Recent posts by Tanya Ogilvie-White, Ron Huisken, and Rod Lyon provide stimulating perspectives on North Korea’s evolving strategy and international responses to it. The lion’s share of recent commentary on North Korea has tended to focus on the regime’s increasingly erratic behavior and the question of whether it really does intend to provoke war with the US and South Korea. Most observers have cautioned against taking the regime’s over-the-top threats literally, arguing that the current crisis merely reflects standard operating procedure by Pyongyang—threats aimed at extracting concessions from the US and its allies and/or reinforcing the regime’s grip on domestic power.
Leaving aside the question of whether these hypotheses are persuasive, North Korea’s declaratory approach to nuclear weapons has taken a sharper turn more recently. The theme of coercion has become more prominent in official statements this year, which appear to reflect the belief that nuclear weapons can be used to exert strategic leverage. This is a step up from the relatively modest deterrence aims that underpinned North Korea’s nuclear rhetoric after it formally announced its status as a nuclear weapons state in 2005 and indicates that the regime has real ambitions in terms of the future payoffs it expects from possessing nuclear weapons. It’s significant that references to first strike, or ‘pre-emptive’ options have begun to creep into official rhetoric despite North Korea’s formal commitment to a no-first use policy made after its 2006 test.
Yet, for all the focus on the DPRK’s political strategy with respect to nuclear weapons, we tend to overlook what its military strategy might look like. As with all other nuclear powers, North Korea will have developed operational plans to employ its nuclear forces in a wartime scenario. Its plans are likely to include counterforce (military and industrial) targets as well as countervalue targets (population centres). It’s highly improbable that the regime has acquired the most powerful weapon on earth simply to bargain it away for aid and/or recognition or to extort concessions from its adversaries. No country acquires a weapons system without a view to potentially using it in conflict, and nuclear weapons are no exception.
Under what potential circumstances might North Korea actually use nuclear weapons? Three probable scenarios present themselves. The first is the last ditch volley, where what’s left of the regime uses nuclear forces to stave off a US–ROK (and, in more creative scenarios, a possible Chinese) move to terminate its existence. The second is nuclear use in the early phase of a war where the regime is motivated by a ‘use it or lose it’ logic, aware that a decapitation strike by allied air power is on the cards (more on this below).
The third is a ‘bolt from the blue’ nuclear attack during a crisis on the peninsula where the regime decides to initiate a strike intended to overpower the resolve of the US and its allies to fight a war, or simply to punish its enemies. This last scenario appears outlandish—surely Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who understands that nuclear use would trigger massive retaliation from the US? But what if he doesn’t? How does his decision to publicly display maps pinpointing major US cities as nuclear targets tally with our definition of what’s rational? We should avoid falling into the trap of assuming reflexively that Kim is embracing Schelling’s ‘rationality of irrationality‘ approach to keep his adversaries off guard. Let’s not forget that he’s in power purely because he is the son of Kim Jong-il. There is no meritocracy in North Korea that runs a slide rule over whether new leaders are psychologically suited for high office.
One issue that has surprisingly received scant attention is the command and control (C2) systems and procedures that North Korea has adopted to manage its nuclear forces. Like all emergent nuclear weapons states, North Korea is almost certainly yet to acquire a secure second strike capability, and therefore currently remains highly vulnerable to a disarming first strike. Pyongyang is probably labouring hard to realise a reliable mobile missile capability, but achieving this might be some time off. Given that the regime is unlikely to transfer pre-delegated launch authority beyond the leadership triumvirate of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, and the Premier of the Cabinet, Pak Pong-jul, North Korea’s national command authority could conceivably be taken out of the picture with effective allied targeting in the opening stages of any conflict.
Some searching questions remain: Are the DPRK’s C2 systems and procedures governed by a hair trigger launch on warning doctrine to minimise the risk of decapitation at the outset of a conflict? Is authorisation for nuclear use pre-delegated to senior military commanders in the event the national command authority is neutralised? Are nuclear devices assembled and ready to go, or are they disassembled and stored at secure locations?
Given the impenetrable intelligence target that North Korea presents, answers to these questions aren’t likely to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. But one thing is for certain: future crises will become increasingly unstable as uncertainty builds over the nature of North Korea’s nuclear C2 systems and procedures.
Andrew O’Neil is professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University and director of the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.