North Korea with SLBMs Scares the Hell Out of Everybody

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Kim Jong Un North Korea

Am I the only one who is amazed at how good North Korea seems to be at developing new military technology? They got to nukes despite all sorts of international efforts to block them. They’ve got an apparently pretty successful missile program. They beat South Korea to drones last year. And now they’ve got submarines, and ones that can launch missiles to boot! Wow. We seem to consistently underestimate the Norks – probably because everyone loathes them so much that we keep telling ourselves that the place is falling apart and will implode any day now. Alas, it doesn’t look like it.

I wrote the following essay, below the jump, for the Lowy Institute a few days ago on the SLBM test. My primary fear is that all these nuclear and missile advances raise the temptation for South Korea to preemptively strike before the Northern program really gets out of control in the next decade with hundreds of warheads and missiles. The Israelis did that in Iraq and Syria, and I could see the South Koreans mulling it too.

Increasingly it is impossible to see how this ends well. Where are we going? What is the exit from a North Korea seriously threatening the entire region? Jees…



“The North Korean nuclear and missile programs continue apace. In the last few days, the North tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Specifically, it was an ‘ejection test,’ to see if the missile’s propulsion was strong enough to break the surface of the water (it was). North Korea is on its way to an ‘assured second strike’ capability. That is, SLBMs can survive even a massive first strike by an opponent and allow the attacked state to nonetheless respond with nuclear force. SLBMs also offer greater range. North Korea has worked on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) but has struggle with multi-stage rockets that could actually traverse the atmosphere at great distance. By contrast, a North Korea submarine on station off the continental United States does not need ICBMs to bring most US cities within range of Pyongyang for the first time.

I see three medium-term consequences to this SLBM evolution:

1. Most importantly, it will drive American paranoia over North Korea to new heights. American cities have thus far been exempted from the North Korean missile threat that looms over Japan and South Korea. So SLBM development does little to change their threat perception and strategic situation. Instead, these SLBMs are clearly pointed at the US. They improve Northern deterrence by signaling that American cities will suffer retaliation if ‘regime change’ is tried.

But I do not think the North realizes how much this will push the Americans toward even more hawkish positions regarding Pyongyang. SLBM deployment will almost certainly lead to more sanctions and the accelerated pursuit of North Korean money in Asian banks. The US will also almost certainly accelerate missile defense development and arm-twist South Korea on THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). And it will push the American defense debate to the right and help ultrahawkish GOP presidential contenders. Is this really what Pyongyang wants? Do they really want John Bolton working for another White House?

2. SLBMs will also push the THAAD debate in South Korea toward deployment, yet another unintended consequence Pyongyang does not want. The South Korean left has managed to forestall THAAD so far, in part by arguing that North Korea is unnecessarily provoked by South Korean hawks and the Americans. But SLBMs weaken that position.

At the outermost limits of rationality, one might argue that North Korea could objectively want some nuclear weapons, given the American dalliance with regime change, and how far behind Pyongyang is in conventional military power. But even by that generous standard, there is still no defensible reason for North Korea to seek ICBMs, SLBMs, dozens or even hundreds of warheads, and so on. Even Beijing sees this. And now, if North Korea’s nuclear weapons are immune from preemptive strikes because they are underwater and impossible to find, then the debate on missile defense in South Korea has essentially been won by the hawks.

3. Elsewhere I have argued that North Korea’s spiraling nuclear and missile programs would slowly push Seoul toward preemption. I have long thought that a South Korea without a missile defense ‘roof’ or its own nuclear weapons would feel acutely vulnerable to North Korean nuclear missiles. And just as the Americans considered preemptive air strikes on Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 before they became operational, or as Israel did against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, so I imagine a rising temptation in South Korea to strike before the Northern program really gets out of hand, with hundreds of missiles and warheads.

SLBMs change this in two ways. First, if North Korea can actually deploy them reliably, then the value of preemptive strikes declines dramatically. Under-sea launchers cannot be targeted for preemption; that security is the whole point of SLBMs. At that point, missile defense is the only possible strategic response, and one can foresee an accelerating missile vs. missile defense technological race among the two Koreas and the US.

A second, more frightening prospect is that SLBMs set a timeframe on the North’s vulnerability to airstrikes. A closing window of opportunity might therefore encourage Southern air action sooner, as, for example, it did in Germany in 1914 because of the belief that Germany could not defeat Russia once its western rail system was completed.

Increasingly I cannot see how this ends well. No matter the consequences, the North seems hell-bent on hugely threatening nuclear deployments that in turn will only further entrench hawkish, confrontational elites in South Korea, Japan, and the US.”

For a response to this essay by another author from the Lowy Institute, try here.

Filed under: Defense, Korea (North), Korea (South), Lowy Institute, Nuclear Weapons, Preemption, United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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