North Korea’s recent testing of “newly-developed tactical guided missiles” has raised the specter of possible North Korean development of tactical nuclear weapons. Indeed, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared the pursuit of such weapons to be a priority during the Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January of this year.
North Korean pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons is likely driven by a belief in the necessity of flexibility with regards to the use of nuclear weapons to both hold strategic targets at risk for the purposes of deterring an attack against the DPRK while also threatening early use of nuclear weapons for battlefield effect in a wartime scenario.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons
While there is no standard definition, the term tactical (or nonstrategic) nuclear weapons typically refers to nuclear weapons of both lower range and yield, and also reflects a military terminology distinction between strategic and tactical missions; in military parlance, tactical use of nuclear weapons refers to the use of such weapons “against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope.”
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, tactical nuclear weapons include “land-based missiles with a range of less than 500 km (about 300 miles) and air- and sea-launched weapons with a range of less than 600 km (about 400 miles).” During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union maintained large arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, and for much of the Cold War the United States deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.
North Korea and Tactical Nuclear Weapons
North Korea’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons likely signifies an evolving role for nuclear weapons as part of North Korea’s national defense strategy. Following the successful testing of two different models of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 2017, Kim Jong Un proclaimed the DPRK’s possession of a “powerful and reliable war deterrent”. This signaled Kim’s belief in North Korea’s ability to deter an attack on the country by the United States.
While clearly significant, this likely does not represent the full extent of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s conventional military forces, while large in number, suffer from significant qualitative disadvantages compared to both the U.S. and South Korean militaries. In the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea would likely seek to compensate by employing asymmetric military capabilities in an effort to secure a quick and decisive end to the conflict.
This strategy represents the genesis of North Korea’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea is likely moving towards the adoption of what nuclear weapons expert Dr. Vipin Narang has identified as a strategy of asymmetric escalation, which he defines as a “rapid, asymmetric escalation to first-use of nuclear weapons against military and/or civilian targets.” Such a warfighting strategy would see nuclear weapons given an expanded role beyond just deterrence, being used also as battlefield weapons deployed against superior enemy conventional forces. Such a strategy requires the use of tactical nuclear weapons suitable for battlefield deployment.
The adoption of such a strategy is largely in keeping with comments made by Kim Jong Un and North Korean media. While North Korea has long maintained that its nuclear weapons serve a defensive or deterrent role, it has also hinted at the possibility of early use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. North Korean state media has described the Korean People’s Army as possessing “powerful war capabilities that can respond to any and all kinds of war,” while also declaring that North Korea would “preemptively mobilize the most powerful offensive force to thoroughly punish [them] outside the territory of our republic if hostile forces provoke us even just a little bit.” Kim Jong Un has described the importance of North Korea’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons in terms of the need for “weapons that can be applied in different means in the modern war depending on the purpose of operational missions and targets,” suggesting that he views tactical nuclear weapons as suitable for a role other than deterrence.
The use of tactical nuclear weapons as a means to offset North Korea’s conventional inferiority is also consistent with longstanding North Korean military policy. In 1962, North Korea adopted a defense policy dubbed “The Four-Point Military Guidelines,” a central element of which was the selective modernization of North Korean military capabilities that, due to North Korean resource constraints, provided the greatest strategic benefit at the lowest possible cost. Tactical nuclear weapons used on the battlefield against superior enemy forces are in keeping with this logic.
North Korea’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons reflects the evolving role of nuclear weapons in the DPRK’s national defense strategy. Given the self-reported completion of the country’s nuclear deterrent, North Korea is likely looking to expand the role of nuclear weapons beyond just deterrence to also include a battlefield role as part of an effort to offset its conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the United States and South Korea. In the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, this will result in North Korea’s early use of nuclear weapons in order to help bring about an early end to the conflict.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.