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Main Points in the Asan-RAND Joint Report “Countering the Risks of North Korean Nuclear Weapons” 

Since the 1950–1953 Korean War, the leaders of North Korea have sought to dominate the entirety of the Korean Peninsula. But due to the lack of political and economic means as well as limitations of its conventional military, North Korea focused their efforts on nuclear weapons. For the past 30 years, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States have tried to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through dialogue. But the effort has failed and seems likely it will continue to fail. Based on this proven thesis, the current study analyzes and forecasts North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability, operations and tactics by 2027, as well as recommending the ROK and the United States on how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear threat.

The North Korean regime is developing nuclear weapons as a means to achieving the following three goals: 1) ensure regime survival and maintain absolute control over its territory; 2) pursue unification with ROK under North Korea’s leadership, as the existence of a free and affluent ROK threatens the regime; and 3) challenge the US dominance and avoid overdependence on China by becoming a regional great power.

It is believed that North Korea possesses the missile borne nuclear capability, which was achieved through the steady advancement in nuclear weapons capability since the first nuclear test in 2006. It is estimated North Korea has acquired 30-36kg of plutonium and between 175kg (min) and 645 kg (max) of enriched uranium as of 2019. Based on these numbers, it is estimated that the total number of North Korea’s nuclear weapons by 2027 would be between 151 and 242, in addition to tens of mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

To this day, North Korea’s nuclear strategy has been focused on deterrence by retaliation as well as decoupling of the ROK-US and US-Japan alliances. But with further advances in nuclear capability, North Korea will be able to employ the nuclear threats and attacks in much more coercive and diverse ways, such as pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The first possibility is the employment of nuclear weapons for blackmail, coercion, and deterrence. A representative example is a scenario in which North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons when the ROK and the United States try to respond to North Korea’s incursions into the Northern Limit Line or the North Korean takeover of the ROK islands in the Yellow Sea.

The second possibility is the limited nuclear use. North Korea would aim to curtail the allies’ willingness to fight by taking Seoul and other major ROK cities as hostages to nuclear strikes, and attacking smaller cities with nuclear weapons to prove its intention. North Korea can also carry out limited nuclear strikes against ROK-US counter offensive forces if the course of the war does not favor it. In case the allies continue to counterattack, North Korea could threaten to respond with nuclear weapons not only against the US bases in the Asia-Pacific region and Japan, but also the US mainland.

The third possibility is a major warfare with nuclear weapons. North Korea can compel ROK’s surrender by attacking the ROK air force and navy’s command and control posts, as well as critical politico-military targets with 40 to 60 nuclear weapons. If the United States and ROK were to counterattack, North Korea could threaten to unleash a full-scale nuclear war that would devastate the Korean peninsula as well as the Asia-Pacific region.

In the fourth possibility North Korea could undermine the US extended deterrence and decouple the alliance by threatening the US mainland with nuclear weapons. Nuclear proliferation is also likely as the fifth possibility, as North Korea may be tempted to sell nuclear weapons abroad once the numbers exceed a hundred.

The United States has mainly been focused on deterring North Korea by threatening it with annihilation if the North were to use nuclear weapons, and reassuring South Korea with the promise of extended deterrence. But as North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities expanded the credibility of US deterrence has greatly diminished and its effectiveness is no longer certain. To avoid a nuclear war, one has to prepare for it, and the ROK-US alliance must emphasize strategic clarity rather than strategic ambiguity. The United States and South Korea must demonstrate the willingness, capability, and posture to wage nuclear warfare. The core message of any counter strategy should clearly signal to North Korea that the use of nuclear weapons will lead to its certain demise, and all options are on the table in this regard.

The ROK-US counter strategy consists of four concepts of deterrence, defeat, defend, and dissuade. First, the alliance must make North Korea understand that the benefits of having nuclear weapons is outweighed by its cost, which is the collapse of the regime. Deterrence has not been effective against North Korea because the United States did neither discuss or nor operationalize the threat of regime annihilation. It should be made clear to North Korea that the use of nuclear weapons, either limited or full scale, will lead to the immediate nuclear retaliation by the United States.

