During the first North Korea nuclear crisis in 1993-1994, the administration of US President Bill Clinton considered preemptive air strikes on nuclear facilities and ballistic missile sites in the North.
Specifically, this involved the use of cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters to destroy North Korea’s plutonium reactor site at Yongbyon. At that time, the US Air Force at the Kunsan Air Base deployed six F-117s.
However, the decision was put on hold given the retaliatory and escalation risks that could lead to a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
In 2006, renewed calls emerged in the US for a strike on the North Korean sites because of an imminent launch of the long-range Taepo-Dong 2 missile. North Korea, meanwhile, has already reached nuclear weapons capability.
Since then, US-South Korean defense planners have been searching for a new strategy that would allow greater flexibility, adaptability and autonomy under conditions of strategic uncertainty.
The key challenge, however, is to distinguish North Korea’s strategic intentions, particularly as the reclusive state edges closer to developing road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with miniaturized nuclear warheads.
North Korea’s strategy
Since assuming power five years ago, Kim Jong-un’s signature policy has centered on the “Byungjin Line,” or simultaneously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons and the development of the national economy.
The Byungjin Line underscores North Korea’s three main national security objectives: preserving the current authority structure under the leadership of Kim Jong-un; improving the country’s dysfunctional economy; and deterring “foreign adversaries” from taking actions that could threaten the regime.
In this context, North Korea’s military reforms have also taken a dual-track approach. On one hand, North Korea tries to maintain the credibility and operational readiness of its large, forward‐positioned, but technologically obsolete conventional forces. This is while improving its asymmetric deterrence capabilities: from nuclear weapons programs, ballistic missiles, and increasingly cyberwarfare.
At its core, North Korea’s nuclear program serves multiple functions: ensuring regime survival and ideological control under the Kim Dynasty by fostering a constant fear of war among its population; deterring an attack by technologically superior US and South Korean conventional forces; and providing Pyongyang with political and diplomatic leverage for “coercive campaigns” against its neighbors, especially South Korea and China.
For these reasons, North Korea is expanding and modernizing its deployed missile forces consisting of close-, short-, medium-, and intermediate-range systems. This includes development of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and solid-fueled short-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
Pyongyang’s ultimate aim is to couple these missile systems with miniaturized nuclear warheads for ballistic missile delivery.
In North Korea’s strategic calculus, this capability not only deters US-South Korean military responses and attempts to overthrow the regime, but perhaps more importantly, continues to polarize politics in Seoul and in doing so, weakens the US-South Korea alliance.
At the same time, the North continues to upgrade elements of its conventional and special-operations forces. It also demonstrates a political willingness to take risks and inflict significant damage on South Korea, though just below a threshold to provoke an overwhelming retaliation that would threaten the survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
It is difficult to ascertain North Korea’s threshold for limited conflicts, asymmetric attacks, and provocations such as the 2015 landmine incident in the demilitarized zone, 2014 cyber-attacks against Sony Pictures, or the 2010 artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Tailored deterrence strategy
In March 2011, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense announced a new force-modernization plan — Defense Reform 307 — that introduced the concept of “proactive deterrence” as a response to North Korean attacks such as the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship CheonAn and the shelling of Yeonpyeong.
In similar crises, the South would no longer rely on passive deterrent (deterrence by denial), but would immediately retaliate by using prompt, focused, and proportional retaliation (deterrence by punishment).
At the operational level, proactive deterrence has been embedded into the 2013 Combined Counter-Provocation Plan that provides a series of options for a joint response — principally led by South Korea with the help of US forces — to North Korean provocations short of all-out war.
The plan’s principal weakness is that it depends significantly on the intervention of third parties (i.e. Russia and China) to control escalation in case any retaliation triggers a North Korean counter response.
At the same time, US and South Korean officials have been rethinking strategic deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear program.
In 2013, they signed the “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” that “establishes a strategic Alliance framework for tailoring deterrence against key North Korean nuclear threat scenarios across armistice and wartime, and strengthens the integration of alliance capabilities to maximize their deterrent effects.”
While details of the strategy remain classified, statements by senior US Forces Korea commanders note “the strategy focuses on options that raise the cost of North Korean WMD or ballistic missile use; deny the benefits of their use; and encourage restraint from using WMD or ballistic missiles. The strategy provides bilaterally agreed upon concepts and principles for deterring North Korean WMD use and countering North Korean coercion.”
South Korean press reports indicate that the strategy contains options for preemptive strikes in case of imminent use of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while providing the US nuclear umbrella into formal defense planning processes of the alliance.
The question is whether and how such a tailored deterrence would influence North Korea’s strategic choices.
Michael Raska is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.