PATRICK MCEACHERN. What is Kim Jong Un’s intention with nuclear weapons?

Jan 4, 2018

Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un began his reign as the top leader in North Korea with an unambiguous and tested first generation nuclear device.  He showed early signs of doubling down on the nuclear program as fundamental to national security.  Contrary voices publicly articulating the trade-offs associated with varying approaches to the nuclear issue observable during his father’s term evaporated under Kim Jong Un.  His regime would be unified in word and deed at least publicly as it advanced its nuclear weapons capabilities.  Though Kim Jong Un’s North Korea oscillated between boisterous nuclear threats and relatively quiet nuclear development that included offers for diplomatic engagement on the nuclear issue, the nuclear program has continued to progress.  This is not simply a quantitative growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, rather Kim Jong Un has articulated and his regime has pursued a more advanced nuclear deterrent.

Kim Jong Un’s speech at the Seventh Party Congress and subsequent clarifications provide the most important contemporary outlines of the regime’s nuclear doctrine.  North Korea does not seek a simple nuclear deterrent with a first-generation nuclear weapon and single means of delivery that raises the risks to a foreign invader.  Rather, Kim has sought the simultaneous development of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, more precise ballistic missiles, and thermonuclear weapons.

The DPRK’s increasingly diverse set of road-mobile and submarine-launched missiles that are difficult to find and preempt as well as Kim’s focus on quick launch weapons are consistent with an effort to develop a second-strike capability for nuclear deterrence.  Kim has also continued to note the North’s nuclear weapons are motivated by and targeted at the United States, including its military bases in the region and in Alaska and Hawaii.  While the regime maintains counter-value rhetoric of threatening populations centers such as Seoul and Washington, DC, the move towards more precise ballistic missiles and more powerful nuclear weapons, including a thermonuclear capability that can compensate for imprecise missiles, is consistent with efforts to disrupt military targets that are more hardened and smaller targets than population centers.

In addition to a robust nuclear deterrent, the regime has articulated a lofty goal of utilizing the nuclear program to raise its stature as a peer of the nuclear weapons states.  According to Kim, the nuclear program helps preserve North Korea’s sovereignty and independence.  Kim notes that the nuclear force should not only deter U.S. invasion but also safeguard the regime’s freedom of action in the theater.  Seoul would have the most to lose in this scenario if Pyongyang believes Washington less willing to respond to North Korean aggression with military retaliation.

Kim Jong Un’s achieved and stated future nuclear ambitions have implications for military planners, diplomats, and national policymakers alike.  As difficult as the question of U.S. military preemption was during the Kim Jong Il period, it has grown considerably more difficult today.  When Kim Jong Il prepared to flight test its Taepo Dong-2 long-range rocket for the first time in 2006, former and future secretaries of defense advocated striking the missile on the launch pad.  The advocacy was controversial over the question of North Korea’s response rather than confidence in destroying the missile on the launch pad.[107]  The challenge for military planners seeking to target North Korea’s capabilities have grown considerably as those weapons have become more survivable, and the prospects for successful preventative strikes on North Korea has grown even dimmer.

Nuclear deterrence is robust, and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear advances have not changed his ability to be deterred.  However, the Korean Peninsula houses two adversarial and heavily armed sides with a history of lethal encounters.  Unwanted escalatory spirals are possible, and North Korean propaganda heralding the merits of nuclear use, even though fanciful, further raises this risk.[108]  Military planners have an obligation to plan for unlikely, high impact events and get ahead of the threat curve.  This study shows that Kim’s nuclear doctrinal statements have forecasted his regime’s nuclear advances reasonably well and can provide some insight for military planners looking over the horizon seeking to contain those threats.

Finally, North Korea has noted that only ending the U.S. “hostile policy” could lead to denuclearization.  This helps identify the critical actors and maximalist demands that Pyongyang sees as central to the nuclear issue.  Neither South Korea, through inter-Korean dialogue, nor China, through economic and diplomatic leverage, have the wherewithal to address the repeatedly-stated North Korean core purpose in going nuclear and sustainably resolve the nuclear issue.  North Korea’s “hostile policy” demands are expansive, but hearing the demands as they articulate them is a better analytical starting point than speculating from the outside on what they seek.

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Patrick McEachern  is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs  Fellow in  Residence at The Wilson Centre in Washington DC.

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