A human skull and bones, which may be all that's left if the 'dead hand' is activated. Photo: AFP

“Dead hand” may just be the most chilling nuclear deterrent in history – and given its fit for the Kim Jong Un regime, North Korea may be seeking to apply it, a respected defense think tank said yesterday in Seoul.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, launched its report The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Strategic Stability and Nuclear Risk Volume II: East Asian Perspectives at the Swedish embassy residence in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday with a forum of related experts.

The experts detailed how leading militaries around the world are already applying artificial intelligence (AI) software to their nuclear, early-warning and command-and-control systems, while adding AI-enabled hardware to their tactical arsenals in the form or undersea, aerial and space assets.

Although there is a dearth of information about its progress, North Korea is also entering the field of weaponized AI – a class of assets that offers the nuclear-armed regime the “Holy Grail” of survival and retaliation capabilities.

Kim’s AI

The first challenge in detailing North Korea’s weaponized AI programs is its information wall. Even by the standards of secrecy surrounding Chinese, Russian and US military AI, North Korea is extraordinarily secretive, admitted Lora Saalman, the SIPRI associate senior fellow who edited the report.

Saalman said much of the report’s North Korea research was sourced from academic studies produced by North Korean scholars in Chinese institutions.

The studies suggested “nascent but growing research into machine learning, deep-belief nets, speech and facial recognition, neural networks, UAVs [drones] and AI-enabled cyber [assets],” she said.  

The latter, she noted are an outgrowth of existing capabilities. North Korea has been “very quick to ramp up” its cyber warfare capabilities and been fingered as the culprit in a range of global attacks on everything from Sony Pictures in 2014 to an Indian nuclear facility last year.

“North Korea has a very extensive set of disinformation and cyber offense,” capabilities, Saalman said. “Algorithms that come from machine learning can be applied in large-scale attacks, and in pattern recognition.”

That suggests that offensively, North Korea could deploy massed cyber warfare assets to infiltrate enemy information and communications networks. Defensively, it could use AI assets to predict and plot patterns of incoming attacks.

Surviving death

In terms of what it brings to the battlefield, weaponized AI offers two critical advantages that North Korea seeks – asymmetry and survivability.

“When we think of a country with the most concerns about existential threats, it certainly applies to North Korea,” she said. “They are especially paranoid about decapitations.”

Kim Jong Un’s regime is widely assessed to have survival as its foremost priority. However, it is also a regime at risk from a US military that has shown its ability to precisely target enemy leaders with both drone strikes and commando raids. Moreover, in December 2017, South Korea’s military stood up a “decapitation strike” brigade manned by 1,000 commandos and equipped with surveillance and suicide drones.

Against this threat background, AI can deliver a system that significantly underwrites regime survival. It obviates the threat of both pre-emptive strikes and decapitation assault by ensuring that retaliation occurs – even after the national leader and his leading subordinates have already stopped breathing.

Ghost retaliation

“Ultimately, they want to develop a ‘dead hand’ nuclear capability,” said Michiru Nishida, Special Assistant for Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “For their ultimate survival, this kind of automated nuclear weapon capability would be the strongest deterrent capability against a decapitation strike.”

“Dead Hand” is a concept developed by the USSR that came online in the closing stage of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Vadim Kozyulin, a professor specializing in military science and emerging technologies at Moscow’s Pir Center, told Asia Times.  

As perhaps the ultimate embodiment of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, it is chillingly simple.

If a country’s leadership is wiped out by an enemy nuclear strike, its communications networks knocked out and its military commanders out of contact, an automated system is activated. Without any need for human intervention, the system unleashes massive retaliation with surviving nuclear assets, and thus the name “dead hand.”  

Disloyalty obviated

The system also offers another advantage to dictators beyond deterring outside aggressors. By ensuring an apocalyptic finale regardless of what officers down the chain of command may think, it overcomes the potential of disloyalty.

In 1945, as enemy forces closed in on the Third Reich from all directions, Albert Speer, one of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s most trusted lieutenants, actively undermined Hitler’s orders to destroy all infrastructure, In 21st century North Korea, Kim may similarly not fully trust his own subordinates to carry out desperate orders in a desperate situation.

“All countries have a military culture and some countries have less trust in the human factor and less willingness to delegate authority,” said Saalman. “Also, there may be other people who have different ideas about how the system can be run. That has to be factored in.”

Seen in this light, “dead hand” provides a systemic fail-safe.

Currently, there is no evidence that Kim is engineering such a system. Even so, it seems likely to be high on his strategic shopping list.

“I don’t know if North Korea can obtain that kind of technology,” said Nishida. “But ultimately that is something they might be thinking of.”