Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?

The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.

My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.

But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.

Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.

SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:

If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.

These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion:

“As North Korea continues to develop both nuclear weapons and the missile technology to carry them, the pressure on South Korea to take preemptive military action will gradually rise. At some point, North Korea may have so many missiles and warheads, that South Korea considers that capability to be an existential threat to Southern security. This is the greatest long-term risk to security and stability in Korea, arguably more destabilizing than a North Korean collapse. If North Korea does not arrest its nuclear and missile programs at a reasonably small, defensively-minded deterrent, then Southern elites will increasingly see those weapons as threats to Southern survival, not just tools of defense or gangsterish blackmail.

During the Cold War, the extraordinary speed and power of nuclear missiles created a bizarre and frightening ‘balance of terror.’ Both the Americans and Soviets had these weapons, but they were enormously vulnerable to a first strike. Under the logic ‘use them or lose them,’ there were enormous incentives to launch first: if A did not get its missiles out of the silos quickly enough, they might be destroyed by B’s first strike. One superpower could then hold the other’s cities hostage to nuclear annihilation and demand concessions. This countervalue, ‘city busting’ temptation was eventually alleviated by ‘assured second strike’ technologies, particularly submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). SLBMs ensured the survivability of nuclear forces; hard-to-find submarines could ride out an enemy first strike and still retaliate. So the military value of launching first declined dramatically. By the 1970s, both the US and the USSR had achieved enough survivability through various ‘hardening’ efforts that nuclear bipolarity was relatively stable despite the huge number of weapons in the arms race.

The Korean nuclear race does not have this stability and is unlikely to ever achieve it. Nuclear Korea today is more like the cold war of the 1950s, when nuclear weapons were new and destabilizing, than in the 1970s when they had been strategically integrated, and bipolarity was mature. Specifically, North Korea will never been able to harden its locations well enough to achieve assured second strike. North Korea is too small to pursue the geographic dispersion strategies the Soviets tried, and too poor to build a reliable SLBM force or effective air defense. Further US satellite coverage makes very hard for the North to conceal anything of great importance. North Korea’s nuclear weapons will always be highly vulnerable. So North Korea will always face the ‘use it or lose it’ logic that incentives a first strike.

On the Southern side, its small size and extreme demographic concentration in a few large cities makes the Republic of Korea an easy target for a nuclear strike. More than half of South Korea’s population lives in greater Seoul alone (more than 20 million people), and Seoul’s suburbs begin just thirty miles from the demilitarized zone. This again raises the temptation value of a Northern strike. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were so large, that only a massive first strike would have led to national collapse. In South Korea by contrast, nuking only about five large cities would likely be enough to push South Korea toward national-constitutional breakdown. Given its extreme urbanization and centralization, South Korea is extremely vulnerable to a WMD and/or decapitation strike.

While large-scale North Korean offensive action is highly unlikely – Pyongyang’s elites most likely just want to survive to enjoy their gangster high life – nuclear weapons do offer a conceivable route to Northern military victory for the first time in decades: a first-strike mix of counterforce detonations to throw the Southern military into disarray; limited counter-value city strikes to spur social and constitutional break-down in the South; followed by an invasion and occupation before the US military could arrive in force; and a standing threat to nuke Japan or the United States as well should they intervene. Again, this is unlikely, and I still strongly believe an allied victory is likely even if the North were to use nuclear weapons. But the more nukes the North builds, the more this threat, and the ‘use it or lose it’ first strike incentives, grow.

It is for this reason that the US has pushed South Korea so hard on missile defense. Not only would missile defense save lives, but it would dramatically improve Southern national-constitutional survivability. (Decentralization would also help enormously, and I have argued for that repeatedly in conferences in Korea, but it is unlikely.) A missile shield would lessen the military-offensive value of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, so reducing both first-strike temptations in Pyongyang and preemptive air-strike pressure in Seoul. Unfortunately South Korea is not hardened meaningfully to ride-out Northern nuclear strikes. Missile defense in South Korea has become politicized as a US plot to dominate South Korean foreign policy (yes, really) and provoke China. (Although opinion may, at last, be changing on this.) Air drills are routinely ignored. And no one I know in South Korea knows where their shelters are or what to do in case of nuclear strike.

Ideally North Korea would de-nuclearize. And we should always keep talking to North Korea. Pyongyang is so dangerous that freezing it out is a bad idea. Talking does not mean we must be taken advantage of by the North’s regular bargaining gimmicks. But we must admit that North Korea seems unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. The program goes back decades, to the 1960s. Rumor has it that Pyongyang devoted more than 5% of GDP in the last two decades to developing these weapons. The program continued through the 1990s, even as more than a million North Koreans starved to death in a famine resulting from post-Cold War economic breakdown. The North has repeatedly lied and flim-flammed to outsiders like the ROK government and the IAEA to keep its programs alive clandestinely. Recently Kim Jong Un has referred to nuclear weapons as the “nation’s life.”

We could even go a step further and admit that a few Northern nuclear missiles are tolerable. If we put ourselves in Pyongyang’s shoes, a limited nuclear deterrent makes sense. Conventionally, North Korea is falling further and further behind. No matter how big the North Korean army gets quantitatively, it is an increasingly weak shield against high-tech opponents. US regime change in the Middle East has clearly incentivized despots everywhere in the world to consider the ultimate security which nuclear weapons provide. The North Koreans have openly said that nuclear weapons ensure their post-9/11 regime security. As distasteful as it may be to us, there is a logic to that. A small, defensive-minded deterrent – say five to ten warhead-tipped missiles that could threaten limited retaliation against Southern cities – would be an objectively rational hedge against offensive action by the US or South Korea. Indeed, this is almost certainly what Pyongyang says to Beijing to defend its program to its unhappy patron.

