The self-evident answer to rising threat of nuclear crisis on Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2022-10-22 10:30 KST Modified on : 2022-10-22 10:30 KST
If Washington and Seoul want to achieve dialogue with Pyongyang, they will need to take bold action in first creating a climate of peace
North Korea state media released this photo on Oct. 10 of a ballistic missile it claims to have launched from an underwater launch pad located in an inland reservoir on Sept. 25. (EPA/Yonhap)
North Korea state media released this photo on Oct. 10 of a ballistic missile it claims to have launched from an underwater launch pad located in an inland reservoir on Sept. 25. (EPA/Yonhap)

The crisis of a potential nuclear war is escalating on the other side of the Eurasian continent.

Late last month, Russia officially annexed Ukraine’s occupied Donbas region into its official territory through a referendum. Now, Russia will logically consider an attack by outside forces on this region an attack against its own territory. Also, by saying he is prepared to “use all means” to defend Russian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin is implying the possible use of nuclear weapons.

However, if Putin does indeed go ahead and use nuclear weapons, there is a possibility that, no matter how the situation develops, the move could affect the situation on the Korean Peninsula. This is because the use of nuclear weapons would mark the end of the era of the tacit global agreement on the non-use of nuclear weapons.

A monitor in Seoul Station’s waiting area plays news of North Korean missile launches on Oct. 9. (Yonhap)
A monitor in Seoul Station’s waiting area plays news of North Korean missile launches on Oct. 9. (Yonhap)
Trilateral joint military drills and North Korea’s strong response

At the same time, the risk of nuclear war has also been a topic of growing discussion in the context of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, one of the important changes in the security situation of the peninsula this year is said to be the increased risk of nuclear war.

In late January, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered a termination review concerning his country’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile testing at a Politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea, completely shattering any expectations the US or South Korea may have had.

Then, on March 24 and May 4, North Korea carried out tests of missiles presumed to be ICBMs. Since then, officials and experts from South Korea, the US and Japan have consistently raised the possibility that the North is preparing for another nuclear test.

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration is now accelerating the establishment of the “three-axis” defense system, which had been somewhat deferred under the Moon Jae-in administration.

This “three-axis system” consists of military measures that include a kill chain, which detects signs of an imminent North Korean nuclear launch and neutralizes it with a preemptive strike; missile defense; and massive retaliation, which includes “decapitation” operations to take out the North Korean leadership.

South Korea-US joint military exercises have also been normalized, taking place with increased scale and frequency under the new name of “Ulchi Freedom Shield” (UFS). These exercises are rehearsals for an operational plan that includes a counterattack against North Korea, recapture operations, and the establishment of a military government. Those factors explain why Pyongyang has expressed such strong objections to them.

After the UFS exercises concluded on Sept. 2, it was announced that a US aircraft carrier would be engaging in joint naval exercises in the East Sea in late September. This indicated the deployment of “strategic assets” of the US military that had not been part of UFS.

On Sept. 8, the Supreme People’s Assembly in North Korea promulgated a law titled “On the State Policy on the Nuclear Forces.” According to that law, a nuclear strike would be immediately and automatically carried out according to set procedures in the event that the command and control system for state nuclear forces was threatened with a strike by hostile forces.

Five concrete scenarios were given for the use of nuclear weapons, including one in which a nuclear weapon or weapon of mass destruction attack was either carried out against the North or deemed imminent, and another in which a nuclear or non-nuclear attack by hostile forces against the state leadership and state nuclear weapon command organization was either carried out or deemed imminent.

On Sept. 26, a four-day South Korea-US joint exercise was launched in the East Sea by a strike group led by the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. On Sept. 30, anti-submarine operation drills were staged, overtly including a Japan Self-Defense Forces Asahi-class destroyer.

Even if the exercises did take place in international waters, the East Sea is a setting that holds enormous significance, and the presence of so much firepower in such a confined area raises a threat that is on par with actual warfare.

In response to the aircraft carrier group exercises by South Korea, the US, and Japan, North Korea held its own “tactical nuclear operation unit” exercises from Sept. 25 to Oct. 9, publishing multiple photographs and providing various details on Oct. 10. On Oct. 12, it conducted an additional long-range cruise missile launch.

During its exercises, North Korea conducted seven missile launches, including an intermediate/long-range ballistic missile with a range of 4,500 kilometers. For the first time in its history, the North Korean military held exercises in which 150 fighter aircraft were scrambled simultaneously from an inland region.

