On October 7, Hamas carried out a heinous attack against civilian targets in Israel. And their tactics—torturing and murdering over 1,000 civilians, including women and children—signal their prime objective: to force Israel into retaliating against Hamas in Gaza in ways that would inflict collateral damage on Palestinian civilians. Moreover, Hamas kidnapped many civilians, clearly seeking to force Israel to carry out a ground offensive mission to rescue those hostages. Such a ground offensive would cause substantial Palestinian casualties. Hamas likely hopes it will exhaust Israel and turn the world against it. Hamas perceives that Israeli attacks resulting in large numbers of Palestinian casualties will give it the international support needed for recognition as a separate country.
Implications for Korea
So what effect, if any, will the Hamas attack have on the Korean peninsula? There will be military personnel in both the North and South who will learn tactical lessons from that attack. But at the strategic level, the situations are very different for Hamas and North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be reluctant today to try the overall Hamas strategy. Kim knows that if he did and killed hundreds of South Koreans, he would justify a South Korean military response and become South Korea’s number one military target. And while South Korea and the United States may not always know his location, they likely know his location some of the time and have the weapons to precisely eliminate that location and him if Kim ever pushes them to do so.
Because his personal survival is his number one priority, Kim is extremely unlikely to attack South Korea in a way that puts his survival seriously at risk. Indeed, Kim has learned since 2010 that lower-level provocations (like missile launches) and plausibly deniable limited attacks (like the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan) are the best kinds of provocations to demonstrate his power while avoiding serious South Korean and U.S. responses for now.
Nuclear Weapons are Key to North Korean Coercion
And that appears to be one of the reasons why Kim is trying to build a significant nuclear weapon force. Once he has 200 to 300 nuclear weapons or more, he will likely feel that South Korean and U.S. retaliations will be limited by fears that any retaliation against North Korean attacks could well escalate to nuclear war, which is not an acceptable risk. This condition, called the “nuclear shadow,” could make it safer for Kim to carry out limited conventional attacks.
In June this year, the U.S. intelligence community released an extract from a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that says that Kim is most likely to use his nuclear weapons for coercive purposes. North Korean officials already publicly threatened to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and the United States in response to their combined military exercises and Korean peninsula visits to U.S. strategic weapon systems. Kim seeks to reduce these South Korean and U.S. efforts to strengthen their alliance. Ironically, North Korean threats alone have had the opposite effect—increasing the South Korean and U.S. exercises and strategic weapon system visits.
But Kim can’t back down given the other failures of his government. To do so would make him look weak and potentially subject to overthrow by various internal groups in his regime. So, he likely hopes that he can escalate his provocations against the cooperative South Korean and U.S. defensive efforts. Such escalations could include North Korean limited attacks once his nuclear shadow can cover his escalations. Kim is anxious to weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance and eventually decouple it. He hopes that without the alliance, South Korea will be subject to domination by North Korea, facilitated by North Korean military superiority. Indeed, one poll indicates that even with the alliance, a plurality of South Koreans perceive that North Korean nuclear weapons make the North militarily superior to the South.
Kim could initially escalate his provocations using plausibly deniable special forces attacks on South Korean military or industrial facilities. Of course, the North Korean personnel executing such attacks may be detected. Thus, Kim would want a fairly significant nuclear shadow to cover such possible failures and deter South Korean and U.S. responses.
He might then escalate to limited use of artillery against the South, especially if his nuclear shadow appears to be limiting South Korean and U.S. responses. For example, Kim might threaten to destroy some facilities in the South if South Korea and the United States hold their annual Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise. While historically, South Korea has threatened an escalated response to such attacks, the United States has sought to limit such escalation, fearing North Korean retaliation with conventional forces. In the future, the North may threaten to escalate to nuclear weapon use against South Korean and U.S. retaliation, leading to even greater U.S. caution. Kim would likely find such a debate about acceptable retaliation to further his interest in damaging the South Korea-US alliance.
And if these attacks don’t work, Kim could turn to limited use of nuclear weapons to test the alliance. For example, he could fire a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear weapon out over the East Sea/Sea of Japan and detonate it in the air to test it. After all, China’s 4th nuclear weapon test was delivered by a ballistic missile—a precedent for Kim. Kim might even seek to cause electromagnetic pulse (EMP) damage with such a test against South Korea and Japan.
Such North Korean actions could seriously undermine South Korean assurance in U.S. extended deterrence, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella. After all, the United States has declared for many years that the main purpose of its nuclear weapons is to deter adversary nuclear weapon use. Thus, at least some in South Korea could conclude that a coercive North Korean nuclear test, especially one that causes EMP damage to South Korea, would reflect a failure of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. More South Koreans would almost certainly conclude that the U.S. nuclear umbrella was ineffective if the United States failed to eliminate the North Korean regime in response to such a nuclear weapon use. Washington has promised to do so in response to any North Korean nuclear weapon use.
What Can South Korea and the United States Do?
If South Korea and the United States allow Kim to acquire more nuclear weapons, they will eventually make themselves vulnerable to escalated North Korean coercion. However, they have been unsuccessful in getting North Korea to negotiate any limits on its nuclear weapon program. Indeed, Kim “promised to ‘exponentially increase’ nuclear warhead production” in 2023.
Kim is thus giving South Korea and the United States little choice but to consider a coercive campaign of their own to moderate, if not freeze, North Korean nuclear weapon production. They need to let Kim Jong-un know that if he threatens their existence with nuclear weapons, they will threaten his existence with outside information—one of the things he appears to fear most. They need to threaten Kim with exponentially increasing efforts to send outside information into North Korea, including far more extensive broadcasts of K-pop and other sources that Kim hates. They could do so on computer media like USB drives and perhaps even make a soap opera seeking to accurately describe “the life and times of Kim Jong-un.” They could also transmit to the North Korean elites proposed arms control and other agreements, offers of aid if North Korea refrains from provocations, and information on the lethality of South Korean and U.S. weapons. South Korea and the United States need to tell Kim that these activities will only cease when he agrees to freeze his nuclear weapon production and actually does it.
Kim could, of course, escalate, transitioning to limited attacks without full nuclear shadow coverage. South Korea and the United States’ best approach to deterring such escalation is to be thoroughly prepared—like individuals who play chess or Go, planning four or five moves ahead. They could identify targets for military retaliation against North Korean military attacks. Such targets could include the regime leadership, the Supreme Guard Command that protects those leaders, and the Ministry of State Security, all key to Kim maintaining control of North Korea.
And if North Korean attacks include nuclear weapons, the United States needs to clearly understand how it would respond. Ideally, guidelines developed mutually by South Korea and the United States would define such responses, much as the United States did with NATO starting in the 1960s. The United States may need a greater degree of flexible nuclear response than in the recent Nuclear Posture Reviews.
South Korea and the United States should rein in North Korean nuclear weapon production and prepare to respond to escalated North Korean coercion. While Kim probably won’t resort to a Hamas-style attack, he certainly shares Hamas’ goal of cultivating U.S. reluctance to get involved militarily in the region. By preventing North Korea from enhancing its nuclear shadow, South Korea and the United States will hopefully deter potential North Korean escalation.