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IFANS Focus Distinctive Features of North Korea’s Recent Move for Nuclear War-fighting Posture: Seen from the Perspective of Nuclear Escalation HWANG Ildo Upload Date 2022-08-31 Hits 390
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Ⅰ. Introduction
Ⅱ. Why Do Nuclear States Turn to Tactical Nuclear Weapons?
Ⅲ. Latest Developments 
Ⅳ. Two Premises behind North Korea’s Nuclear Escalation Concept



Ⅰ. Introduction

Since April, the North Korean regime has embarked on a systematic campaign of weapons testing. A flurry of weapons tests, combined with recent public comments from North Korea, speaks volumes about a nuclear doctrine currently envisioned by the North, and how the regime is changing its weapons portfolio and military command structure to achieve the key goals of its revised nuclear doctrine. 

While North Korea watchers have laid out various interpretations of North Korea’s intentions, possible future scenarios, and measures to respond to Pyongyang’s evolving nuclear doctrine, a more sophisticated analysis is required to get an accurate view of North Korea’s latest moves. The key is to accurately understand North Korea’s escalation concept. By focusing on how North Korea shapes its concept of escalation, this article aims to propose some measures the U.S.-Korean alliance could employ to deal with North Korea’s nuclear doctrine evolution. History shows nuclear armed states have formulated a nuclear weapons operation plan to either threaten the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts or deter an opponent from crossing the nuclear threshold. And recent developments suggest that North Korea is using the same playbook – since Pyongyang publicly announced its pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons in August 2021, most of its actions and narratives have highlighted its will to use nuclear weapons in potential military conflicts with the United States and South Korea. All in all, the regime’s nuclear doctrine is evolving in a way that increasingly resembles those of the preceding nuclear armed states that faced a set of similar circumstances. 


Ⅱ. Why Do Nuclear States Turn to Tactical Nuclear Weapons?

Up until 2017, Pyongyang had insinuated that it could  attack strategic targets in the U.S. mainland, or densely populated metropolitan areas in Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons. In the early stages of nuclear armament, it was common for a nuclear armed state to believe that nuclear blackmailing would dissuade an adversary from using any  military options. But this is fundamentally a dangerous way of thinking, because risking massive nuclear escalation to change an adversary’s behavior could severely backfire and trigger catastrophic retaliation with suicidal  consequences even for them as well. For this reason, staging a low-yield nuclear detonation on an opponent’s military assets and minimizing civilian casualties have emerged as a viable option for nuclear armed states, especially for those with inferior conventional military capabilities. Conceptually speaking, this is about warning an adversary of the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, but dialing down the posture to prevent the situation from quickly spiraling into the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Or it could be an attempt to lower the threshold between conventional and tactical nuclear warfare and create a threshold between tactical and strategic nuclear exchange. 

In the face of a conventionally superior ROK army and USFK at its doorstep, North Korea is in desperate need to advance its tactical nuclear weapons and short-range missile capabilities to compensate for its conventional inferiority by evolving its doctrine into the direction of ‘denial deterrence’ combined with ‘first use.’ Several preceding nuclear armed states had adopted a similar doctrine to intimidate a conventionally superior adversary. They created a distinctive line-up of weapons or modified the military’s command-and-control to show off their strong taste for tactical nuclear weapons use. These countries have often kept low-yield nuclear weapons designed for tactical use on “hair-trigger” alert so they can be launched within minutes. 


Ⅲ. Latest Developments 

As North Korea marched forward on its short-range missile development in 2019 and officially announced the development of tactical nuclear weapons in 2021, public comments emanating from the country all seemed to point in one direction: North Korea has an urgent imperative of keeping the weapons on a battlefield-ready status. 

This narrative has taken a more aggressive form this year as Kim Yo-jong made threatening statements on April 3 and 5, respectively, and as the regime test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon on April 16. North Korea has tested several short-range missiles since 2019, but the county’s state media never mentioned the possibility of tipping them with tactical nuclear warheads. But the April 16 test and the following reports indicated a possible change of course. The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state-run newspaper, linked the test to North Korea’s nuclear objectives by reporting that the newly developed guided weapon is aimed at improving the efficient operation of tactical nukes. It posted pictures of the apparently short-range weapon emerging from a mobile launch vehicle as Kim observed alongside his artillery  commanders. The report added that the weapon “is of great significance in radically increasing the fire striking power of the long-range artillery units on the front.” This is to send a message that the North could delegate the authority to release tactical nuclear weapons to field commanders, which would significantly lower the threshold for nuclear use in conflicts. 

North Korea’s growing inclination toward a lower threshold materialized at the military parade held on April 25 to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, when Kim Jong Un used his speech to portend a possible shift towards an escalatory nuclear doctrine. This was a notable development, as Pyongyang had only indirectly referred to the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons in the past with vague languages. The April 25 speech had certainly signaled the regime’s lurch towards a declaratory policy, disclosing its plans to deploy not only long-range, strategic nuclear missiles but also tactical nuclear weapons. 

From June 21 to 23, Kim presided over the third enlarged meeting of the eighth Central Military Commission (CMC) of the ruling Workers’ Party. The meeting was likely called to formalize giving North Korea front-line artillery units a nuclear mission. The Korean Central News Agency (KNCA) report covered North Korea’s plans to revise its war plans, saying officials at the meeting had decided to bolster the operational duties of the country’s front-line units with “an important military action plan.” In other words, Pyongyang intends to deploy a newly developed tactical guided weapon tipped with tactical nuclear warhead, which can fly about 100 kilometers, to front-line artillery units and expand deterrence. The KNCA report also mentioned possible command-and-control changes, hinting at the possibility of Pyongyang decentralizing the authority for command and control of nuclear weapons, which is now solely possessed by the Strategic Forces, by delegating some authority to field commanders  in contingency. 

