsula remains a non-nuclear armed North Korea. Should this fail, we may face a perverse and paradoxical dilemma: it may be better that North Korea acquire a reasonably large nuclear arsenal than an inherently small one. Such is the reality given the inherent instability of a situation in which South Korea operating under active deterrence is squaring off against a North Korea with a small and vulnerable nuclear arsenal.