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Would North Korea Dare Launch a Preemptive Nuclear War?

North Korea Special Forces
Image: North Korean State Media.

The resumption of open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula is in many ways a nightmare scenario. North Korea’s continued development of both its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons arsenals highlight the threat posed by the DPRK, though the country’s conventional military capabilities – despite lagging behind those of both South Korea and the United States – are also capable of inflicting tremendous damage.

One of the most concerning prospects regarding the outbreak of a major armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, however, involves the possibility that North Korea may choose to engage in preemptive military action if it believes that war is inevitable. Indeed, in response to the widening gap in military capabilities between North Korea on the one hand and both the United States and South Korea on the other, the DPRK has likely adopted a military strategy that favors quick military action and escalation, including potentially the early use of nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s Military Has Problems But Is Still Dangerous 

The DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) remains one of the world’s largest standing militaries, with roughly 1.3 million active-duty personnel in its ranks. Despite its size, the KPA’s combat potential is significantly undermined by a lack of modern equipment, and much of its inventory is made up of Cold War-era weapons systems. This has resulted in a major qualitative disadvantage for the KPA when compared to the armed forces of both South Korea and the United States.

This qualitative deficiency has shaped North Korean military strategy in such a way as to make preemptive military action an attractive option. Should a conflict break out, North Korea will likely seek to bring about early termination of hostilities on terms favorable to it through rapid escalation of the conflict. Early in a conflict, North Korea is likely to attempt to seize the initiative and launch rapid, blitzkrieg-style attacks in order to present a fait accompli to U.S.-ROK Alliance forces. In addition, North Korea may implement something akin to an “escalate to deescalate” strategy with which it will look to end any conflict before its military gains can be undone or before its military is overwhelmed by its superior adversaries. In any conflict, North Korea will look to achieve its objectives before follow-on U.S. forces can be introduced, and will also prioritize the destruction of facilities that allow for the introduction of those forces such as ports and airbases.

The Nuclear Weapons Angle 

All of these strategies are well served by early and even preemptive military action, and this logic extends to the early use of nuclear weapons as well. Nuclear policy experts have long speculated that North Korea may be pursuing a nuclear war-fighting strategy for its nuclear weapons, which would see nuclear weapons. This strategy would see nuclear weapons used for more than just strategic deterrence, instead of being used also as battlefield weapons as a means to offset the DPRK’s military inferiority and in support of its larger military strategy and objectives. The use of nuclear weapons in this manner would be in keeping with North Korea’s rapid escalation mindset, and would also be suitable in particular for the purposes of targeting enemy military facilities that will be a primary target for North Korea.

Full implementation of this strategy would require the development of tactical nuclear weapons, something that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has identified as an objective.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ralph

    July 25, 2021 at 10:37 am

    Any use of Nuclear weapons by the DPRK would result in a counter attack of such nuclear magnitude, that there wouldn’t be any strategy left on the table for the north. No western country would tolerate the use of nuclear weapons by the north without this type of response…This article is just thoughtless banter.

  2. John Hinman

    July 26, 2021 at 7:08 am

    No they would not. The only way a nuclear weapon is used would be by terrorist, any country that initially launched a nuclear weapon at another nuclear power knows it would lead to their demise and no country wants that for any reason.
    There will never be use of nuclear weapons to solve any dispute, mankind has come too far to be that stupid

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