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What Is North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy?

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What Is North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy?

A look at how Pyongyang views — and might use — its nuclear weapons.

What Is North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While there can be no certainty about how North Korea views its nuclear arsenal and how it might be employed, I have growing doubts about many contemporary arguments advanced by North Korea and nuclear experts. The collective conventional wisdom seems to point to a peacetime nuclear first-use strategy (dubbed “asymmetric escalation”) or a “catalytic” strategy intended for the principal purpose of scaring China into intervening on North Korea’s behalf.

There are numerous reasons to be skeptical about either of these strategies. Instead, evidence and logic seem to support the idea that North Korea is seeking an assured retaliation capability in peacetime, and a wartime strategy of asymmetric escalation.

In his recent book, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, Vipin Narang suggests three types of nuclear strategies facing nascent nuclear states: catalytic; asymmetric escalation; and assured retaliation. Nuclear posture can serve other types of purposes, but Narang makes a strong case that these are the three most relevant to politico-military strategy. In a catalytic strategy, nuclear weapons serve the purpose of bringing a patron closer to its nuclear weapon-wielding client. Asymmetric escalation relies on nuclear first-use as a way of compelling de-escalation in a crisis or conflict, or to reap political benefit. And an assured retaliation strategy deploys nuclear weapons with the aim of ensuring its nuclear force can survive any first strike on it to launch nuclear second-strikes in turn.

Surprisingly, Narang does not take up the case of North Korea in his mostly well-conceived book, but he obliges us with a spinoff article applying his book’s framework to North Korea. His argument, in effect, is that we should expect North Korea to choose a catalytic nuclear strategy that would scare China into joining a conflict on its side, assuming North Korea believes China would be reasonably likely to do so. If North Korea does not see China as a likely or reliable patron, then North Korea would likely move to an asymmetric escalation posture. The historical basis for this logic is most closely found in the case of South Africa, whose nuclear posture was intended to draw the United States into protecting it against a potential Soviet threat during the Cold War. I find this line of reasoning to be completely rational, and completely wrong.

Unsurprisingly, you’ll find nary a Korea watcher who thinks North Korea’s nuclear weapons are about China, and I happen to think they’re correct about that narrow point. Empirically, in the context of Sino-North Korean relations, a catalytic strategy ignores several historical and contemporary realities. One is that North Korea has a history of foreign policy independence from China even as it has tried to extract resources and security benefits from it. Another is North Korea’s juche (roughly but not precisely translated as “self-reliance”) ethos, which would be unlikely to allow it to pursue a deliberate strategy of dependence on another state. This isn’t to say that North Korea wouldn’t seek Chinese support in a conflict; it almost certainly would, and did in 1950. But that’s a distinct question from whether they would pursue effectively a defense strategy that couldn’t be executed without relying on the Chinese. A third challenge to the catalytic argument is the distant nature of North Korea’s contemporary relationship with China, which has grown increasingly strained since Kim Jong-un ascended to power.

There are also logical problems with the claim of a North Korean nuclear strategy designed as primarily catalytic. It is difficult to concede that a new nuclear state would leverage its nuclear status for the deliberate purpose of drawing others to its side. Drawing such a conclusion is difficult not simply because chain-ganging is rare, but also because of Narang’s caveat that North Korea would only choose a catalytic strategy if it believed its patron’s security commitment would be credible.  If the patron’s security commitment is not credible, which is often the case in international relations, then the catalytic approach makes no sense. Yet if the security commitment is credible, then a catalytic nuclear strategy would be unnecessary because patron intervention would be expected anyway.

Asymmetric Escalation in War, Not in Peace

So if a catalytic posture can’t be taken seriously as nuclear strategy, then North Korea is effectively left with asymmetric escalation and assured retaliation strategies. A couple months ago I debated precisely this question with a couple of colleagues at a small seminar in Washington, which can be viewed here. I partially disagree with what seems to be the prevailing wisdom: North Korea intends its nuclear weapons for the purpose of asymmetric escalation, partly because I find cause to separate peacetime and wartime nuclear logics.

Of course, North Korea’s rhetoric would have us believe it already employs an asymmetric escalation strategy, but its credibility is hampered by capability limitations and its track record of dubious military posturing and threat making. The question facing the United States and South Korea is whether to believe them (a subject of my forthcoming book). There are several reasons to doubt North Korea on this point during peacetime, but believe it during periods of conflict.

First, a peacetime asymmetric escalation strategy would seem to subvert North Korea’s widely acknowledged primary goal of regime survival. North Korea should want the outside world to believe it’s willing to go nuclear first because it might accrue some political benefit through coercion. Perhaps, for instance, the alliance will hesitate to retaliate against a North Korean provocation in peacetime for fear of a conventional conflict escalating to the nuclear level. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggests this type of thinking existed among some in the Obama administration in 2010 in his memoir. But to actually adopt an asymmetric escalation posture in peacetime — as opposed to bluffing that it has one — would risk North Korea triggering regime change (the eventuality it most seeks to avoid) simply for coercive gain.

Second, North Korea has a track record of over-hyping its military capabilities. Not only are there suggestions that its May 2015 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test claim is a farce, but it has also staged artificial missile capabilities in parades and on television to signal that it’s capable of more than it actually is.

Third, if North Korea were pursuing an asymmetric escalation posture, we should expect to see some evidence of it developing tactical nuclear weapons — nuclear-armed artillery, landmines, short-range rockets, or “suitcase bombs.” To date, there is no evidence suggesting North Korea is moving in this direction.

But while there’s reason to doubt North Korea would pursue an asymmetric escalation strategy during peacetime, there are also reasons to expect that, during periods of war, North Korea might adopt an asymmetric escalation posture. During a conflict, North Korea would not only have fewer incentives to restrain its nuclear use, but would have at least two types of incentives supporting the argument for nuclear use.

One type of incentive is, as Keir Lieber and Daryl Press have argued, essentially “use or lose,” fearing that in the midst of conflict regime change seems either imminent or inevitable. Nuclear weapons employment is completely rational in a mindset of fear-based desperation; a last ditch effort to change the balance in a conflict. Another type of incentive for nuclear first-use during conflict is the operations, maintenance, and logistics constraints North Korea would face during any sustained military campaign. A lack of sustained operational capacity creates strong incentives for North Korea to de-escalate or close a military campaign as quickly as possible; it might perceive nuclear weapons as a way of achieving this.

A Future of Limited War

Next week I intend to address North Korea’s peacetime nuclear strategy, since I believe it to be neither catalytic nor one of asymmetric escalation. But as the above discussion alone conveys, the idea that in any conflict North Korea would adopt a nuclear posture of asymmetric escalation creates some hard choices for the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

I’ve frequently recommended that the alliance begin contingency planning and scenario-based analysis for limited scope, limited objective conflicts with North Korea (examples here, here, and here). Inferences about North Korea’s likely nuclear strategy during conflict — combined with the trajectory of its nuclear and missile programs — are part of the rationale for that recommendation.