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Tactical Nuclear Weapons: North Korea's Next Lethal Weapon of War?

On March 2, 2016, Kim Jong Un gave direction to the military to “get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired at any moment.” The North reiterated versions of this formulation for days afterwards, including a “preemptive nuclear strike of justice.” These threats drew international attention because of concerns about the prospect of imminent violence, particularly in the wake of unprecedented UN sanctions and the kickoff of Key Resolve, the combined US-ROK annual military exercise.

But focusing on the possibility of near term violence obscures a potentially more dangerous longer term shift: Is North Korea signaling an intention to embrace tactical nuclear weapons? The answer is still unclear, but that option seems increasingly plausible. This should become a serious line of debate for Korea watchers because such a turn has critical consequences for how we think about deterrence and war-fighting on the Korean peninsula.

Why a Tactical Nuclear Turn Is Plausible

The threat of preemptive strikes from North Korea is hardly new. In 2010 alone, North Korea threatened a “preemptive nuclear attack” 20 times. And the typical formulation of North Korean threat rhetoric has often been to establish some “red line” condition—the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s, for instance—that would lead to North Korea launching a full attack, even at the risk of suicide. Scholars (including me) have likewise argued that North Korea has strong incentives to launch preemptive strikes if it believes the survival of the regime is in jeopardy.

While Kim’s recent nuclear threats are in keeping with the types of vitriol the North has unleashed in the past, they are also suggestive—in part because it has a continuous track record of these types of threats—of a North Korea that sees its nuclear weapons as inherently usable. Declaring the deployment or operationalization of nuclear weapons is as close as outside observers are likely to get to North Korea offering doctrinal specificity, and such statements imply Pyongyang may see its nuclear arsenal as something more than a symbolic shield against an invasion (notably, the North also links—rather than decouples—its references to nuclear attacks with the Korean People’s Army, which leaves open the interpretation they are an intrinsic part of warfighting).

But the plausibility of North Korea going down the path of developing tactical nuclear weapons derives from more than merely parsing its external messaging in a particular way, or the fact that Kim made the nuclear readiness statement during the unveiling of a new multiple rocket launcher system. A tactical turn for North Korea would also reflect the dictum that credible threats are usable threats. North Korea must know that it has a credibility problem thanks to a history of bluster. Nuclear-armed missiles do not help remedy that problem; their only plausible kinetic use would be to try to stave off imminent invasion or regime decapitation. North Korea has many goals beyond just survival though, and the military instrument has long been one way it pursues these goals. The question is whether the Kim regime believes that nuclear weapons can be used for something other than survival. The answer, unfortunately, may well be that North Korea believes employing nuclear-armed artillery, rockets, landmines or anything else that would result in low-yield nuclear detonations against localized targets in South Korea will not trigger massive alliance retaliation.

In the past, most crises on the Korean peninsula have been triggered by an alliance caught off guard by North Korean violence despite, in many cases, receiving advanced and explicit warnings from the North about what it intended to do. The reason for the alliance’s historical dismissal of these threats, of course, was entirely due to the latter’s track record of empty threat-making; it was impossible for American and South Korean officials to separate meaningful signals from oceans of noise. Tactical weapons do not make up for this history of hollow threat rhetoric, but they are generally thought of as more employable during combat scenarios than nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Our own history of developing tactical nuclear weapons for the European theater originated with the goal of usable—and by extension, more credible—options to counter a Soviet invasion of Europe without automatically being boxed into launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (and therefore unrestricted nuclear war). Minimally, the development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons makes their use thinkable; militaries will plan to use them if they have them. So to the extent North Korea wishes to shore up its threat credibility problem or attempt to extract coercive leverage from its nuclear arsenal beyond just existential deterrence, tactical nuclear weapons may seem a logical (if mistaken) way of doing so.

The Danger of a Tactical Nuclear Turn

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