North Korea Cultivates Ultimate Deterrence

North Korea Cultivates Ultimate Deterrence
Lim Byung-shick Yonhap via AP
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North Korea has long been at work developing a comprehensive nuclear deterrent — and it's making progress. On Feb. 12, the country launched a Pukkuksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile, proving what was once a distant goal is now a reality. In fact, North Korea has conducted several nuclear and missile tests recently that have caused alarm among its adversaries. And it won't soon give up its nuclear program in any potential negotiations. Instead, it will cultivate its nuclear capabilities in the hopes that doing so will ensure its security. Meanwhile, regional and global powers are adapting their own military strategies in response.


The Pukkuksong-2 missile test — the first of its kind — was at least partly successful. The missile, adapted from the fairly reliable Pukkuksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile, flew to an altitude of around 550 kilometers (340 miles) and a distance of 500 kilometers. At a flatter trajectory, the missile's range could be as far as 2,000 kilometers. The Pukkuksong-2 missile program is more dangerous for North Korea's foes.

Last year, the North Koreans focused their testing on the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, but the tests largely failed: Only one launch could be considered a partial success out of almost a dozen. The Pukkuksong-2, however, exceeds the Musudan in mobility, launching speed and flexibility, inferior only in range. While the transporter erector launcher (which carries, elevates and launches attached missiles) of the Musudan is wheeled, the Pukkuksong-2 uses a missile vehicle with tracks, granting it greater off-road mobility and access. Furthermore, unlike the Musudan, which uses liquid fuel, the Pukkuksong-2 uses solid fuel, which is more stable and provides a much faster launch time. Such quick and road-mobile launchers enable North Korea to better conceal, and thus shield, its ballistic missile force. The result is a more flexible and threatening North Korean ballistic missile arsenal that can better survive enemy retaliation.

Countries in Range

North Korea's advanced missiles are compelling the United States and its allies in the region to react. No other country is as threatened as South Korea. Seoul is just 195 kilometers from Pyongyang: It is not only in range of North Korea's conventional arsenal, but it is also within easy reach of a nuclear strike. North Korea has a much better chance of successfully delivering a nuclear weapon there — by aircraft or by missile — than to Japan or the United States. In anticipation of such an attack, South Korea will build up its anti-ballistic missile defense systems. But Pyongyang has too many missiles at its disposal for missile defense alone to protect South Korea in the event of an attack.

The Pukkuksong-2 is also a threat to Japan. The missile's range is long enough to strike virtually anywhere in Japan. Like South Korea, Japan will beef up its missile defense capabilities, but Tokyo is also aware that missile defenses can be only part of a broader solution to the North Korean problem. Consequently, both countries are turning more resolutely toward acquiring the means by which to neutralize the North Korean missile arsenal before it's ever used. This so-called left of launch solution would depend on two key variables.

The first is power projection and strike capability. The second is a comprehensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. Given that North Korea's arsenal is increasingly mobile and stealthy, accurately gauging the status of the North Korean ballistic missiles and the intentions of the government is critical. To stop a rapid launch, success is entirely dependent on accurately predicting an imminent strike far enough in advance to stop it.

The U.S. Contribution

This is why the United States is an indispensible ally. U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are unparalleled, particularly in the domain of signals intelligence and imagery intelligence. Moreover, the U.S. military is better able than the South Korean or Japanese militaries to penetrate North Korea's defenses and neutralize its arsenal. Japan, for example, lacks land attack capabilities, since it has pursued a defensive policy since World War II.

Even with the United States' considerable capabilities, tracking North Korea's arsenal will not be easy. Decision-making in North Korea is notoriously opaque, and the government relies on a network of tunnels and decoys to move its missile arsenal undetected. The United States and its allies might be forced to insert special operations forces into North Korea to track and even destroy its missiles.

North Korea is clearly intent on building up a comprehensive nuclear arsenal as the ultimate deterrent. With few options available, the United States and its allies will invest in enhancing their missile defense capabilities, but in the event North Korea is assessed to be on the verge of launching an attack, they will also seek a pre-emptive strike option to neutralize North Korean missiles before they are launched. And as North Korea develops its arsenal, South Korea and Japan will come to rely on the United States even more. 

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