New U.S. Missiles in Asia Could Increase the North Korean Nuclear Threat

After withdrawing from the INF Treaty, U.S. officials have been worrying about Beijing, but as Washington starts to deploy previously banned missiles in the Pacific, the real risk will come from Pyongyang.

A woman walks past a television showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching a missile launch, in Seoul on July 31.
A woman walks past a television showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching a missile launch, in Seoul on July 31. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty expired on Aug. 2 when the United States’ withdrawal from that agreement became official. Now, unencumbered by INF restrictions, U.S. planning has turned toward the development and deployment of previously proscribed missiles—primarily to Asia, where competition with China is an acute future concern.

But China isn’t the only major strategic concern in a post-INF Asia. What should greatly worry strategic planners in Washington is the inadvertent ways in which the deployment of new U.S. missiles in the Pacific theater might greatly increase the risk of nuclear weapons use on and around the Korean Peninsula.

A second-order effect of a new U.S. missile deployment to the region would be the complication of any attempts at diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear program. Indeed, Kim Jong Un’s resolve to retain his nuclear capabilities would likely harden as a result.

While the beginnings of the post-INF debate in the United States have largely focused on Russia and China, it is the unintended consequences with North Korea that are most likely to raise nuclear risks in the short term. Unlike China, which can be confident in its ability to retaliate, North Korea’s current command and control practices and its limited nuclear arsenal may force it to reevaluate its choices to date, taking it down a dangerous path.

With its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the United States has opted to catch up with the missile capabilities of its two great-power rivals. Russia, the major post-Soviet counterpart to the INF Treaty, has developed a missile known as the 9M729. Moscow’s development of this missile—and surreptitious testing thereof over several years—began the INF Treaty’s demise under the Obama administration until the treaty- and arms control-averse Trump administration decided the easiest solution to the problem Moscow had created was withdrawal.

But more so than Russia’s lone INF-violating missile, of greater concern to many in Washington today is China’s considerably larger missile arsenal—some 95 percent of which falls in the INF-proscribed category of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with range capabilities of 300 to 3,300 miles.

Beijing was never a party to the INF and, as its economy boomed, built up a formidable missile arsenal unencumbered. Many of these missiles would pose a significant challenge for the freedom of maneuver of U.S. and allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region in a conflict situation.

With Washington’s seemingly irreversible embrace of great-power competition with China, there are urgent calls to develop commensurate U.S. capabilities. As a result, the core of the post-INF debate appears to be consolidating around how new U.S. capabilities might transform military planning and options in the Pacific.

The Trump administration’s review and withdrawal from the INF Treaty occurred so quickly that very little practical strategic planning was able to take place. U.S. allies were briefed on the nature of the Russian violation and hastily gave their blessing to Washington’s plans. Now, with plans to begin building and testing post-INF U.S. non-nuclear missiles, a number of questions remain. One of the most obvious is the issue of basing—where new U.S. missiles would go—particularly given the political concerns that arise with allies.

Unlike Western Europe’s relatively compressed continental geography, the Pacific offers limited basing options for ground-based missiles. Until serious consultations begin with allies—such as Japan—on forward-basing missiles, the obvious Pacific contender for any American post-INF deployments is the U.S. territory of Guam, which sits nearly 2,000 miles away from China’s eastern coastline.

The U.S. Defense Department plans to soon develop at least one new post-INF ballistic missile with a range capability of 1,800 to 2,400 miles—an ideal system to hold parts of eastern China and the entirety of the operating theater around Taiwan at risk from Guam. It just so happens that such a missile would also have a capability of striking Pyongyang with a flight time of just 20 minutes.

The U.S. Defense Department plans to soon develop at least one new post-INF ballistic missile with a range capability of 1,800 to 2,400 miles. Such a missile could strike Pyongyang with a flight time of just 20 minutes.

North Korea today considers itself to be in a nuclear deterrent relationship with the United States, even if this goes unacknowledged in Washington, where hopes of a disarmament deal have remained alive through multiple rounds of unproductive high-level summitry through 2018 and 2019. Indeed, Pyongyang’s completion of its “state nuclear force” in 2017 with initial flight-testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) allowed Kim to pivot toward diplomacy in 2018.

Thanks to his nuclear weapons, Kim not only won international prestige but sought to initiate a process with the United States that would lead to a new kind of U.S.-North Korea relationship. As North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, Pyongyang sought to convey the message that a “balance of power”—that is, a stable nuclear deterrence relationship—might prevail between the United States and North Korea.

Nuclear deterrence with North Korea is not foolproof, stable, or particularly well tested.

But nuclear deterrence with North Korea is not foolproof, stable, or particularly well tested. While the United States and South Korea have succeeded in deterring large-scale conventional aggression by the North Korean army since the Korean War armistice in July 1953, many of those lessons require revisiting given Kim’s success with the bomb.

The North Korean regime seeks to leverage its nuclear weapons for regime survival. Its known capabilities are good enough and credible enough for that job, but Kim still bristles at qualitatively advanced U.S. capabilities in the surrounding region.

