North Korea’s Doctrinal Shifts Are More Dangerous Than Missile Launches

A television is seen in a ferry cabin with file footage of a North Korean missile test, in the waters off South Korea's island of Ulleungdo (top back), on Nov. 4. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
A television is seen in a ferry cabin with file footage of a North Korean missile test, in the waters off South Korea's island of Ulleungdo (top back), on Nov. 4. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea set a new annual record for missile launches back in June, and it’s still going strong. This week, Pyongyang launched 23 missiles in a single day, setting a new daily record, and U.S. officials have indicated that it is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time. Less noticed are developments in North Korean nuclear doctrine, which are even more consequential than the missile launches. Recent doctrinal changes increase the risk of inadvertent nuclear war and should prompt a rethink of current policies in both Seoul and Washington.

In September, North Korea updated a 2013 law setting out its nuclear weapons policies and announced that it would respond to attacks against its nuclear command and control systems by launching a nuclear strike “automatically and immediately”. While this threat may depend on the development of new capabilities, the prospect of North Korean nuclear forces being placed on what could amount to hair-trigger alert in a crisis is deeply worrying. Not only might this posture enable North Korea to launch its nuclear weapons before they were destroyed in a preemptive strike, but it could create the risk of Pyongyang’s initiating a nuclear war based on false warning or because it misperceived the purpose of U.S. or South Korean military operations.

The reasons behind North Korea’s new policy are clear enough. For a decade or so now, U.S. officials have spoken euphemistically about “left of launch” missile defeat, which in plain English means attacking an adversary’s nuclear forces before its missiles can fly. Plans to this end have been developed and, reportedly, even been used to interfere with North Korean missile testing. In a war, left-of-launch attacks against North Korea’s nuclear forces would likely involve strikes on its command and control systems, including communication capabilities; after all, if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un couldn’t transmit the order to use nuclear weapons, the United States would have more time to hunt and destroy the forces capable of carrying out a nuclear attack.

North Korea also worries about the survival of Kim, the decision-maker at the center of its nuclear command and control system and the very man whose survival the country’s nuclear forces are meant to ensure. North Korea has studied the U.S. way of war. It has noted, for instance, that the United States tried to kill Saddam Hussein in the opening days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And while this strike was unsuccessful, it appears to have made a significant impression on Pyongyang.

South Korea has also given North Korea ample cause for concern. For nearly a decade now, Seoul has been devising a strategy to kill Kim should he use nuclear weapons. South Korea has invested substantially in precision strike missiles and reconnaissance capabilities to be able to do this. While the plan was devised for retaliation, Seoul’s parallel pursuit of the capabilities to strike North Korea preemptively has likely given Kim the impression that he would be targeted in the early moments of a conflict.

U.S. and South Korean policies are understandable—and, in fact, proportionate and emotionally satisfying—responses to the real and growing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The key question, however, is whether they will actually prove effective at curtailing that threat. There are good reasons to doubt this. There is a real danger that North Korea might use nuclear weapons due to a mistaken belief that the United States or South Korea had launched attacks intended to deprive Pyongyang of its ability to use them.

In a conventional war, the United States would likely try to degrade North Korea’s communication capabilities—including those that connect Kim to senior commanders in the Korean People’s Army—as a way of undermining the effectiveness of its conventional military forces. From a North Korean perspective, however, such attacks would be indistinguishable from those intended to sever the links between Kim and his nuclear forces—potentially prompting Kim to use those forces while he still could.

Another risk is that a U.S. or South Korean nonnuclear attack could strike a facility near Kim and thus appear to him as an assassination attempt. Even if Kim did not immediately respond with nuclear weapons, he might give North Korean military officers the authority to use nuclear weapons if a future attempt on his life was successful. In the event of a communications blackout—which could result from equipment failure or adverse weather conditions as well as U.S. or South Korean attacks—those officers might exercise that authority. (For this reason, the United States abandoned options to pre-delegate launch authority during the Cold War.)

At a time when North Korea shows little interest in engagement, both Seoul and Washington can and should take unilateral measures to mitigate the risk of inadvertently prompting nuclear escalation. This would not be altruism but rather in self-interest to reduce the risks of unnecessary inadvertent escalation.

Washington and Seoul are in the process of rewriting the alliance’s war plans and should adapt them to minimize escalation risks. For example, they should consider forsaking strikes against North Korean command and control capabilities (whether conducted to undermine Pyongyang’s nuclear or nonnuclear forces). Abandoning this practice might let North Korean conventional military operations be more effective than otherwise, but it could also significantly reduce the risk of a nuclear war.

The new conservative government in Seoul should also rethink its very public enthusiasm for plans and capabilities to kill Kim should the need arise. While South Korea is unlikely to abandon these capabilities, it could at least de-emphasize direct threats to Kim’s life and focus instead on the development of proportionate responses to North Korean attacks.

James M. Acton is the Jessica T. Mathews chair and the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ankit Panda is the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea.

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