North Korea is well on its way to becoming a nuclear-armed state with the Kim Jong-un regime impervious to coercion, sanctions or incentives. Any attempt by the United States to conduct a disarming first strike against North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile forces would be extremely risky, possibly initiating a full-scale war with Pyongyang.
While it is militarily inferior, Pyongyang possesses the capability to inflict severe damage to in-theatre US units and regional allies — most importantly mass casualties in and around Seoul. Increased diplomatic isolation and tightening of the sanctioning regime has not deterred or crippled North Korea from progressing its nuclear program, which has been innovative in securing illicit streams of revenue to offset trade losses.
The core rationale behind Pyongyang’s determination to become a nuclear power is well-known. First and foremost, nuclear weapons are seen as the ultimate security guarantee against foreign military action against it, specifically by the United States. Tension with the United States supports Pyongyang’s narrative of a state under constant threat, which justifies its mobilization for war and its massive investments with limited capital into the military.
Yet much remains unknown about the strategy Pyongyang has or will develop to govern the purpose, employment and force structure of its burgeoning nuclear arsenal.
A major evolution in Pyongyang’s motivations and behavior has occurred over the past 20 years. It has been receptive towards international negotiations to limit certain aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions. This indicates that its nuclear strategy is moving beyond being employed primarily as a political tool. Instead three strategies — catalytic, assured retaliation and asymmetric escalation — have been proposed as North Korea’s current nuclear philosophy.
The most unlikely is the catalytic strategy in which North Korea would rely on China to become involved in any potential crisis to prevent its regime collapse as well as counterbalance the United States’ regional influence. Yet given that relations with Beijing are currently estranged, Pyongyang cannot rely on its once great power ally to support it militarily, especially if it initiates hostilities.
North Korea does not appear to be adopting an assured retaliation strategy either, where its nuclear force would only be used to attack an adversary which strikes first. Ongoing efforts to create a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to target the United States may indicate a desire to achieve such a capability. Yet the focus on short, medium and intermediate range missiles combined with threats of nuclear preemption point to another strategy: asymmetrical escalation.
The expansion in the number, types and locations of missile tests indicate they are not being conducted just for political or technical reasons. They are also operational in nature: units are training to conduct strikes. While not designed for territorial aggrandizement or winning a full-scale war against more powerful adversaries, asymmetrical escalation incentivizes hitting first militarily during a crisis because of the fear that its forces will not survive a first strike. Most importantly it allows Pyongyang to heavily influence the escalation as its possession of nuclear weapons will induce caution in its opponent’s reaction to pre-emptive attacks.
Development of an ICBM within this strategy is the ultimate deterrent against retaliatory US action in the region. The international community’s greatest fear is that the establishment of mutual deterrence at the nuclear level will promote more risk taking behavior at conventional levels, such as Pyongyang’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 and the muted response from Seoul at Washington’s insistence.
Understanding Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy is critical in understanding its capability development and force posture, but it does not directly answer how it supports its strategic interests. One possibility is to compel negotiations to alter the military status quo on the Peninsula, including the removal of some of the more advanced US assets in South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s restraint. Another goal would be to augment Pyongyang’s international status and reputation as a nuclear power dealing directly with the United States which has shown receptivity towards bilateral engagements.
The priority should not be how to get the process of denuclearisation back on track with sanctions and military preparedness, because they will not deter Pyongyang’s nuclear developments. Instead, there needs to be a coordinated effort to influence what type of nuclear power North Korea becomes, which includes establishing a new strategic status quo in the region that reflects this reality.
As China’s security and status in the region has been compromised by North Korea, this endeavor will mean it is the critical player in deterring North Korean aggression by stating clearly it will not support Pyongyang or any US proclivities to strike Pyongyang.
North Korea’s increasing missile and nuclear capabilities have rightfully caused concern within the international community about its current and future intentions. But it is not unrealistic that Pyongyang could adopt a less vitriolic, pre-emptive tone for a more traditional deterrence strategy as it acquires a more mature and secure nuclear arsenal.
It is also unlikely North Korea will be able use its nuclear weapons for anything other than deterrence as all the other nuclear powers with vastly different nuclear strategies have not been able to do so.
Adam P. MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada.
This first appeared in East Asia Forum here.