Unusually and contrary to South Korean and US intelligence determinations, a short-range missile launch on Sept. 25 took place at a reservoir, suggesting that the North was testing its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) performance ahead of the completion of a strategic nuclear submarine. This could be seen as an all-out show of force running the full gamut of the North’s available military capabilities.

More importantly, the exercises were apparently directed by Kim Jong-un himself, who was quoted as saying that he saw “no need” for dialogue and as stressing the need to “reinforce nuclear combat capabilities” and “powerfully execute corresponding military response measures.”

The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan arrives in Busan on Sept. 23. (Yonhap)
The nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan arrives in Busan on Sept. 23. (Yonhap)
Threat of nuclear war impossible to gauge

When you’re assessing and responding to a threat, it’s rational to consider the likelihood of that threat and the scale of damage if it comes to pass. The likelihood of nuclear war increases through prior processes of deterioration in the situation — in the form of escalation and a “competition in resolve.”

If this process leads to military threats being exchanged between South and North or between the North and the US, and from there to a preemptive strike against the North, this allows for a scenario where Pyongyang carries out a nuclear strike “in accordance with the law,” resulting in nuclear war erupting on the Korean Peninsula.

The explosion of a 15-kiloton tactical nuclear weapon — that is, one with the same explosive force as 15,000 tons of TNT — would cause a wave and heat that would immediately and totally destroy people and structures within a 1-kilometer radius of the detonation site. Depending on their sturdiness, it could do devastating damage to the land and structures several kilometers around.

Even in the case of an explosion dozens to hundreds of kilometers off the ground, the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could kill and injure people and disable the power grid and electronic equipment, depending on its direction. There are also severe risks associated with radioactive fallout and spreading contamination from the explosion of nuclear power facilities.

In short, an early exchange of nuclear strikes would leave society as a whole paralyzed and make it more or less impossible to conduct normal military or state operations.

The only examples in history of cities being hit by nuclear explosions in wartime are Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Combined, the two of them suffered the deaths of around 200,000 people, or around 30% of their population. By the 1950s, an estimated 100,000 people or more had died from the aftereffects of exposure to radioactivity.

Thanks to recent advancements in computer simulations, various estimates are available online for the scale of damage from nuclear explosions. For instance, the detonation of a 300-kiloton bomb in Manhattan would kill an estimated 800,000 or so people immediately.

A US Congress report estimates that North Korea possesses around 60 tactical and strategic nuclear warheads (Congressional Research Service, July 14, 2020). In the event of a full-scale nuclear war, North Korea would use all its nuclear weapons to attack the South, the US, and Japan, while the US would obliterate the North with its own nuclear weaponry.

I can offer no more details on the horrific consequences that would arise from dozens of nuclear weapons exploding within such a small territory.

Peace is the answer, and everyone knows it

Nuclear war can only be deterred when our rational decision-making capabilities are functioning normally, based on our fear of annihilation. But human beings are not entirely rational, and the “balance of terror” is an uncertain, unstable thing.

North Korea is battling to survive against three countries — South Korea, the US and Japan — whose military strength is dozens to hundreds of times greater. Its decision to legislate and announce its nuclear armament policies could be seen as a plea, asking those countries not to create the sort of situation that would lead to them being invoked.

Indeed, when we consider that most of North Korea’s missile testing has taken place after military activities by South Korea and the US, they come across in large part as a response to “provocations” by the other side. In that sense, there does not appear to be much possibility of North Korea carrying out a seventh nuclear test “preemptively,” without regard for any souring of the situation.

Holding off the threat of nuclear war from a “balance of terror” perspective entails massive costs.

To begin with, South and North Korea are faced with the dilemma of spending huge amounts of money incurring even bigger risks with an arms race. Second, South Korea’s dependence on the US increases, raising the risk of both South and North ending up exploited and victimized to suit the strategic interests of other powers.

Third, it becomes impossible to achieve the most important things of all, which are the restoration of inter-Korean relations and peace and prosperity for the peninsula’s community.

There is only one answer, and everyone knows it. Peace is the best way to avoid war, and the only way to avoid nuclear war. The answer lies in the institutionalization of peace and the dialogue to achieve that.

If Washington wants to achieve the kind of unconditional dialogue with Pyongyang that it hopes for, and Seoul to implement the “audacious initiative” that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has announced its plans for, they will need to take bold action in first creating a climate of peace.

The US may be able to survive through rhetoric alone — but that could be fatal for South Korea.

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University and current senior researcher at Korea Institute for Military Affairs

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