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Why North Korea’s Missiles Are a Growing Threat to US Military Bases

Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: North Korea State Media.
Hwasong-12 IRBM. Image Credit: North Korea State Media.

North Korea has conducted almost a dozen missile tests this year. The regime now appears to have hundreds of missiles of short, medium, and long ranges. Its biggest are large enough – have enough ‘throw-weight’ – to reach the United States or Europe. The North has also begun to research hypersonic missiles. These fast missiles are maneuverable, which helps the warhead slip past missile defenses. The North is also developing improved launch capabilities. It has placed missiles on trains, trucks (TELs), and traditional gantry platforms. It is also trying to mount them on a submarine. And it is working on solid-fuel capabilities for shorter launch windows than possible with liquid-fueled rockets.

In short, North Korea is building out a full-spectrum missile program. In 2017, it achieved the core competence of a North American strike capability. That is, it successfully tested an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) large enough to reach the United States with a nuclear weapon. For the first time in its history, Pyongyang had the ability to strike its primary global opponent with devasting force. This nuclear-tipped ICBM gives the North basic deterrence. It and the US are now locked in the familiar dynamic of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Build More and Better

With this basic benchmark achieved – and the great step-up in national security it brings – the North can now move on to a wide range of other missile capabilities:

Second Strike: One possible answer to MAD is a massive first strike to eliminate an opponent’s nukes before the opponent can use them (the use-it-or-lose-it dilemma). If the US were to fight North Korea in the future, the US would almost certainly attempt to destroy its missiles before the launch. This would entail a massive, rapid air campaign, possibly including the use of tactical (low yield) nuclear weapons to hit buried Northern nukes.

Both the Soviets and Americans feared this option from the other during the Cold War. Both responded by making their arsenals more mobile or hardening those facilities (silos) which could not be moved. The ideal answer both sides found was submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Submarines are hard to find. The earth is 70% water, giving them much space to hard. Indeed, SLBMs are so valuable that most nuclear weapons states now rely on them to assure a second strike capability, one that could survive a massive enemy first strike and still hit back.

The North is attempting exactly this. It is enhancing the survivability of arsenal. Land-based maneuverability – train- and truck-based launchers – is a technologically cheaper option. But subs would be the gold standard and obviate a US first strike.

Quantity: The North Korean military is famously large, probably the fourth biggest in the world by sheer manpower. But there are widespread questions about its combat capability. Its equipment is dated. It lacks fuel. Its soldiers are malnourished and consequently less fit than South Korean soldiers, and so on. And this military faces the very high tech and well-trained armies of South Korea and the United States.

The North’s best strategic option then is to exploit an area where it has a clear advantage. Missiles are cheap; the technology has been around for eight decades. They are hard to defend against. Missile defense (MD) is very expensive and does not work very well. The offense-defense balance of the missile-MD race is heavily tilted toward missiles, and hypersonics worsen that imbalance. As the North learns to miniaturize its nuclear warheads, its smaller, shorter range missiles can start carrying nukes too. This would give it the ability to use nuclear weapons both strategically – to devastate the cities of its opponents in a war – and tactically, on the battlefield as stepped-up conventional weapons, to make up for its current conventional inferiority.

US Asian Bases are Now Vulnerable

The strategic consequences from the missilization of the North Korean military are myriad. For South Korea (and Japan), North Korea’s spiraling missile program inevitably raises questions of pre-emption, which the conservative candidate in South Korea’s current presidential election has already discussed. Ideally, missile defense will improve. Indeed, we should desperately invest in it to provide some relief from the logic driving the US, South Korea, and Japan toward preemption.

North Korea

North Korean Hwasong-16 ICBM. Image Credit: KCNA/North Korean State Media.

North Korea

North Korean Test of Hwasong-15 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

South Korea and Japan cannot move their countries, but one other consequence of North Korean missilization is that the US will likely shrink its regional bases soon. American bases such as Humphreys in South Korea and Kadena in Japan are increasingly vulnerable. Such bases are a large cluster of US citizens – servicepeople plus associated family and contractors. They could act as ‘missile hostages’ to North Korea (or China) in a crisis. Very soon, there will be a US debate about whether to turn such locations into ‘lily pads’ rather than the large outposts they are now.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.