In August, after conducting a short-range ballistic missile launch, an official statement attributed to a spokesperson for the North Korean Foreign Ministry explained why Pyongyang continued to see a threat from the United States. In doing so, the spokesperson cited U.S. testing of nuclear and strategic missile defense systems, including an ICBM, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the homeland missile defense system in 2019.

For years, North Korea has particularly bristled at U.S. non-nuclear B-1Bs and nuclear-capable B-2s conducting so-called bomber assurance and deterrence missions near the Korean Peninsula. For a country with radar and early warning capabilities as primitive as North Korea, these U.S. systems are as good as unstoppable; Kim wouldn’t know he was being attacked until U.S. ordnance had hit targets on North Korean soil. That’s largely why Pyongyang has complained for decades of an inexorable nuclear threat from the United States—one that will remain in place as long as U.S. nuclear weapons do.

All of these U.S. capabilities, however, can be set apart from an imagined post-INF missile deployed on Guam with a range of nearly 2,500 miles. Even though this missile will be conventional, it stands to upend North Korea’s strategy in ways that could be immensely destabilizing. What made the missiles that were eventually banned and destroyed under the INF Treaty in Western Europe and the Soviet Union so dangerous and destabilizing was their promptness.

Prior to the INF, in a matter of minutes, a U.S. Pershing II ballistic missile could have decapitated the Soviet leadership. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, before they ultimately signed the INF Treaty, understood that these missiles would push both sides to undertake exceedingly dangerous postures that would, in a crisis, make nuclear weapons use and escalation to a full-scale nuclear war more likely. While the maximalist abolition solution that the INF represented was ambitious, it emerged from that realization.

North Korean assumptions about American warfighting are based mainly on what Pyongyang has seen U.S. military might do to other countries in recent years. The North Koreans regularly cite both Iraq wars and the 2011 campaign against Libya. The lesson Pyongyang took away from those conflicts—and now uses as the basis for its nuclear posture—is that large-scale, expeditionary wars fought by the United States first require a visible buildup in the region.

The United States has to move thousands of tons of equipment, supplies, and forces into the region. As a result of this observation, North Korea has said it would use nuclear weapons if it detected these kinds of activities—and has demonstrated its seriousness with exercises to implement such a strategy. This observation explains why Pyongyang despises large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises, especially those that involve the mass mobilization of forces in South Korea.

North Korean assumptions about American warfighting are based mainly on what Pyongyang has seen U.S. military might do to other countries in recent years.

A precise, conventional ballistic missile based in Guam that would be able to reach Pyongyang without overflying any problematic countries (such as Russia) with a flight time measured in minutes is precisely the sort of threat that Pyongyang’s military planners believe would demand a North Korean response. This response would likely be predicated on a North Korean assumption that this conventional missile was also nuclear-capable: North Korea erroneously ascribes a nuclear role to several non-nuclear U.S. systems, including attack submarines and the B-1B bomber.

Kim can’t hope to invest in missile interception technologies or strategic early warning capabilities capable of detecting threats emanating from Guam, so the logical method of coping would likely involve changes to North Korea’s peacetime nuclear command and control procedures.

Authoritative North Korean sources indicate that, currently, Kim exercises exclusive authority over the country’s nuclear forces, but if he can be taken out by a prompt U.S. strike in a crisis before he’s able to use nuclear weapons, North Korea’s strategy might fall apart entirely, raising the question of whether there is a reasonable solution for Pyongyang.

Peacetime nuclear predelegation to military officers in the field is one solution, though risky: Skittish North Korean air defense crews may misinterpret a simple bomber flyby as the start of an attack and provide a false positive alert that could result in the use nuclear weapons, starting an unnecessary war that increases the odds of Kim’s demise. Another solution—one best communicated publicly by North Korea—would be the implementation of an overt “dead hand,” whereby all of Pyongyang’s remaining nuclear weapons would be released should Kim die in a U.S. attack.

This sort of assurance that North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be overwhelmingly released toward predefined targets after any conventional strikes on the leaders’ location would likely be a clever move but not one that anyone in Washington should be interested in bringing about.

Nuclear use on the Korean Peninsula is less likely as long as Kim chooses to retain assertive and unitary control over his nuclear weapons in peacetime and in a crisis. Any steps that the United States might take—including the use of cyberwarfare to disable or destroy Kim’s weapons—encourages more dangerous outcomes.

Calling for U.S. policymakers preoccupied with China to consider the threat perceptions of a small nuclear power like North Korea might seem like a sideshow at first, but the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea demands serious consideration. While post-INF U.S. missile deployments may well raise the possibilities of conflict with Russia and China, they are less likely in the immediate term to lead to nuclear escalation.

The nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea, however, remains fragile, young—and dangerous. The United States hasn’t gotten used to the consequences of thinking about nuclear stability with anyone but Russia and China. Now with North Korea’s nuclear weapons well out of the barn, there’s a third adversary that demands consideration.

Ankit Panda is an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. Twitter: @nktpnd

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