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What Would Happen if North Korea Fired Off a Nuclear Weapon?

Many people assume that in the event that North Korea carried out a nuclear strike, successful or not, the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to turn the North into a crater.

If they use a nuclear weapon, do we want to pave Pyongyang and kill a million citizens? If the intent is to take out the leadership and that can be done with precision guided munitions, is it in global interests to use nuclear weapons? The answer is unclear.

“U.S. nuclear strategy is evolving away from an automatic ‘they use nukes, we use nukes, we take out every city they have’ response,” Klingner told TheDCNF, adding that if North Korea launches a nuclear strike, “it may not be an automatic nuclear response if we can accomplish our objectives through other means.”

The decision to use nuclear weapons to retaliate against North Korea would be a political decision, one likely based on the resulting public outcry, as well as the target and whether the attack was successful or not.

“The United States maintains and updates numerous scenarios for potential military contingencies, and ones regarding North Korea are frequently reviewed,” Baker told TheDCNF, “A limited North Korean action may initially engender a large U.S. military buildup and emergency action in the United Nations, but full military intervention would not likely be far behind.”

Once war breaks out, the situation quickly becomes much more complicated. The U.S. and its allies have the advantage, but any war on the peninsula would almost certainly be a high-casualty conflict.

While South Korea and Japan have their own armed forces, they would still be largely reliant on the U.S. for defense in the event of a serious crisis. South Korea does, however, have an independent strategy known as the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan, the third phase of the country’s three-stage defense.

The KMPR plan involves using special forces to cripple North Korean assets and eliminate the leadership. The South would also mobilize its missile and artillery forces.

South Korea’s KMPR plan focuses on the complete annihilation of certain essential pockets of Pyongyang.

“The North’s capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map,” an unnamed defense official revealed to The Korea Times, “Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells.”

Japan is considering developing defensive, counter-attack capabilities, but those discussions are still in the early phases.

Relying on conventional weapons alone, North Korea is unlikely to survive a protracted military conflict, but this is where multiple weapons of mass destruction come into play.

“North Korea could potentially cause massive damage to Seoul and its surrounding areas” in a conflict, Dr. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, previously told TheDCNF. “If North Korea restrains itself and only employs conventional weapons in an assault on South Korea, it is unlikely to overwhelm South Korea’s defenses. But if it uses weapons of mass destruction and other asymmetric approaches, the North may be able to overcome South Korean defenses — there are always large uncertainties in any war.”

“I’m confident of the outcome of that war, which would be the defeat of North Korea,” former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told ABC reporters, “I need to caution you … This is a war that would have an intensity of violence associated with it that we haven’t seen since the last Korean War. Seoul is right there on the borders of the DMZ, so even though the outcome is certain, it is a very destructive war.”

Who Would North Korea Bomb?

The North regularly threatens nuclear war against the U.S., which is perceived in Pyongyang as the greatest threat to the country’s long-term survival. It is unlikely, however, that North Korea has developed the long-range missile technology required to strike the continental U.S.

Still, the North is working tirelessly to develop a reliable, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile and may be there in a matter of years.

“There is a real possibility that North Korea will be able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile by the end of the first Trump term,” K.T. McFarland, the deputy White House national security adviser, previously remarked.

“We don’t know where they are on the path, but we know what path they are on,” Klingner told TheDCNF.

North Korea has launched satellites using Taepodong-style rockets, which could potentially serve as the technological foundation for an ICBM. The country has developed improved rocket engines that are better than most experts previously suspected. Also, the North appears to be working on two road-mobile ICBMs, the KN-08 and KN-14.

But, while the North has made clear progress, they have not yet demonstrated re-entry vehicle capability, and they are still developing a suitable nuclear warhead.

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