Learning to Live with a Nuclear North Korea

February 24, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaKim Jong UnNuclearCrisisDonald Trump

Learning to Live with a Nuclear North Korea

Despite vague commitments made at the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, Pyongyang has taken no concrete steps since then to dismantle or substantively disable its nuclear weapons program.

Play the Nuclear Card 

The U.S. dialogue with South Korea on extended deterrence has apparently not sufficiently eased Seoul’s nuclear anxieties. This is underscored by public comments from prominent South Koreans, including former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, suggesting the ROK might consider its own nuclear option. At present, the Moon government would fear—and oppose—the escalatory risks of raising the U.S. nuclear profile in and around South Korea. But over time, if faced with unconstrained North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles or the deployment of mobile ICBMs, this calculus could change for both a progressive and conservative government, especially if there is a groundswell of public sentiment in favor of South Korean nuclear weapons development.

While South Korean nuclear anxieties are understandable, there is no obvious military requirement or, at best, marginal deterrent value in reintroducing U.S. Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNW) into South Korea. The U.S. nuclear umbrella, which includes sea-based weapons in the Western Pacific and conventional forces in the ROK, supply more than enough deterrent to DPRK nuclear use. Any value in reintroducing TNW would be principally psychological but still may prove a compelling argument.

For a progressive ROK government that feels a growing domestic pressure to “do something” but doesn’t want to take serious decisions about hardware, options such as more frequent deployments of U.S. nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines, and U.S. dual-capable aircraft at bases in the ROK might prove reassuring and less divisive than the issues surrounding the redeployment of U.S. TNW.  Additionally, better informing the Korean public about the strength of deterrence might help bolster reassurance. 


In sum, the U.S. strategy requires a strong but confident and realistic response to the new predicament on the Korean Peninsula. A resumption of DPRK IRBM or ICBM tests will not threaten the effectiveness of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis North Korea. There is no need to panic or overreact to future North Korean missile or nuclear tests and deployments. The current equilibrium of mutual deterrence remains stable, though we must recognize we are in uncharted waters and respond accordingly.  

But above-mentioned measures to enhance deterrence should provide both reassurances to allies as well as give pause to Pyongyang. Pyongyang is still some distance from attaining a reliable, operational ICBM. Likewise, conventional deterrence of North Korean aggression against South Korea is alive and well, can be enhanced, and will remain robust regardless of renewed DPRK nuclear weapons and missile tests if the CFC fully implements conventional force improvement plans and resumes military exercises, which are needed for readiness. Washington should regularly consult with Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow on ways to mitigate instability and tensions on the peninsula; the U.S. and ROK should discuss how to incorporate new technologies and capabilities into their force structures and warfighting plans.

Indeed, the central challenge for the administration is reassuring Seoul of America’s commitment to South Korean security to dissuade it from pursuing its own nuclear option. The biggest obstacles to enhanced deterrence are political. Even more important than improving missile defenses is repairing the fundamentals of the U.S.-ROK alliance—taking ROK concerns and input seriously—and the ROK-Japan relationship. Both are key to enabling new levels of trilateral cooperation (e.g.; navy-to-navy, air-to-air, cyber trilateral exercises) that will be vital to bolstering deterrence and constraining North Korea.  

The current equilibrium of mutual deterrence is stable, though we must recognize we are in uncharted territory. One wildcard for deterrence is that Kim has an impulsive/reckless streak that could spark a clash by miscalculation. The White House should avoid “fire and fury” rhetoric and not allow itself to be stampeded into taking reckless actions in response to breathless and melodramatic media headlines that the United States and North Korea are “on the brink of war.” It must avoid a full-blown crisis on the Korean Peninsula that is beyond the administration’s capability to handle. Americans tend to believe all problems have solutions but some problems can only be managed.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012 You can follow him on: @RManning4.

Image: Reuters