For many years, Pyongyang has shown  obsessions in formulating multiple options to achieve one policy objective. So in its apparent push to make its nuclear war-fighting posture, North Korea will likely come up with various nuclear doctrines to explore a broad array of options. But for now, the regime appears to be more fixated on constructing a weapons deployment model that allows front-line artillery units to handle tactical nuclear weapons. Among many options a conventionally inferior country could choose from, deploying nuclear weapons to front-line units is the most classic military maneuver to blunt a conventionally stronger opponent. The deployment model positioning artillery units on the front lines is close to adopting low-yield nuclear weapons to defend against U.S. and South Korean forces in case situations in conventional land warfare work against North Korea and the front line collapse is imminent.

Pyongyang’s recent overt priority on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the front lines implies its offset strategy formulated to countervail the conventional advantage of the U.S. and the South and strengthen nuclear deterrence, while curbing large-scale nuclear escalation unleashing the use of strategic or massive nuclear weapons.   


Ⅳ. Two Premises behind North Korea’s Nuclear Escalation Concept

Pyongyang’s recently corroborated and promulgated nuclear escalation concept seems to be based on the possibility that Washington’s commitment to the provision of the nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence on the Korean Peninsula in case of emergency might be limited.  And a series of the calculated actions taken by Pyongyang appear to stem from its serious reflection on the various measures to maximize such possibilities, and Pyongyang’s rationale seems to be based on the following premises. 

The first premise is that Pyongyang expects that their securing strike capability on the U.S. mainland will likely limit the U.S. provision of extended deterrence. This perception, consistently expressed by North Korea’s state-run media outlets, seems to be in the background of Pyongyang’s efforts to develop ICBMs and high-yield nuclear warheads. 

The second premise draws on the principles of necessity and proportionality in international law, which have been stressed by several international law scholars. Seen from this perspective, Washington’s massive nuclear retaliation in response to Pyongyang’s limited nuclear use on military infrastructure, weapons, or bases, violates the principle of proportionality. And they argue, even if Pyongyang strikes first with nuclear weapons, it would be unnecessary or excessive for Washington to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes considering the overwhelming supremacy of the U.S.’ conventional precision strike capabilities. 

However, Washington’s actual  conception is quite the opposite, and there is a considerable discrepancy between the two sides’ perception of this premise which forms the basis of the North’s recent nuclear escalation concept. A case in point here is the difference in the evaluation of North Korea’s strike capability on the U.S. mainland. It is assumed from U.S. defense officials’ congressional statements that Washington’s main scheme in dealing with North Korea’s evolving ICBM capabilities is based on a two-phased approach. To elaborate, Washington aims to launch a precision strike in advance if Washington believes it is under imminent threat of North Korea’s ICBM strike. And the ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California will intercept the missiles that survived the U.S.’ first disarming precision strike. To sum up, Washington views that the U.S. nuclear umbrella will remain unconstrained as it will be a suicidal move for North Korea, unlike Russia, to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. which has unilateral nuclear supremacy.

Pyongyang will also likely face a high level of uncertainty with regard to the principle of proportionality in international law. As mentioned above, there have been discussions in the private sector and academia on the issue. However, it should be noted that defense agencies represented by the U.S. Department of Defense and Strategic Command hold different views on the basic concept of proportionality. As some raised the question that Russia and other countries have adopted deterrence strategies based on the threat of limited use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military authorities have reiterated that “the threshold for escalation is only drawn between conventional and nuclear war, and there is no threshold for escalation once nuclear weapons are used.” The phrase “When They Go Low, We Go High” used in the Pentagon’s internal discussions for the NPR 2018 well encapsulates such stance. 


Ⅴ. Policy Implications

North Korea’s nuclear escalation concept, which aims to countervail for its inferior conventional military capabilities by hinting at the early use of tactical nuclear weapons while finding measures to avoid nuclear escalation involving strategic nuclear weapons, should be a reference point for Seoul and Washington in calibrating their responses and deterrence messages to Pyongyang’s provocations in the days ahead.

In other words, it is advised that Seoul and Washington focus on highlighting that North Korea’s nuclear escalation concept and the two premises mentioned above lack actual feasibility in reality. In this case, it is necessary to send a strong deterrence message to Pyongyang that even a single attempt to use low-yield nuclear weapons against the U.S. and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula shall be met with the risk of uncontrolled and disproportionate nuclear escalation that could even culminate in the Kim Jong Un regime’s collapse. It is also important that Seoul and Washington steer their future discussions on extended deterrence to flesh out such messages while shoring up efforts to visualize them by increasing U.S. strategic nuclear submarine patrols in the region and calibrating operational policies.  

It should also be considered that another objective of the deterrence messages from Seoul and Washington is to prevent the possibility of the nuclear shadow clouding Pyongyang’s judgment and encouraging the Kim regime to carry out local provocations. To achieve this goal, sending strong messages implying Seoul and Washington’s determination to retaliate against Pyongyang’s provocations with their military superiority will be a more effective option. Considering the characteristics of Pyongyang’s recent nuclear escalation concept, Seoul and Washington should capitalize on the North’s concern over strategic nuclear escalation, underscoring the fact that there is no threshold between a tactical and strategic nuclear exchange, to minimize the possibility of North Korea carrying out adventurous provocations under the nuclear shadow.


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