The ROK-US alliance should be ready to defeat North Korea. The allies should destroy and neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile bases, facilities, and command and communication facilities to prevent it from using nuclear tipped missiles. This can be achieved by enhancing counter-leadership and counterforce targeting, as well as the alliance’s capability to intercept and destroy North Korean nuclear weapons. The biggest threat to the ROK-US alliance is the risk of decoupling. The Biden administration should be aware that the ROK could pursue indigenous nuclear capability if the trust in the US defense commitment of the ROK waivers.

Defensive posture (“Defend”) should be strengthened. Strengthening defense increases survivability, enhances deterrence as it lowers the benefits of nuclear use for North Korea, and allows the ROK and the United States to continue to fight even if deterrence fails. Dissuading North Korea’s nuclear use (“Dissuade”) is also an important goal. The ROK and the United States should make North Korea understand that nuclear capability is not an asset but a liability and demonstrate high levels of counter nuclear capability and active threats.

From now on, the ROK and the United States should enhance the alliance’s capability and posture to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. First, the alliance should expand target information capability. It should augment the intelligence capability tracking the positions of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles, and its leadership– including Kim Jong Un– by enhancing and organically linking surveillance satellites, aircrafts, and drones. Moreover, human intelligence should be used to overcome the limitations of sensor-controlled intelligence. Serious considerations should be given to options that deter North Korea’s attempt at nuclear warfare, such as 1) dedicating US strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear platforms to targeting North Korea; 2) deploying the planned US intermediate range ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons in or near the ROK; and 3) deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Korea.

In addition to combining existing missile defense systems to defend military facilities, dispersal and protection measures should be implemented to ensure the survival and operability of the air force against the North Korean nuclear attacks. In addition, since counter response becomes more effective by minimizing civilian casualties, theater wide missile defense and large expansion of civil defense shelters are required. Measures to withstand North Korea’s chemical and biological attacks should be implemented in addition to nuclear protection measures.

To counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons, various counterforce and counter-leadership capabilities need to be developed. The ROK and the United States should greatly expand offensive missile forces, and cyber capability should be employed not only for defense but offense as well. If North Korea’s nuclear inventory exceeds certain threshold (80~100), South Korea and the United States should consider openly deploying 8~12 tactical nuclear weapons (B61-12) and dual capable aircrafts that can target the North Korean leadership hidden in deep underground bunkers.

The Combined Forces Command (CFC) should include the nuclear warfare that counters North Korea’s nuclear threats in its operational plans, and accumulate operational experience by holding exercises. It should be noted that the importance of the United Nations Command (UNC) as a force and facility provider will only increase under the growing North Korean threat, and UNC’s role should be strengthened and made use of accordingly. The transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) should be delayed until the provision of nuclear weapons support to the ROK by the United States becomes certain. The ROK and the United States should consider maintaining the CFC in the meantime.

If North Korea’s nuclear development continues, psychological operations (PSYOP) to influence North Korean elites’ thinking and undermine regime stability should be implemented. It is also important to gain China’s support for North Korea’s denuclearization: The ROK-US alliance should engage with the Chinese leadership and convince them through dialogue that North Korea’s nuclear development is a serious threat against their country.

Denuclearization dialogue with North Korea should continue, but if North Korea does not change its ways then the denuclearization negotiation should be backed by strong military pressure and economic sanctions. The United States should hold regular contacts with North Korea and China and explain the possibility of nuclear weapons deployment to the ROK if North Korea’s ICBM inventory grew too large. In addition, the ROK and the United States must prepare options to respond proportionally to North Korea’s provocations and limited attacks. For instance, the ROK and the United States could sanction and even seize ships involved in coal export and the ship-to-ship transfer of petroleum products if North Korea carried out ballistic missile tests.

This study proposes the establishment of “Team of Strategic Advisers” to evaluate and develop implementations of measures proposed in the report. This group will also perform the role of the nuclear planning group, which provides advice, education, and training on how to carry out nuclear warfare.

Finally, additional research is required on how to counter the threats posed by North Korea’s biochemical and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, which weren’t addressed in the current study.