Destabilizing Northeast Asia: The Real Impact of North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Programs

It is all too natural for Americans to view North Korea's nuclear and missile programs in terms of what seems to be an irrational threat to the United States: From a narrow U.S. perspective, North Korea's action seem almost suicidal. North Korea is creating a threat to the United States that could lead the U.S. into preventive strikes against North Korea and either force it back down or trigger a conventional war that it would lose catastrophically—albeit at immense cost to South Korea. Or, if the United States does not respond with effective preventive strikes or diplomacy, actually North Korea will acquire a nuclear capability to strike at the United States which—if ever exercised—would trigger a level of massive U.S. nuclear retaliation that much—or most—of North Korea would not survive.

There is, however, a different side to North Korea's actions. The key aspects of the military balance involve South Korea, Japan, and China far more directly than the United States. North Korea is the most militarized nation in the world, and any all-out conventional war on the Korean peninsula would do immense damage to South Korea and produce massive civilian casualties.

The Limits to North Korean Conventional Warfare Capability

At the same time, most of North Korea's conventional weaponry is aging, some is obsolescent, and it has a remarkably limited economy and infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to precision conventional strikes, "stealth," and the full spectrum of U.S. SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) technology and weapons. South Korea is far better equipped, and its conventional advantage is improving over time.

South Korea is steadily adding precision strike missiles to its inventory and has reached agreement with the U.S. to double the range-payload of its longer-range strike systems. This gives it the potential to offset North Korea's advantage in conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, and to threaten North Korea's fragile economy with precision strikes in ways that offset North Korea's advantage in being able to attack South Korea's capital—Seoul—from sheltered artillery and missile sites on North Korean just across the DMZ from South Korea.

The U.S. has the broader strategic advantage of its alliance with both South Korea and Japan, and U.S. basing facilities in Japan, Guam, its carrier task forces, and its cruise missile forces. North Korea has no meaningful ability to strike at key components of these forces, and its present conventionally armed missiles lack the accuracy and lethality to do critical damage to either targets in Japan or Guam.

A lucky hit with a conventionally armed ballistic or cruise missile will do as much damage as a random lucky hit by one 500 to 2,000-pound bomb. It can kill some civilians and do limited strategic or military damage. As the use of such missiles during the "war of the cities" in the Iran-Iraq War, the missile exchanges in the 1991 Gulf War, and Hezbollah's missile and rocket attacks on Israel have made clear, however, the damage will be limited. If anything, North Korean escalation will justify greater retaliation in kind with U.S. and South Korean precision conventional weapons. Unless North Korean makes a massive conversion to precision-strike conventional missiles, it is likely to do more to provoke to its own territory than produce any major military effect.

North Korea's Uncertain China Card

North Korea's China card is also becoming steadily more uncertain. China is no longer a fragile power. It is already the largest military power in Asia and the second most important military power in the world. It clearly still wants a North Korean buffer, but it has no reason to want a Kim Jong Un buffer or care if North Korea loses an escalation contest—as long as South Korea and the U.S. do not control the north. Kim Jong Un must realize that China would prefer a leadership that followed the Chinese economic model rather than relied on being hardline Cold War era threat.

North Korea must also cope with the fact that China's primary strategic interests are economic. South Korea and China are steadily growing trading partners, they signed a free trade agreement that went into force on December 20, 2015, and China has become South Korea's major trading partner despite tensions over South Korea's acceptance of U.S. missile defenses.

South Korea exported $137 billion worth of goods to China in 2016 (vs. $70 billion to the U.S.) and imported $90 billion worth of goods from China (vs. $44 billion from the U.S.). South Korea is of vastly more economic importance to China than North Korea—which is little more than an expensive and irritating economic liability. North Korea can only offer China geography and a political buffer that has the disadvantage of being an embarrassing third-generation hereditary fascist dictatorship cloaked in the name of communism, a failure in every area where China has succeeded, and a potential risk of being dragged into another Korean War.

North Korea's Reasons for Going Nuclear

There is no way to know exactly how Kim Jong Un and his closest advisors see this balance, or view the risk that South Korea and the U.S. might actually invade or try to overthrow his dictatorship. The problem with North Korea's exaggerated, almost paranoid rhetoric about such threats is that they may, to some extent, reflect real fears, may be used to persuade North Korea's people that they face a threat that leave North Korea with no choice other than militarization and support of the leader, and/or may be used to give North Korea and its leader status and influence which they otherwise could never gain and leverage in manipulating China's fears that it could lose North Korea as a buffer state. Mindreading a dictator is no more meaningful that any other of psychic guesswork—regardless of whether the would-be psychic concludes that the dictator is an ultra-rational bargainer or a madman.

