How to Respond to a North Korean Nuclear Test
In many respects, our deterrence architecture in the region is insufficient.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un marked the new year with a pointed display of military might unmistakably aimed at the United States, South Korea, and Japan. At the year-end Korean Workers’ party plenum, Kim vowed to “exponentially increase” the production of nuclear weapons, along with developing “another new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system.” North Korean state media carried photos of Kim and his daughter strolling down rows of intermediate-range missiles and mobile transporters, weapons that can hit Japan and U.S. bases there and in Guam. And the year was capped with the test of a new nuclear-capable multiple rocket launcher system, designed to carry out tactical nuclear strikes against South Korea.
North Korea’s rising crescendo of missile testing and preparations for an imminent seventh test of a nuclear warhead have alarmed the governments of the region and the United States. Some observers depict these launches as political theater, acts of either angry defiance or a desperate cry for attention and an invitation to negotiation.
The tests and the statements emitting from Kim and his regime do not, however, represent a departure from previous actions. Rather, it is a continuation of North Korea’s long-established effort to possess a nuclear weapons capability that can survive a U.S. strike, overcome existing missile defense systems, and reach key targets in South Korea, Japan, the Western Pacific, and possibly the continental U.S.
The testing program carried out over the last two years reflects a set of weapon system goals laid out by Kim in January 2021 at the 8th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party. In his speech to the Congress, Kim called for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, miniaturized nuclear weapons, multiple-warhead missiles, and a range of other missile delivery and weapons systems. This military program was declared essential “as long as there is imperialism on this planet.”
The missile and nuclear programs are certainly driven by North Korea’s sense of weakness and vulnerability. But they also are a manifestation of a still deeply held goal of reunifying the Korean peninsula under North Korean leadership. The current belligerent posture is aimed in part at driving wedges between the South Korean populace and its security ally.
“The North Koreans all along have been trying to intimidate the United States, albeit for different ends at different times,” observed David Straub, a former senior State Department official with extensive experience in Korea. Straub continues:
For two decades now, as we all know, the North Koreans have been trying to get the United States and, through us, the rest of the world to accept them as a nuclear weapons state. In other words, to remove sanctions against them, and otherwise normalize relations with them, while they maintain and continue to develop nuclear weapons, less for deterrence than for eventually dominating the peninsula. Having not yet succeeded in that fundamental goal, they continue now to try to intimidate the U.S. ever more directly to get us to tire and give up and leave South Korea.
In recent years, this goal has become, if anything, more attainable in the minds of the North Korean regime. It has watched the United states retreat from Afghanistan, fail in Iraq and Syria, and come tantalizingly close to withdrawing from South Korea under the Trump administration.
The Biden administration has reversed that trend, recommitting to the centrality of security alliances with South Korea and Japan, bolstered by the return of conservative leadership in Seoul. But in the mind of Kim and his senior officials, that may be only a temporary state of affairs. The North Korean leadership must be encouraged by the calls from former U.S. officials and other experts to formally accept Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear weapons state, a key goal of its diplomacy. And the war in Ukraine has placed China and Russia more fully on North Korea’s side than at any other time in the past three decades.
Under these circumstances, any negotiation with North Korea will yield, at best, a temporary freeze in its testing. And that would almost certainly only follow the completion of tests that accomplish the current missile and nuclear development goals of the regime.
Washington should always be prepared to offer the familiar exchange of verifiable denuclearization in visible, if phased, steps for full diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty to end the Korean War, and large-scale economic engagement. But all negotiations to that end have faltered for the same reason—it is simply not in the interests of North Korea.
That leaves only one viable response, and it is the one the Biden administration is clearly pursuing with the support of both South Korea and Japan: a strategy of deterrence and containment, drawing upon the lessons of the Cold War.
A seventh nuclear test by North Korea, accompanied by more advances in missile technology, requires a significant and escalatory bolstering of that deterrence strategy. Containment, which in general encompasses all forms of sanctions and economic pressure, is unlikely to be intensified, given the decision of both China and Russia to effectively end their participation in the sanctions measures established under United Nations Security Council resolutions.
We must, then, rely on deterrence. And in many respects, our deterrence architecture in the region is insufficient. In practice, it should convince our adversary that the potential use of its nuclear capability to attack the United States or its allies in a crisis or in a time of war, or even kinetic provocations short of war, would risk its own survival. It is not clear, however, that Kim and his generals have reached that judgment.
There are several ways in which deterrence can be far more convincing for the Pyongyang regime, and even raise the cost of continuing missile and nuclear system development to an unacceptable level. All of them involve a demonstrable tightening of trilateral security cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which would get the prompt attention not only of Pyongyang but also of its backers in Beijing and Moscow.
First, there is the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the region to communicate a readiness to carry out retaliatory strikes in response to any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea. This is a well-established signaling device, usually carried out by temporary stationing of strategic aircraft—B-2 and B-52 bombers, for example—at forward bases in Guam. The movement of naval forces, such as carrier battle groups, has been used for the same goal.
More potent, however, would be more permanent stationing of dual-capable systems in the region. These could include Ohio-class attack submarines, which are not presently equipped with nuclear weapons. Forward deployment of a second carrier in Japan should also be considered, as well as the stationing of a second tactical fighter wing at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, which has the capacity to absorb additional forces and lies within easy strike range of North Korea
The deployment of U.S. land-based ballistic and cruise missile systems is an even more robust choice, though perhaps last on the escalation ladder. Japan’s decision to acquire Tomahawk cruise missiles to create a long-range strike capability accomplishes some of the same goals. But to be effective, it would have to be combined in a de facto joint operating command that can draw on U.S. reconnaissance, surveillance, and other intelligence capabilities.
Second, is to move in a serious fashion toward the creation of a combined trilateral air and missile defense command. The recent trilateral statement issued in Cambodia by the United States, Japan, and South Korea called for exchanges of missile launch data and other intelligence. In principle, that already is possible and does take place between South Korea and the joint U.S.-Japan air defense command at Yokota air base. A trilateral command would combine the U.S.-Japan structure and U.S.-South Korea missile defense coordination under the Combined Forces Command. Joint exercises toward that end have already begun to be held.
Third, and by far the most ambitious, is the creation of NATO-like joint commands that would include nuclear forces, even in a sharing arrangement. This is a step that may be beyond the current political consensus in both Japan and South Korea. But the revival of extended deterrence consultative dialogues between the United States and South Korea and Japan offers a framework to move toward a multilateral, NATO-style nuclear planning dialogue that can identify specific tasks that each ally may perform to assist the United States in times of crisis. This should be accompanied by regular meetings of a trilateral extended deterrence coordinating group at the senior official level.
These steps would create credibility for America’s extended deterrence guarantee, which does not presently exist. And it would make a powerful statement to North Korea—and its allies—of the consequences of nuclear threats.
These moves will demonstrate that the international community will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
In the long term, the Kim family’s massive investment in acquiring its nuclear and missile capability will be an almost total loss. The regime must understand that it can’t employ nuclear weapons without bringing disaster on itself, nor can it use them as effective blackmail. Barring that, nuclear weapons are worse than useless: they can’t feed a single North Korean and, in fact, take food out of their mouths. No regime is forever, and North Korea’s problems are fundamental, acute, and unresolvable. With determination and some luck, we should be able to deter North Korea until the situation changes for the better.