[Column] Kim Jong-un’s nuclear doctrine nears completion

Posted on : 2021-02-07 11:29 KST Modified on : 2021-02-07 11:29 KST
Kim Jong-dae
Kim Jong-dae

By Kim Jong-dae, Visiting Scholar, Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

The “nuclear armament doctrine” declared by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress in January is nearing completion. This means Pyongyang has established what amounts to a military doctrine that includes forms of nuclear weaponry and guidelines and methods for their use.

In addition to adopting aspects of the French nuclear doctrine — namely that nuclear weapons are not to be abused, but that they may be used preemptively as needed — North Korea is also applying aspects of the Chinese nuclear doctrine, which allows for retaliatory use.

While the North has proclaimed its freedom to use nuclear weapons, the question is how it goes about acquiring the capabilities to back that up.

To begin with, it is improving its accuracy rate, allowing for precise strikes to destroy selected strategic targets within a 15,000km range. It is reported to have reached the final stages of research to acquire new missiles using multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology, while increasing its range from the 13,000km achieved with the Hwasong-15 missile. This is the most important development, and the one with the most potential to upset the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Second, it is working to preemptively control threats by hostile forces outside its territory. Since it has no aircraft carriers or destroyers, the North’s only means of conducting strikes outside its territory is through submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

It is reported to have reached the final review stage on research to modernize its medium-sized submarine and design a nuclear submarine. Achieving the technology to place a small reactor on a submarine and the capability to produce nuclear fuel would be game changers — effectively neutralizing the South Korea-US defense system.

Third, it is developing nuclear warheads as tactical weapons: small, lightweight, and standardized.

In other words, it aims to put small nuclear warheads onto conventional tactical missiles. The development of small nuclear warheads certainly appears achievable, as North Korea already succeeded at boosted fission testing in 2016. Its tactical guided weapon tests last year are likely to have also been part of this effort, which clearly targets South Korea.

It has also announced plans to acquire monitoring and control capabilities through drones and reconnaissance satellites.

So what does all this mean? To use an analogy from baseball, it’s like making preparations for a pitcher who only throws fastballs, only for him to suddenly be replaced one day by another who not only pitches faster but also possesses a range of curveballs.

For the past 10 years, South Korean and Western intelligence services, including the CIA, have consistently failed to correctly assess North Korea’s capabilities. They’ve tended to simply dismiss the possibility of the North possessing such military capabilities when it is so isolated and economically suffering. I’m ashamed to admit that I too was one of those people.

When North Korea conducted an underwater missile launch in 2014, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military experts all claimed it was “just a model launched from a barge.” They waved it off as a “big show.” But when North Korea released high-resolution footage showing it in vivid detail, I was at a loss for words.

I’d consistently expressed doubts about North Korea’s ICBM capabilities too. But those doubts were wiped away after the 2017 launch of the Hwasong-15.

There’s a reason the West is so reluctant to acknowledge North Korea’s capabilities. If they are real, then that means the current defense and deterrence systems are both useless, and that raises the uncomfortable prospect of having to redraft their military plans from scratch.

As a dominant world power, the US tends to underestimate North Korea’s capabilities because to acknowledge them would mean acknowledging its own failures.

The weight of this experience to date may explain why the US has not made much of a response to North Korea’s latest announcement. Instead, it has adopted a more circumspect approach. And in his New Year’s press conference, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said only that “North Korea’s capabilities are currently being analyzed.”

The South Korean government has increased its defense budget by 7% per year and deployed US interceptor missiles through the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. It purports to have a “three-axis” system in place against the North, meaning preemptive strike, defense, and retaliation capabilities.

But has our security situation actually improved? It’s arrogant to presume that our military plan is enough to cope with North Korea’s relentless forward march. We can’t indulge in wishful thinking, underestimating North Korea on the one hand while waiting around on the other for some future day when peace is achieved.

In the long term, we need to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization and establish a peace regime. For now, though, we need to find a way of freezing its nuclear capabilities at their current level.

Moon should have been brokering nuclear arms reduction talks between Pyongyang and Washington, while calling on the North to join in Inter-Korean Joint Military Committee meetings with phased-in arms reduction on the agenda. He should now be presenting a more proactive and open attitude to the North, sending the message that discussions can also extend to joint military exercises with the US and the deployment of strategic assets on the peninsula.

Ambiguity seems to offer no paths to survival. What we need is a clearer, bolder peace offensive.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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