Could North Korea Abandon Part of Its Nuclear Arsenal?
February 13, 2019
A Radio Free Asia news report, which was published in January, suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may propose transferring some of his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to China.
Out of concern for its survival and prestige, the North Korean government is unlikely to agree to hand over all its ICBMs and warheads. But could it abandon some of its strategic weapons without compromising its own security and disrupting its strategic balance?
To answer this question, it’s worth looking at the nuclear doctrine of North Korea. Nuclear weapons are described as North Korea’s primary means of defense and deterrence. North Korea’s nuclear doctrine allows for their use in response to serious threats to the country’s territorial integrity and independence. It also reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to aggression from another nuclear country by nuclear or conventional means and even against non-nuclear allies of the perceived nuclear aggressor country when the existence of the North Korean state is perceived to be in jeopardy.
Taking into account the superiority in nuclear and conventional weapons of North Korea’s most likely enemy (i.e., the United States) and its anti-missile defense capabilities, the North Korean doctrine hardly implies a preemptive nuclear attack against the United States. For reasons including geographical proximity and the risk of nuclear fallout to the territories of North Korea and its neighbors, not to mention the presence of U.S. military forces in both South Korea and Japan (whose deaths in a nuclear attack would presumably be followed by a retaliatory strike), North Korea also would not attack South Korea or Japan with nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine suggests, rather, a limited demonstrative use of nuclear weapons aimed at demoralizing the enemy’s military and political leadership. Such limited nuclear attacks could include the destruction of low-value military objects and infrastructure using nuclear weapons or the use of radiologic “dirty bombs.” Other nuclear response options could include detonating a nuclear bomb at high altitude to disrupt communications infrastructure, drones, and command and control networks with electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—an attractive option in the face of a technologically or conventionally superior adversary. Detonating nuclear bombs to generate EMP effects is technically more feasible for North Korea than trying to match the United States in conventional weapons capabilities.
Another feature of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is the possible use of a preemptive strike. Indeed, first use of nuclear weapons is a vital necessity for North Korea due to its inferiority in conventional weapons and its insufficient retaliatory capabilities. An official no first use commitment is only an option for countries with a large nuclear arsenal and territory. With an increase in its number of warheads (and thus likelihood for the North Korean nuclear arsenal to survive a nuclear attack), North Korea could conceivably take on a no first use commitment, knowing its entire arsenal is unlikely to be wiped out in a single strike. At the same time, North Korea’s complex topography is ideal for masking missile complexes. The country has a whole network of underground objects and shelters as well, which allow it to hide both weapons systems and production facilities. As a result, neither the location nor the number of nuclear weapons carriers (and warheads) in the country is known for certain. In the event of a nuclear attack, at least some of North Korea’s missile complexes can survive a nuclear attack and launch a retaliatory strike. However, the small size of its territory and limited resources for creating and storing a huge nuclear arsenal makes such a commitment unlikely.
North Korea does not seek to “catch up and overtake” larger nuclear powers like the United States in terms of the numbers of warheads. It sees the role of its nuclear program as one of minimal deterrence. Doctrine and foreign policy aside, North Korea in the medium term will not be able to take part in a nuclear arms race due to territorial and, especially, financial constraints. However, North Korea has one important advantage over other nuclear countries: it does not participate in international agreements and control mechanisms relating to nuclear weapons, such as the Nonproliferation Treaty, and thus is not barred from building any class and type of nuclear missile or device. North Korea also rejects the validity of UN Security Council resolutions related to its nuclear program, which it believes are contrary to its security interests. Relatedly, North Korea does not make public any statistical information related to its nuclear program. Combined with the country’s topography, this obfuscation makes accurate analysis and assessment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons impossible, forcing observers and experts to speculate as to the number and location of nuclear weapons. Encouraging uncertainty about the size of its arsenal is itself an integral part of North Korea’s preventive nuclear strategy.
In order to align its current nuclear potential with its published doctrine, North Korea will probably focus on developing nuclear submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), railroad combat complexes, means of overcoming anti-ballistic missile systems, and military satellites in order to improve the mobility and survivability of existing nuclear weapons, as well as early warning systems and first strike capabilities.
While ICBMs serve as the country’s primary deterrent, launching an ICBM against the United States would be extremely difficult. First, U.S. missile defense systems mean that a single strike would conceivably require the successful launch of several ICBMs. Second, there is a lack of confidence that North Korean ICBMs in their current stage of development are capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to U.S. territory. As North Korea developed its first ICBMs only recently, there is no verifiable information about its test in full equipment, and it will take time and other resources to produce missiles in large quantities as well as develop countermeasures to missile defense systems. However unlikely, the possibility that a North Korean ICBM could reach U.S. territory is sufficient to give the missile a deterrent effect. At the current stage, ICBMs can be just one of the deterrents.
Given these realities, it is possible to conclude that North Korea has little need for a large number of ICBMs. It already has an ICBM and a thermonuclear bomb capable of generating EMP. Although some experts argue that the issues of testing payload of ICBM and a high-atmospheric nuclear explosion remain open, these tests would not necessarily be made public. They can be simulated on computers or be replaced with a subcritical test (if it is needed to test a nuclear device). The demonstrative tests that North Korea conducted up until 2018 can be considered as a part of its nuclear doctrine and deterrence strategy (while tests at the early stages of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the 1990s and early 2000s were conducted for the purpose of information collection). Given North Korea’s current foreign policy goals of restoring and developing foreign economic and diplomatic ties, stabilizing relations with the United States, and developing an inter-Korean dialogue, such demonstrative tests no longer serve North Korean interests. That is why the country declared the completion of its nuclear program, imposed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches, and began to mass produce successfully tested weapons at the beginning of 2018.
Yet it remains difficult to assess the number of missiles and warheads in North Korea. According to various estimates, the number of warheads is 20-60, while estimates of the number of missiles vary from 200 to 1000.
While none of this data can be considered fully reliable, if North Korea did indeed mass produce warheads and missiles over the past year, then it may have enough missiles to theoretically transfer some of them to China or use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. However, such a step would still raise too many questions. First, the price the United States would have to pay for such a concession would be very high—up to lifting sanctions and recognizing North Korea’s nuclear status. Second, the United States may not be satisfied with transferring just a part of North Korea’s missile arsenal. Third, this process would be difficult to verify; China is unwilling to share information concerning its strategic interests (including its North Korean policy) and probably has little incentive to pressure Pyongyang into complying with any agreement. For all these reasons, a transfer of North Korean ICBMs to China would make little sense to North Korea and is unlikely to occur.
Dr. Anastasia Barannikova is a visiting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is a research fellow at ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University in Vladivostok, Russia.
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