With strategic realities on the Korean Peninsula becoming more “fluid” or multi-faceted through the convergence of conventional, asymmetrical, low-intensity, and non-linear threat dimensions, defense planners in the U.S.-ROK Alliance have been rethinking existing strategies for responding to different levels of threats posed by North Korea.
Since assuming power four years ago, Kim Jong-un’s signature policy has centered on the “Byungjin Line” – simultaneously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons and the development of the national economy. The Byungjin Line has effectively underscored North Korea’s three main national security objectives: (1) preserving the current authority structure under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, (2) improving the country’s dysfunctional struggling economy, and (3) deterring “foreign adversaries” from taking actions which could threaten the regime.
In this context, North Korea’s recent military reforms have also reflected a mutually supporting dual-track approach. On the one hand, North Korea has sought to maintain the credibility and operational readiness of North Korea’s large, forward‐positioned, but technologically obsolete conventional forces; while improving North Korea’s asymmetric deterrence capabilities: from nuclear WMD programs, ballistic missiles, and increasingly cyberwarfare.
At its core, North Korea’s s nuclear program serves multiple functions such as ensuring regime survival and ideological control under the Kim Dynasty by fostering a constant fear of war among its population, deterring an attack by technologically superior U.S.-ROK conventional forces, and providing Pyongyang with political and diplomatic leverage for “coercive campaigns” against all of its neighbors but especially South Korea and China.
Spectrum of Threats
From the U.S.-ROK perspective, the spectrum of threats generated and driven by the North Korean regime has been without parallel. Notwithstanding North Korea’s ongoing military logistics shortages, largely outdated equipment, and inadequate training, its ability to conduct limited‐scale military provocations with little or no warning, especially near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and along the disputed maritime boundary – Northern Limit Line – in the Yellow Sea, cannot be underestimated.
On one hand, the key challenge is ascertaining North Korea’s threshold for limited conflicts, asymmetric attacks, and provocations such as the August 2015 DMZ landmine incident, 2014 cyber attacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment, or the 2010 artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. These attacks, coupled with North Korea’s efforts to upgrade select elements of its conventional and special operations forces, demonstrate North Korea’s political willingness to take risks as well as capabilities to inflict significant damage on South Korea, just below an escalatory threshold of overwhelming U.S.-ROK retaliation that would risk Kim Jong-un’s regime survival.
Meanwhile, North Korea is accelerating, expanding and modernizing its deployed missile forces consisting of close-, short-, medium-, and intermediate-range systems, including the development of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and solid-fueled short-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The ultimate aim is to couple these missile systems with miniaturized nuclear warheads for ballistic missile delivery. In North Korea’s strategic calculus, this capability not only solidifies deterrence against U.S.-ROK military responses or attempts to “overthrow the regime,” but perhaps more importantly, continue to polarize South Korea’s political spectrum and in doing so, divide the U.S.-ROK Alliance.
Searching for a New Strategy
During the first nuclear crisis in 1993 and 1994, the Clinton administration considered preemptive air strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities and ballistic missile sites. The U.S. planned to launch cruise missiles and send F-117 stealth fighters to destroy the plutonium reactor site at Yongbyon, and deny Pyongyang the capability to procure nuclear weapons. Six F-117s were deployed by the U.S. Air Force to the Kunsan Air Base. The plans, however, were eventually rejected given retaliatory risks and escalation pressures that could lead to an all-out war.
In 2006, renewed calls emerged in the U.S. for a surgical strike on North Korea and its ballistic missiles and associated facilities, particularly in the wake of an imminent ballistic missile launch of the long-range Taepodong 2 missile. By then, however, North Korea has reached nuclear weapons capability. Since then, U.S.-ROK defense planners have been searching for a new defense strategy with relevant operational concepts, which would allow greater flexibility, adaptability, and autonomy under conditions of strategic uncertainty.
In March 2011, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense publicly announced a new force modernization plan – “Defense Reform 307,” which introduced the concept of “Proactive Deterrence” as a response to North Korean asymmetric attacks – the sinking of the ROK Navy ship Cheonan and artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong Island. In similar future crises, the ROK would no longer rely on “passive” deterrent (deterrence by denial), but will immediately retaliate by using prompt, focused, and proportional retaliation (deterrence by punishment).
Tailored Deterrence Strategy
At the operational level, “Proactive Deterrence” has been embedded into the “2013 Combined Counter-Provocation Plan (CCP)” that provides a series of options for a joint response, principally under South Korea’s lead with the assistance of U.S. forces, to lower level North Korean provocations short of all-out war. Its principal weakness, however, is that the CCP depends significantly on the intervention of third parties (i.e. Russia and China) to control escalation in case of U.S.-ROK responses would trigger a North Korean counter response.
At the same time, U.S.-ROK officials have been rethinking strategic deterrence against North Korea’s WMD programs. In 2013, they signed the bilateral “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” that “establishes a strategic Alliance framework for tailoring deterrence against key North Korean nuclear threat scenarios across armistice and wartime, and strengthens the integration of alliance capabilities to maximize their deterrent effects.” While details of the strategy remain classified, Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, noted that “the strategy focuses on options that raise the cost of North Korean WMD or ballistic missile use; deny the benefits of their use; and encourage restraint from using WMD or ballistic missiles. The strategy provides bilaterally agreed upon concepts and principles for deterring North Korean WMD use and countering North Korean coercion.”
Press reports indicate that it contains options for preemptive strikes in case of imminent use of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while injecting the U.S. nuclear umbrella into the formal defense planning processes of the U.S.-ROK Alliance. The key challenge, however, will be the ability for the U.S.-ROK forces to distinguish the indications and warnings associated with an impending North Korean asymmetric or limited conventional attack in real time, particularly as North Korea edges closer to road-mobile ICBM capabilities armed with miniaturized nuclear warheads.
Michael Raska is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.