When we think about anti-access warfighting concepts, we typically think of China. Think again. The technologies that make an anti-access approach to coercion and combat possible have proliferated throughout Asia, including to North Korea. The strategists, policymakers, and contingency planners who make up the U.S.-South Korea alliance must begin thinking about North Korea in these terms, or risk coming up on the losing end of a limited conflict.
In The Diplomat and in a conference where I recently presented on North Korean nuclear strategy, I’ve explained why North Korea seeks an assured retaliation nuclear posture, and why in the midst of a conflict that posture will likely shift to an asymmetric escalation posture. In practical terms, the former implies North Korea would withhold nuclear weapons use to conduct second-strikes in retaliation if attacked, while the latter implies that North Korea would be willing to launch nuclear first-strikes.
North Korea’s choice of nuclear strategy matters for a number of larger questions, like where its nuclear weapons are likely to be located, why it wields nuclear weapons, and how it’s likely to do so. But no matter what type of nuclear strategy North Korea chooses, it’s the North Korean military, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), that would implement that strategy by developing a military campaign plan outlining what forces and weapons would be employed, as well as how those resources would be employed. In this respect, North Korea is no different than any other national military; modern warfare is sufficiently technical and complex that it’s practically impossible for civilian policymakers (who are often laymen in defense affairs) to generate and execute a military campaign. Modern militaries are technocracies.
Like all militaries, the KPA is likely to plan for military campaigns to achieve maximum operational effectiveness. Kim Jong-un can likely weigh in as he pleases to affect specific narrow decisions or issue strategic guidance (such as don’t launch nuclear weapons except on his order), but he can’t draft the plan himself. Given the large and diverse inventory of missiles it continues to refine and invest in, we might then expect that missiles will be relevant as a “force multiplier” in KPA operations.
Although anti-access operations are most often associated with China in U.S. security discourses, most of Asia’s militaries have been making capability investments and re-orienting doctrine to emphasize blunting the power projection capabilities of others. North Korea seems to also be capitalizing on this trend, which has largely been enabled by the region-wide availability of precision-guided munitions.
Several relatively inexpensive North Korean capabilities enable an anti-access concept of operation (CONOP) — that is, the approach a military takes to achieving objectives in a specific military operation. Drones can be used as missile and long-range artillery decoys, or to divert alliance air defense resources as a way to give North Korea’s anemic air force capacity a fighting chance at an offensive mission. Deployed undersea mines, combined with anti-ship cruise missiles, can create significant barriers for U.S. and South Korean naval forces. North Korea’s Nodong missiles can be used to target airbases and ports in South Korea and Japan.
And depending on its ability to steal, procure, or simply reverse engineer Chinese missile capabilities, a North Korean anti-satellite capability is not inconceivable; technology transfer, licit or illicit, has always given North Korea a lethal advantage. All of North Korea’s modern capabilities and projected threats have roots in technology transfer: the KN-08 Transporter Erector Launcher, from China; its anti-ship cruise missile modeled on the Russian KH-35 Uran; the Nodong MRBMs builds on SCUD technology; nuclear knowledge from Pakistan; drone technology from China’s commercial sector; and cyber capabilities from China, which also occasionally serves as a location for launching North Korean cyberattacks.
North Korea’s growing emphasis on missiles of various types, combined with other relatively inexpensive capabilities that can make power projection frustratingly costly, incentivize North Korea to follow the military-technical trend already spreading around Asia favoring anti-access CONOPs.
For those who might think that arguing North Korea would take an anti-access approach simply transposes how the United States thinks about China to North Korea, I would offer two data points that come directly from North Korea that echo the anti-access concept. The first, which occurred during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s, was North Korean threats to U.S. diplomats during the nuclear negotiations. North Korea’s diplomats conveyed that they had studied the U.S. way of war during the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein and would not allow the United States to mobilize large numbers of forces in a staging area outside the Korean Peninsula in preparation for an invasion. If North Korea started seeing large-scale U.S. “force flow,” as the Department of Defense calls it, they would launch a first strike to minimize or prevent it. The second data point comes from studies of North Korean special operations forces, who for decades planned to sabotage South Korean bases and ports at the outset of a conflict specifically to prevent the alliance from projecting force into North Korea. The difference today is that North Korea now has 1,000 missiles that can perform the same mission — destroying ports and bases — as its special forces were once expected to do.
In essence, the U.S. way of war requires projecting sustained power into North Korea by multiple means; North Korea’s missiles are best used to block or erode alliance localized power projection, and that can be achieved relatively cheaply.
The alliance must begin reimagining how North Korea would wage a military campaign. The idea that ballistic missile defense, aircraft carriers, or large numbers of forces from outside the local area could be brought in during the early phase of a crisis sounds reasonable, but may be utterly impractical depending on what North Korea’s priority targets are. How tragic it would be if North Korea, which Richard Nixon once described as a “fourth-rate pipsqueak power,” could checkmate the alliance in a local, limited conflict simply because the alliance hadn’t adequately considered how the KPA would use what it has.