How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
North Korea is a nuclear weapons power, and even though Kim Jong Un signed his name onto three declarations this year pledging “denuclearization”—two with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and one with U.S. President Donald Trump—there’s no indication that he will give up his nuclear capability any time soon. He sees nuclear weapons as essential to his regime’s survival and, ultimately, his security. North Korea’s de facto head of state, Kim Yong Nam, has suggested that nuclear capabilities—the country’s “treasured sword”—may be crucial to the country’s economy, as well: he describes them as enabling rather than inhibiting economic development.
Washington needs to accept that North Korea will remain a nuclear power for the foreseeable future and manage the situation accordingly. For 70 years, the U.S.-South Korean alliance successfully sustained deterrence on the Korean Peninsula, preventing the resumption of hostilities after the 1953 armistice put an end to the Korean War. Now the task will be to build and maintain a stable deterrent relationship with a nuclear-armed North Korea, a perennially insecure state with a fundamentally distrustful attitude toward the United States.
The new reality of North Korea’s capabilities—including the threat to the continental United States—demands careful thought about how Washington might influence nuclear decision-making in Pyongyang. A stable deterrence relationship requires making Kim feel secure about his arsenal, not insecure.
One example of a counterproductive posture is the widely reported U.S. effort to develop “left-of-launch” techniques, designed to disable North Korea’s missiles before they can be fired. North Korean decision-makers, including Kim, are well aware of this pursuit. Although the prospect of disabling an adversary’s missiles prior to launch may sound like a no-brainer for anyone interested in defending the United States and its allies from nuclear attack, the endeavor can backfire in ways that are particularly destabilizing. In fact, given what is known publicly about North Korea’s capabilities and its nuclear command and control systems and procedures, sustained U.S. pursuit of such techniques could greatly raise the likelihood of nuclear war.
Kim began 2018 by reminding the world of precisely such a danger. Seeking to put an end to lingering rumors of a U.S. limited “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, he insisted in his New Year’s Day address that the United States “will not dare to invade us because we currently have a powerful nuclear deterrent.” He added, “The whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.” In the same speech, Kim called for the mass production of the monstrous ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons that he had tested in the preceding months, leaving no doubt that he considered North Korea an operational nuclear weapons power.
Washington needs to accept that North Korea will remain a nuclear power for the foreseeable future and manage the situation accordingly.
Kim’s “nuclear button” remark was designed to draw attention to a specific facet of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent: that it was operational and that ultimately he alone controlled a nuclear launch. But for any nuclear state, destructive capabilities do not in themselves produce deterrence or strategic stability with an adversary. As the United States and the Soviet Union learned during the early years of the Cold War, a robust system of nuclear command and control is more than an afterthought; it is critical to preventing nuclear war.
Kim now faces the challenge of managing and controlling his country’s nuclear capability, not least by making critical decisions about who can authorize and physically release nuclear weapons, when, and under what conditions. Like every other leader who exercises authority over a nuclear arsenal, Kim will have to navigate the so-called always-never dilemma of nuclear command and control. As articulated by the political scientist Peter Feaver, the dilemma refers to the fact that “leaders want a high assurance that [nuclear] weapons will always work when directed and a similar assurance the weapons will never be used in the absence of authorized direction.” Nuclear powers use a combination of methods and procedures to balance these priorities, both positive (such that nuclear weapons can be launched when ordered to be) and negative (such that nuclear weapons cannot be released otherwise).
For Kim, this will mean ensuring that his nuclear weapons remain responsive enough to deter the United States but that the launch procedure is not so delegated or loose as to risk an unauthorized or accidental launch—an event that would elicit a backlash that would surely destroy his regime. Although little is known publicly about North Korea’s nuclear command and control infrastructure, the country has made at least a few key components of its nuclear doctrine clear. For instance, in 2013, the Workers’ Party of Korea adopted the Law on Consolidating Position of Nuclear Weapons State. This law, among other things, made clear that “the nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
That statement clarified that only Kim—who currently holds the title of the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army—could order a launch. It also laid out the circumstances under which North Korea would use its nuclear arsenal, but did so in vague language designed to give very little away and maximize useful ambiguity. Given the regime’s capabilities, incentives, and the asymmetric balance of power between North Korea and the United States and its allies, nuclear first-use remains a possible rational choice for Kim. That’s why his acquisition of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile last year was an especially big deal: it completed the basis for his rational nuclear strategy. In the past, Kim’s use of theater-range nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia alone would have meant his certain demise. Now, however, he can hold in reserve an arsenal of ICBMs to have some hope of using nuclear weapons to stave off an invasion of his territory and have a fighting chance of deterring the United States from pushing on, given his ability to hold the U.S. homeland at risk.
Recent diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, however slow-moving, is intended to reduce the odds of war, such that in 2018, the issue of North Korean command and control may not seem immediately salient. But North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is here to stay, and there’s no guarantee that the tensions that colored late 2017 won’t return at some point. The question of what happens in a renewed period of crisis should be concerning.
The United States’ newfound interest in preemptively disabling North Korean nuclear delivery vehicles amplifies such concerns. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Defense—in coordination with parts of the intelligence community—began studying left-of-launch techniques for sabotaging North Korean launches.
