Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Button: Korea, US Must Strengthen Countermeasures for Worst-Case Scenario

North Korea’s improved nuclear weapons make South Korea, Japan and the United States immediate targets. As North Korea’s nuclear threat increases, South Korea might face a real existential crisis. The U.S. and South Korea must level-up extended deterrence like that of NATO and create a combined nuclear crisis management system. Neglecting the situation could lead to “the road of nuclear slavery,” or South Korea could experience a harsh reality never experienced before

Kim Jong Un issued a 2018 New Year’s statement that could symbolize an inflection point with respect to the North’s nuclear ability, nuclear strategy and willingness to use nuclear weapons. Kim stated that the entire territory of the United States was in the North’s nuclear firing range, and emphasized, “They [the U.S.] should know that the nuclear missile button is always on the desk in my office and it is not a threat but a reality,” adding, “[North Korea] must accelerate mass production of nuclear warheads and missiles and deploy them.”

In a New York Times article, Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimates North Korea possesses about 60 nuclear warheads. If the North can make up to an additional 10 nuclear warheads every year, it will possess more than 100 nuclear weapons by the end of the Joe Biden administration. Reports issued recently by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies and The Land Institute also estimated North Korea will possess 151-242 nuclear weapons by 2027. The North will accomplish its long-cherished goal of becoming a nuclear power country as powerful as the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth largest nuclear power nation.

Furthermore, in his speech at the 8th Party Convention in January, Kim clarified that the North’s targets are not limited to U.S. territories, but include South Korea, Japan and U.S. military bases in the South Pacific region, saying, “We will advance our nuclear technology to develop lightweight and strategic nuclear weapons for our diverse targets.”

North Korea Is a Sword of Damocles for Korea and the US

On March 31, the United Nation Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea reported that the North displayed long-range ballistic missiles that can load nuclear warheads, and officially confirmed the North’s intention to complete its nuclear armament against South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

We should note that Kim twice mentioned the possibility of “preemptive nuclear use” during his military inspection in October 2020, and also at the Party Convention in January. To support his assertions, Kim launched a test of the improved 9K720 Iskander missile on March 25.

This missile, which the North introduced as a new tactical model, is part of the same missile system that Russia deployed near the borders of NATO countries under a strategy of tactical nuclear weapon operations, as the Global Leadership Task Force of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs pointed out in a February report. I personally participated as a CCGA member.

Maj. Gen. Ferdinand Stoss, director of plans and policy of the United States Strategic Command, which orchestrates the U.S. nuclear war plans, emphasized in an Institute for Corean-American Studies talk on March 31, “the nature of the speech of the North’s advanced strategic nuclear weapon that Kim stressed is not about firing-range or weapons power, but about his intention of preemptive nuclear attack.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade around Cuba that could have led to nuclear war in blocking Cuba’s deployment of nuclear missiles. Now the U.S. must worry about the risk of nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula, along with the North’s possible attack on U.S. territories. South Korea could experience a Cuban missile crisis every day because we are only 50 km (approximately 31 miles) from the North Korean border and threatened by nuclear weapons that could be carried on all kinds of delivery platforms. This means that, in addition to the existing risk that increases the possibility of nuclear threat and intimidation, the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula will be normalized. The North’s nuclear missile force is a sword of Damocles, a razor-sharp knife tied to a strand of horsehair hanging from the ceiling, that could fall any time.

Recently the international community has been seriously debating the danger of nuclear war, including the possibility of North Korea using its nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula. Primarily, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and U.N. Undersecretary General and U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu have warned, “Whether nuclear war is caused by intent, miscalculation, accident or miscalculation, the possibility of nuclear weapon use is the highest since the Cold War.”

For two years in row, the U.S. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest figure to doomsday since it introduced the Doomsday Clock in 1974. The North’s nuclear threat is one of the crucial causes for the latest setting. Another matter that is as serious as North Korea’s intentional, preemptive use of nuclear weapons is the possible use of nuclear weapons by miscalculation, accident or hacking, a matter which concerns the United Nations and security experts.

