Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2013.
As I noted in passing last week, amid escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin announced a new doctrine of “active deterrence,” which included Seoul taking preemptive action against North Korean missile and nuclear sites that it judged were being prepared for use.
This point seems obvious. No country is going to wait for nuclear weapons to actually reach their cities if they can avoid it.
Nevertheless, there were a couple of issues with last week’s announcement.
The first problem is that it occurred at all. By announcing that Seoul was considering a first strike against North Korea’s limited nuclear and/or missile capability, Defense Minister Kim gave North Korea every incentive to put these weapons on a higher state of alert. This doesn’t currently matter since Pyongyang can’t place a nuclear warhead on a missile, but it certainly will in the future, especially once North Korea has developed solid fuel missiles. Given that it’s taken weeks for North Korea to prepare for nuclear tests in the past— and that it likely has solid fuel short range missiles— Pyongyang is almost certain to have its forces in place to launch a nuclear or conventional attack at a moment’s notice in light of South Korea’s announcement.
Furthermore, the announcement also gave North Korean leaders a strong(er) reason to adopt a “use-it-or-lose-it” nuclear doctrine in which they launch nuclear warheads at the first sign of an attack. The reason is simple: Seoul has overtly adopted a strategy of trying to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and, given its limited size, could very well be successful unless North Korea can successfully launch its nuclear warheads before South Korean aircraft or missiles reach their intended targets. The same largely holds true for conventional weaponry, a successful preemptive attack by the ROK would almost certainly destroy a large chunk of Pyongyang’s deterrent forces. North Korea is determined to prevent this from occurring.
The danger of this should be readily apparent: in an atmosphere in which U.S. and ROK forces are engaged in extensive military drills—including over flights by nuclear-capable American bombers— one cannot dismiss the possibility that North Korea mistakes these drills for an in-process first strike against its nuclear and/or missile sites. Indeed, given that the North presumably lacks sophisticated early warning radar systems, even something like a defector crossing back into North Korea by sea or the U.S. and Japan flying intelligence drones over Northern air space could theoretically set off a jittery leadership in Pyongyang.
Finally, there is good reason to believe that South Korea intends to undertake this action unilaterally. Indeed, last February the ROK Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jung Seung-jo, was quoted as saying:
“If [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked…. A pre-emptive attack against the North trying to use nuclear weapons does not require consultation with the United States and it is the right of self-defense.”
In theory the ROK forces exercising some autonomous capabilities could help stabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula. If communicated carefully (i.e. ROK-only and designed to achieve limited objectives) an ROK-only operation could allow Seoul to respond to small North Korean provocations like the ones in 2010 without as much risk of the situation escalating to a full nuclear-scale war.
A preemptive first strike designed to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities— or an attack that the North might interpret as such— would not qualify as an operation with a limited objective. As noted above, should it fail or be identified before taking place it carries a high risk of the North actually using its nuclear weapons once it has the capability to do so in the future.
Consequently, if such a risky operation is to be undertaken it must be done using the full spectrum of capabilities at one’s disposal (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons). South Korea has been adding increasingly effective missiles to its arsenals. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the U.S. military has the greatest chance of undertaking a successful first strike against North Korean nuclear and missile targets and therefore it should be included in any such operation. This is all the more true given that the U.S.—which has 26,000 troops in South Korea— would hardly be unaffected by a failure on South Korea’s part to destroy the North’s nuclear and missile sites.