In 2021, the RAND Corporation and the Asan Institute produced a report on “Countering the Risks of North Korean Nuclear Weapons.”1 Nuclear weapons are but one type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD). The other types are chemical, biological, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, referred to herein as other WMD (OWMD). This report is a follow-on joint effort that characterizes the North Korean OWMD and cyber threats.
The North Korean regime perceived decades ago that it needed to field powerful military weapons to secure the survival of the regime and to position it to dominate the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and impose unification on the ROK. Initially denied access to nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, North Korea pursued chemical and biological weapons. More recently, it has also pursued EMP and cyber capabilities. But in the last two decades, North Korea has acquired significant nuclear weapon capabilities, as described in our 2021 report.
Despite fielding many nuclear weapons, North Korea retains OWMD capabilities and is actively using its cyber capabilities. How does the North use these weapons to affect the peacetime and prepare for a major war with the ROK that could differ significantly from a conflict with just conventional weapons that is normally expected? We have sought to describe these activities based on open literature, while recognizing the serious uncertainties in each of these areas because of North Korean information denial. We also propose options that the ROK-U.S. could take to defend themselves against these weapons. We ultimately hope that stronger ROK-U.S. defenses will help deter North Korean aggression.
This report compiles information on North Korean OWMD and cyber capabilities from a wide range of open sources. The authors then employ their military expertise, knowledge of North Korea, and the history of North Korean OWMD and cyber usage to identify how these capabilities are and could be used in peacetime and to postulate how they might be used in crises or wartime. The basic theory of deterrence is presented with an explanation of how the ROK-U.S. could use that theory to support deterrence of North Korean attacks. Simple estimates of the potential areas affected by OWMD and the population densities in the ROK were used to estimate potential civilian casualties caused by OWMD employment, while the effects on facilities and equipment were drawn from various sources. The authors then compiled options for countering these threats, adding some innovative proposals of their own.
Our examination of the North Korean OWMD and cyber threats led us to conclude the following:
• North Korea has apparently amassed a substantial inventory of chemical weapons (reportedly 2,500 to 5,000 tons), but an unknown quantity of biological weapons. It likely has sufficient nuclear weapons to execute nuclear EMP attacks, but an unknown capability to execute conventional EMP attacks. North Korea has created a very active cyber hacker force, though its ability to penetrate cyber defenses around key ROK-U.S. infrastructure is not known (but they likely have some successes over time).
• North Korea primarily uses its nuclear weapons rather than OWMD for peacetime deterrence, coercion, and influence. North Korea has apparently avoided employment of OWMD except for reportedly testing chemical and biological weapons on people and carrying out some assassinations with chemical weapons. North Korea’s peacetime restraint has probably been due to its fear of a retaliation that could jeopardize regime survival.
• North Korea has actively employed its cyber capabilities in peacetime to collect information, steal money, and cause damage (e.g., the Sony Pictures hack).
• North Korean provocations in peacetime have many purposes, but internally, a key purpose is demonstrating North Korean regime empowerment to counteract the regime’s many failings. Externally, Kim Jong-un seeks to demonstrate North Korean superiority over the ROK,2 as well as his claim that North Korea is a peer of the United States.
• North Korea seeks to exercise influence over South Korea as well as the United States through provocations. North Korean peacetime provocations pose a risk of escalation to war, which could include WMD use. And North Korean provocations such as missile and nuclear weapon tests also facilitate the growth in the North Korean WMD threats—something the ROK-U.S. want to prevent.
• North Korea may in the future more aggressively employ its OWMD and cyber capabilities in peacetime, anticipating that its nuclear “shadow” would deter many ROK-U.S. responses.
• In wartime, North Korea would likely employ all of its WMD and cyber capabilities, including nuclear weapons, hoping to win the conflict and avoid suffering regime destruction. These weapons would substantially transform the nature of a major war in Korea and cause immense damage to ROK-U.S. military capabilities and civil society. Failure to adequately prepare for such a conflict could be a disaster for the ROK-U.S.