Not much is known about how far these efforts have been carried out in practice, but in theory the United States would seek to use remote sabotage—presumably through undisclosed cyber-capabilities—to disable or tamper with specific North Korean missile launch software and computers. Another approach might be to disrupt missile-manufacturing supply chains. A leaked May 2017 unclassified Department of Defense document described techniques that would be both “non-kinetic” and short of the United Nations charter definition of a “use of force.” But for North Korea, the effect of a left-of-launch mission would be not much different from that of an old-fashioned counterforce strike: the United States would have put North Korea’s missiles out of action before they were ever used.
Hopes for the viability of certain left-of-launch techniques—particularly remote sabotage—should be tempered. Neither North Korea’s Cold War–era, reverse-engineered Russian Scud missiles nor its newer, homemade ones are at all likely to be digitally networked. It’s highly improbable that a U.S. Cyber Command component unit will be able to flip a switch in Fort Meade, Maryland, and thereby disable a road-mobile missile launcher in North Korea’s Chagang Province.
The United States might more modestly—and more effectively—tamper with networked equipment associated with North Korea’s missile manufacturing, in order to bake imperfections into serially produced missiles. But the ultimate left-of-launch capability for Washington—and what would be tempting in a serious crisis—would be to tamper with Kim’s ability to press his proverbial nuclear button. Depending on North Korea’s command and control infrastructure—whether it is based on radio, cellular, fiber optic, or, perhaps, soon even satellite communications—this may be the most promising means by which to prevent a North Korean launch.
The very discussion of left-of-launch capabilities, however, has had dubious implications for nuclear stability—even if the U.S. show of interest in them has been nothing more than a psychological operation to sow doubt in Kim’s ability to control his force. The prospect that his direct control over the nuclear button could be sabotaged gives Kim incentive to make different means to a nuclear launch available, thus erring on the risker side of the always-never dilemma. The incentive to do this mounts dangerously in the event of a renewed crisis on the peninsula. In such a scenario, to maintain a credible deterrent posture, Kim would almost certainly seek to delegate some authority in advance of a strike and perhaps even order North Korea’s nuclear warheads, which are likely stored separately in peacetime, mated with their delivery vehicles. The history of the Korean People’s Army suggests that this type of decentralization would be highly unusual, but the requirements of operating nuclear forces may lead to these kinds of changes, especially in a crisis.
Because Kim cannot have confidence that his regime or arsenal would survive a U.S. attack, planning for any crisis with North Korea must account for the possibility of a sharp shift in North Korean command and control procedures that make the launch of its nuclear weapons much more likely. Sustained U.S. interest in left-of-launch capabilities might even push North Korea to seek some sort of mechanism ensuring that Kim’s untimely demise, or even rumors of it in the fog of war, would result in the release of any and all nuclear weapons that were available to the Korean People’s Army.
Furthermore, given the publicized U.S. exploration of left-of-launch measures, any perception that Washington is trying to disable North Korea’s force—even if it is not—could quickly convince Kim that he is in a “use them or lose them” situation. This could result in a much larger nuclear strike at the outset of a conflict than anyone anticipates, as Kim fears that he has a limited window to fire not only his theater-range missiles but also ICBMs at the United States.
These scenarios may seem far-fetched given the diplomatic process under way with North Korea, but they are precisely the sort that require forethought. Washington must weigh the benefits of left-of-launch operations against the costs.
If a conventional war were to begin on the peninsula, with nuclear escalation a present risk, the United States and its allies would seek to promptly disable or destroy North Korea’s nuclear assets. In this telling, left-of-launch capabilities are a desirable addition to whatever kinetic action might be possible. If taking out North Korea’s physical weapons would take multiple rounds of aircraft sorties in a conflict, for example, left-of-launch capabilities might provide that extra edge necessary to prevent nuclear annihilation. But when one considers that North Korea already knows all of this, the costs of left-of-launch quickly begin to outweigh the benefits.
Pyongyang is likely to interpret the publicized U.S. interest in left-of-launch techniques in the worst possible way. For instance, the unclassified May 2017 document describing “pre-conflict left-of-launch operations” stated that they would be legal against an imminent missile threat without defining what would qualify as “imminent.” In the North Korean reading, the details and techniques might be novel, but this is nothing more than a disruptive and new kind of counterforce, with all of its attendant downsides. It motivates North Korea to build a larger, more diverse system, and to launch first before the United States can disarm it.
To manage and reduce nuclear tension with North Korea in the short term, the Pentagon should publish a public report on the circumstances under which the United States would employ so-called non-kinetic means to disable an adversary’s nuclear-capable systems. These remain poorly understood and reporting since 2017 can only amplify North Korean insecurities and encourage a dangerous drift in Kim’s calculations. Congress, meanwhile, should elicit testimony from Defense Department policy staff on how, if at all, the United States is working to manage risks as it pursues these capabilities. Finally, as part of the diplomatic process with North Korea, the United States should explore avenues by which Pyongyang might privately communicate components of its nuclear doctrine.
Critics may point to the risks of this offering legitimacy to North Korea’s arsenal, but the benefits of managing nuclear dangers outweigh this largely symbolic cost. Whether U.S. policymakers want to accept it or not, North Korea is the United States’ third nuclear-armed adversary. To defend U.S. allies and the U.S. homeland requires Washington to make a serious effort to understand Kim’s thinking about his arsenal.