The U.S. is overly sensitive about the possibility of Kim’s misjudgment and regional conflict caused by the North’s old-fashioned provocation that has escalated to nuclear threats. The U.S. directly connects this to its deterrence strategy and nuclear umbrella doctrine. Nuclear accidents and miscalculation are the same thing. Former Defense Secretary William Perry pointed out that a computer malfunction could cause a nuclear war many times, noting that the U.S. nuclear warning system is very vulnerable to cyberattack.

For many reasons, be it the North’s intentions, miscalculation, an accident or hacking, the rising possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons and its threat to do so has important implications for the South Korea-U.S. alliance’s control of war, defense and retaliation strategy, as well as for the nuclear crisis management countermeasure system.

The U.S. president must respond to a nuclear attack within 10 minutes, and within the 30 minutes it takes for Russian, Chinese or North Korean nuclear missiles to reach United States territories, in order to avert the attack or minimize damage. The leaders of South Korea and Japan, countries which are closer to North Korea, have an even shorter time to decide whether respond to a nuclear attack from the North or ask for nuclear deterrence power (the nuclear umbrella, etc.) from the United States.

Stoss mentioned that “mankind, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, faces the era where they cannot completely exclude the possibility of failure on nuclear deterrence.” It is the reason why “left of launch” (a doctrine of preemptive strike to defeat nuclear ballistic missile threats before they are launched), discussed and only unofficially mentioned by few people in the U.S., is now being discussed openly by high-ranking officials on the U.S. Joint Command Staff.

In 2016, South Korea and Japan held an emergency National Security Council meeting concerning North Korea’s tests of its fourth and fifth nuclear missiles and test launches of approximately 20 ballistic missiles. South Korea and Japan had to monitor the situation and announce the North’s nuclear missile tests as they occurred. If the North’s test-launching situation had not been a drill, South Korea and Japan would have had to respond quickly by taking confrontational military action.

CCGA’s Global Leadership Task Force report also suggested reaffirming the United States’ long-standing commitment to the Asian countries that are allied with the U.S. directly, not through a Nuclear Sharing Agreement or a Nuclear Planning Group. The U.S must guarantee provision of nontactical nuclear weapons (strategic nuclear weapons, etc.), including a nuclear guarantee, and promise to deploy additional and forward-deployed missile defenses. The report also emphasized the importance of alliances and leader participation in the policy planning process from the beginning stage. Additionally, the report pointed out that allied countries and their leaders should master their nuclear crisis handling capabilities through combined exercises. The report further suggested finding an Asian version of a nuclear planning group to discuss specific policy plans related to U.S. nuclear power.

South Korea and the U.S. should revitalize the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group that was established at the U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting in 2016. Additionally, they should strengthen the Extended Deterrence System to a level comparable with NATO’s, and immediately enhance, unite and develop the nuclear crisis management system between the U.S. and South Korea, and within South Korea. To do this, the U.S. and South Korea must completely trust each other.

Civilians, the Government and the Military Must Unite To Prepare for a Nuclear Crisis

Our priority is to continue making an effort to denuclearize through diplomacy, and to strengthen the U.S. and South Korea’s deterrence, defense and retaliation power. However, leaders, relevant foreign and security agencies, and even the Korean people must learn and master their own roles and necessary procedure in order to be ready for a critical nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula, a crisis that cannot be considered without acknowledging North Korea’s nuclear use in the future. North Korea always tries to catch us off guard. If we are not ready, we may walk down the road of nuclear slavery, or face a kind of harsh reality that we have never experienced before. The only way to avoid this is to arm ourselves with the wisdom that prevention is better than a cure.

I have read the article about how the Ministry of Public Administration and Security sent an official protest of the fact that it could not properly verify national mobilization procedure because the U.S.-Korea Joint exercise had consisted of only command post exercises without real field training over the last three years. It reminded me that former defense secretaries, including Rick Perry and Ashton Carter, stressed the importance of emergency drills, as they imagined over the last situation over the last 10 years in which nuclear missiles might attack an American city. In 1935, Prime Minister Winston Churchill predicted Nazi Germany’s invasion early on, and said, “When the situation was manageable, it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”

We must take this seriously as a historical lesson.

Byoung Se-yun is the former foreign minister of South Korea.

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