Based on the available open information, we therefore recommend the following lines of effort:
• Countering limited OWMD/cyberattacks. To deter any North Korean limited employment of OWMD and cyber capabilities, the ROK-U.S. need to enhance their ability to detect and attribute North Korean attacks. North Korea needs to understand that even limited WMD attacks would constitute an act of war and be hard to distinguish from precursor attacks before a major invasion. If the ROK-U.S. judge that a major war is actually starting, they would be fully justified in launching an early conventional counterforce response to eliminate North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, in an effort to blunt the expected subsequent North Korean main attack that the regime has said it would use to eliminate the ROK military forces in a single strike.3
• Countering major OWMD/cyberattacks. ROK-U.S. military planning needs to assume that a North Korean invasion of the ROK would include the employment of nuclear weapons, OWMD, and major cyberattacks. They need to develop the strategy and capabilities for such a conflict, including surveillance and warning approaches, counterforce operations, active defenses, passive defenses, recovery and reconstitution, and civil defense. The ROK-U.S. governments and the Combined Forces Command (CFC) may have done these things, but if not, they should. A “strategic deterrence and warfighting group”4 could recommend the strategy and capabilities needed to enhance deterrence against the North’s threats and to defeat it if deterrence fails. The ROK-U.S. CFC should build a war plan consistent with the proposed strategy, and the ROK-U.S. governments should fund the capability enhancements needed to implement the strategy and war plan.
• Deterring conflict. The ROK-U.S. should seek to deter all North Korean provocations. This recommendation goes beyond provocations involving OWMD and cyberattacks because of the escalatory nature of any confrontation with North Korea and because the North’s perceived “nuclear shadow” may increase North Korean willingness to escalate to OWMD use. The ROK-U.S. need to convey to North Korea the costs it will pay for any provocations. For example, this strategy could respond to the North’s ballistic missile tests that the ROK-U.S. have been allowing with a flood of outside information into the North about ROK society and culture (which Kim Jong-un considers a “vicious cancer”5). The ROK-U.S. could also consider publicly revealing Chinese and other violations of the United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions against North Korea. And they could threaten to interdict and seize North Korean ships carrying cargos such as coal that violate UN Security Council sanctions, disrupting North Korean access to the hard currency that supports its military programs.
• Counter claims of hostility. The ROK-U.S. could undermine the Kim family regime’s justification for escalation of peninsula confrontations by asserting and demonstrating that the ROK-U.S. are not hostile toward North Korea. This can be done in part by actively rebutting North Korean misinformation on ROK-U.S. hostility. In addition, the ROK-U.S. could take the initiative on negotiations by unilaterally implementing a “carrot and stick” strategy, avoiding North Korea’s refusal to negotiate. The ROK-U.S. could propose an initial warm-up offer to the North, including some Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID) vaccines, academic opportunities for young North Koreans, and seeking UN agreement to relax some of the textile-related export sanctions. In exchange, the ROK-U.S. could seek inspection of the reported Kangson uranium enrichment facility and the KN-23 ballistic missile. If North Korea refuses, many North Korean elites would likely be upset by Kim’s refusal (one “stick”). A second stick could be the ROK-U.S. tightening the economic sanctions on North Korea by interdicting and seizing North Korean ships involved in illicit ship-to-ship transfers (perhaps putting pressure on China to join in the interdictions).
• Breaking the negotiation impasse. North Korea has made it appear to many inside the North and outside that the onus for resolving U.S./North Korean problems is on the United States. By making reasonable and even generous proposals to the North, the United States may be able to break the North’s negotiation impasse and shift the onus to the North if it refuses proposed ROK-U.S. agreements.
About This Report
Chapter 1. Introduction
North Korean Objectives and the North’s Strategy
North Korean Use of Asymmetric Means
What Must the Republic of Korea and the United States Do to Counter These Threats?
Organization of This Report
Chapter 2. The North Korean Chemical Weapon Threat
Background of North Korean Chemical Weapon Threats
Overview of the North Korean Chemical Weapon Capabilities
The Types, Effects, and Persistence of North Korean Chemical Weapons
Quantity of North Korean Chemical Weapons
Chemical Weapon Delivery
What Impact Might Chemical Weapon Use Have?
Potential North Korean Use of Chemical Weapons
How North Korea Might Use Chemical Weapons for Limited Attacks in Peacetime
North Korean Chemical Weapons Proliferation
How North Korea Might Use Chemical Weapons for Major Attacks and War
Potential Republic of Korea and United States Counters to North Korean Chemical Weapons
Left of Launch
Retaliation and Cost Imposing
Combining Defenses and Retaliation to Achieve Deterrence
Chapter 3. North Korean Biological Weapons Threat
Background on Biological Weapons
North Korean Biological Weapons Threat
Korean Hemorrhagic Fever
Possible North Korean Uses of Biological Weapons
Potential Republic of Korea and United States Counters to North Korean Biological Weapons
Left of Launch
Passive Defenses and Consequence Management
Retaliation and Cost Imposing Combining Defenses and Retaliation to Achieve Deterrence
Chapter 4. The North Korean Electromagnetic Pulse Threat
An Electromagnetic Pulse Overview
North Korean Nuclear Forces
Potential North Korean Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks
Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks on the Republic of Korea
Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks on the United States
North Korea’s Nonnuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Capabilities
Potential Republic of Korea and United States Counters to North Korean
Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks
Chapter 5. The Threat of North Korean Cyber Capabilities
Overview of the North Korean Cyber Threat
The Character and Quantity of North Korean Cyber
What Cyber Capabilities Would North Korea Likely Use?
Potential North Korean Uses of Cyber for Strategic Effects in Peacetime
How Might North Korea Use Cyber for Coercive and Warfighting Purposes?
What Impact Might North Korean Cyberattacks Have?
Potential Republic of Korea and United States Responses to North Korean Employment of Cyber
Chapter 6. Characterizing and Countering North Korean Combined Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Employment
Projecting North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Employment
What Can North Korea Do with Its Other Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Capabilities?
Achieving Synergistic Effects
Would North Korea Be Willing to Employ Its Other Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Capabilities?
North Korean Peacetime Uses of Other Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Capabilities
North Korean Uses of Other Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Capabilities in Crisis or Limited Conflict
North Korean Uses of Other Weapons of Mass Destruction and Cyber Capabilities in Major War
North Korean Preparations for Major War
North Korean Execution of a Major War
Regime Survival After a North Korean Invasion of the Republic of Korea Is Stopped
Seeking to Counter Chinese Intervention
Proposed Republic of Korea and United States Responses
A “Carrot and Stick” Strategy
Appendix. Technical Description of Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse
The Report is a product of joint research between the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and RAND Corporation
- 1. Bennett et al., 2021.
- 2. Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, has said: “We will not fire even a single bullet or shell towards South Korea. It is because we do not regard it as a match for our armed forces” (Siladitya Ray, “Kim Jong-Un’s Powerful Sister Threatens Nuclear Elimination of South Korea’s Military After Pre-Emptive Strike Warning,” Forbes, April 5, 2022).
- 3. This description draws on Kim Yo-jong’s wording in Thomas Maresca, “N. Korea Warns of Nuclear Response to South If Attacked: ‘Total Destruction and Ruin,’” United Press International, April 5, 2022.
- 4. This would be a group familiar with integrated conventional and nuclear warfighting, probably best practiced last in Europe in the 1980s. They could advise senior ROK-U.S. military leaders on the potential impact of North Korean nuclear weapon, OWMD, and cyber employment and U.S. nuclear weapon responses in a future conflict and assist the responsible authorities in developing appropriate strategies and military plans.
- 5. Choe Sang-Hun, “Kim Jong-Un Calls K-Pop a ‘Vicious Cancer’ in the New Culture War,” New York Times, June 10, 2021.