But this is the absolute limit of responsible Northern nuclear deployment and probably where the DPRK is right now. Further nuclear and missile development would exceed even the most expansive definition of North Korean security and takes us into the realm of nuclear blackmail, highly dangerous proliferation, and an offensive first-strike capability. Pyongyang does not need, for example, the ICBM it is supposedly working on.

In this context, my greatest fear for Korean security in the next two decades is North Korean nuclearization continuing apace, generating dozens, perhaps hundreds of missile and warheads, coupled to rising South Korean paranoia and pressure to preemptively strike. There is no possible national security rationale for Pyongyang to keep deploying beyond what it has now, and if they do, expect South Korean planners to increasingly consider preemptive airstrikes. North Korea with five or ten missiles (some of which would fail or be destroyed in combat) is terrible humanitarian threat, but not an existential one to South Korea (and Japan). South Korea could ride out, perhaps, five urban strikes, and Japan even more.

But a North Korea with dozens of nuclear missiles, possibly one hundred, some of them on submarines, would constitute a state- and society-breaking, constitutional threat to South Korea and Japan in case of conflict. That in turn will incentivize pre-emptive airstrikes. This spiral of paranoia between North Korea nuclearization, and pressure on Seoul (or even Tokyo) to preemptively defang North Korea before it can threaten state-destruction, is entirely predictable – and the reason why everyone, even China and Russia, wants North Korea to stop building. Let’s hope they listen (but they won’t).”

28 thoughts on “Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?

    • Yes. That’s exactly right. They used to call it ‘thinking the unthinkable’ back during the CW. But in Korea, you rarely hear nuclear war-fighting scenarios discussed. Especially the SK left just doesn’t want to hear that NK, repository of the undiluted minjok and all that, might nuke their ethnic kinsmen.

      But they really need to start planning for this. What are they gonna do if Joel Wit is right and NK has 50 nukes in 2025? Nothing?


  1. Interesting ideas. My head turns a little thinking out all of the turns in logic of the northern regime, and how they would justify the literal destruction of a southern state they claim consists of their brothers who secretly wish to join them, either to themselves or their armies. But I suppose gangster sociopathy can cover most actions.

    Nevertheless, and I know I’m thinking as a layman, but to me one of the largest dangers with a middle eastern rogue state or terrorist group securing an atomic weapon is that if the USA or Israel were bombed, it would take precious time and political nerve to determine its origination. Not so much so with North Korea. If South Korea is bombed, it’s clear who did it. While in a very bad scenario South Korea would be prevented from a nuclear response, the Americans would not, and they don’t share the problem of small-space concentration; the U.S. could fairly easily turn the Northern peninsula into a piece of carbon paper. The issue then wouldn’t be American capability, but willingness to take such a step.

    But at this again my mind spins at keeping all of these chess pieces juggled. I do agree that THAAD is necessary and the Chinese are bullingly unreasonable in opposing it, especially when Beijing is far, far, far, far from reluctant to histrionically object to other nations interfering in their domestic politics. There’s an obnoxious chutzpah double-standard at play here.


  2. In current reality, I think the SK middle-class and left are right to assume that the North would never actually use a nuclear (or any large scale attack) against them and therefore they can go on ignoring them (and ignore also the associated proliferation concerns).

    I can only think of two scenarios in which NK would actually use nuclear weapons against Seoul: if some particularly hawkish, very old-guard general overthrew KJU and took control; or if the North were faced with an all out attack by SK. Neither of these are currently likely, although the latter could potentially become possible.

    NK is not going to attempt another preemptive invasion, a la 1950, because it no longer has the ideological motivation or hope to expand its current political system over the South.

    Perhaps they might seek simply to annihilate the South without a plan to expand into it, but that would be impossible (without hundreds of nuclear strikes) and, in any event, suicidal for the regime.

    At the same time, I also can’t think of any scenario in which it would be justified for America to use a nuclear weapon against the North, even in response to a strike against Seoul; it will always be a war crime. In all cases it’s more realistic they would respond with ‘conventional’ weapons as they would only need to decapitate the leadership and knock out military targets.

    But then we come full circle as the only real concern is proliferation, and general irresponsibility of the North (e.g. testing nuclear weapons and dropping one in the sea etc!)


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  8. Excellent analysis and spot on. There are some very blind people in China who cannot see Kim Jong Un for what he is, a smart and ruthless survivor, leading to the impossible situation today. Serves them right.

    It may be possible that muted nuclear blackmail has already happened but to China. Kim Jong Un will need a thousand nukes to prevent a Chinese making a move on him and five today is just enough to put the Chinese and everyone else on pause for him to build the others to deter everyone permanently until the day he lost any internal power struggle or gets popped somehow. the latter being more likely.

    I really think the Chinese will want to take him out more badly than the Americans and South Koreans for both their own peace of mind and also retaining the buffer zone that North Korea serves, or served better until recent times.

    A military adventure to remove a world threat will gain China a lot of credence and not many, except the South Koreans and Americans, will begrudge them of an extended occupation. They can also demonstrate their modern warfare capability and toss a nod to the Americans, Japanese and Taiwanese their resolve to retain the South China Sea, take back Diaoyu Island and occupy Taiwan. They just need to be able to take down Kim Jong Un without getting nuked, or nuked too badly.


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