The fact remains, however, that Kim Jong Un's decision to go nuclear at the peninsular, regional, and intercontinental level removes the current level of South Korean and U.S. escalation dominance, and Japan's and Guam's near sanctuary status. It will radically alter the balance by creating a situation where a war will be so costly that South Korea and the U.S. cannot escalate to the point where they can "win." It will confront South Korea, Japan, and the United States with the prospect that each year from some point in the near future, any conflict that posed an existential threat to the Kim Jong Un regime could end in a nuclear exchange that targets their cities with weapons 25 to several hundred times more lethal than the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

North Korea's going nuclear also confronts China with the risk that escalation will reach a nuclear level where the U.S. guarantees South Korea and Japan extended deterrence and that it will treat any North Korean nuclear attack on either state as cause for a U.S. nuclear attack on North Korea—or that South Korea will go nuclear. South Korea has agreed with the U.S. not to reprocess or enrich uranium, but it has examined a nuclear weapons option in the past. Its state-owned Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) manages a set of power reactors that provide roughly one-third of the nation's electricity—with 25 reactors and at least 11 more to come on line by 2029.

The problem for China would be whether to offer North Korea extended deterrence in return, or threaten it (and then potentially have to use such weapons) if a conflict escalated to an existential level. North Korea potentially acquires a 'trigger force" and a whole new form of leverage over China.

The Uncertain Cost of Preventive Options

There are no good options here, and this is a bad time to bluster. Preventive strikes may be possible at levels that would not necessarily trigger a major war. No one outside a narrow circle in the Pentagon and NSC can know the quality of U.S. targeting of the North Korean nuclear effort and stockpile of fissile material, and key missile stockpiles and production facilities.

No one can know just how large a strike it would take to deprive North Korea of so much of its capability to make a critical and lasting difference, or how sustained an effort would then be necessary to keep North Korea's programs suppressed. No one can know just how North Korea would play out the nuclear equivalent of a game of "chicken"—a struggle for escalation dominance in which the side least willing to escalate loses.

No one outside that circle in the Pentagon and NSC—and probably within it—can know the time window that still exists for a preventive strike before North Korea gets a real world mix of nuclear armed missiles reliable and accurate enough to use in the kind of city-busting that it would have to deploy—given its near-term inability to develop any meaningful counterforce strike capability.

And the Future Without Them

What one can predict is that the failure to exercise preventive options will have its own cost. It will either trigger a near miracle in diplomacy or trigger a major regional arms race. North Korea (and China and Russia) will have to plan on steadily improving South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. missile defenses, precision conventional missile strike capabilities, and efforts to locate, target, and prepare strike plans to hit North Korean nuclear and missile facilities.

Within no more than five years, this could mean North Korea will create enough nuclear armed missiles to survive such strikes, dispersing them, and probably completing ongoing North Korea sold-fuel missile developments to create rapid reaction launch capability, long-time dispersal capability, and high mobility.

North Korean targeting capability could go from a few U.S. cities to many, and South Korea and Japan's population centers will all be vulnerable. North Korean warhead and re-entry capability will be fully tested. Proven and reliable boosted and thermonuclear warheads will be tested. Missiles will be fired at long enough ranges at known aim points in the Pacific to prove they have the accuracy and reliability to hit American cities. North Korea may follow in Pakistan's footsteps and deploy tactical and theater nuclear weapons to limit U.S. and South Korean escalation and conventional strikes.

If there are no successful preventive strikes—which seems the most likely case—the U.S., South Korea, and Japan will have to do more than respond with missile defenses and conventional missiles. It already is not enough for the United States to imply extended deterrence. The U.S. must—at a minimum—pledge nuclear guarantees in explicit terms. It may well have to release South Korea from its agreement not to go nuclear, and/or redeploy U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. Both actions present the risk that they could sharply increase the cost of any nuclear exchange, even if they sharply raise the level of nuclear deterrence. Both present problems for China and possibly increase the risk of a "trigger force" exchange.

The challenge to Japan of being tied to a U.S. tied to South Korea — and the interactions with the other tensions between China and Japan/South Korea/US in Northeast Asia—will all increase. Almost inevitably, this nuclear arms race will have some—now totally unpredictable—impact on the U.S.-Russian nuclear balance, and the actions of other proliferators—as well as competition in asymmetric, cyber, chemical and biological warfare. Today's nascent North Korean threat may seem minor compared to the things to come.

The military issues discussed in this analysis are explored in more depth in two other detailed CSIS reports:

Anthony H. Cordesman and Charles Ayers,The Military Balance in the Koreas and Northeast Asia, January 31, 2017,

Anthony H. Cordesman and Joseph Kendall,Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2016, December 8, 2016,

Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy