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What the Experts Think

What the Experts Think: Why North Korea Wants Tactical Nuclear Weapons

North Korea Missile
North Korean Missile Launch. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The North Korea rumor mill has been running rampant here in Washington, DC over the last few months that North Korea will test some sort of nuclear weapon at any moment. While the DPRK has still not lit the atomic match just yet, many experts assume that the Kim family now wants smaller, battlefield-compatible, tactical nuclear weapons. There is even talk in the North Korea expert community that recent comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that such weapons would be forward deployed rather quickly.

As we like to do, 19FortyFive reached out to a range of experts to get a deeper sense of why North Korea wants these weapons and what their intentions might be.

Below is a sampling of what the North Korea expert community had to say to us about North Korea’s tactical nuclear weapons aspirations.

Please check back frequently as we will keep updating this article as more responses role in:

Dr. Bruce Bechtol, Angelo State University: “It’s an interesting question and I’m not sure if there is any evidence of this or if this is something the press came up with.

I saw recently where the North Koreans stated they were testing tactical weapons capable of carrying nuclear weapons (an Iskander missile would be one example). By tactical I assume SRBM?

North Korea has had nuclear-capable Scuds since the 1980s. But now, with these newer SRBM’s they got from the Russians (or at least with Russian assistance), they have SRBM’s that are much more accurate – almost pinpoint as we have seen from the same missiles being fired in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war and the war in Ukraine. None of those missiles were used for nuclear attacks.  Rather, they were used largely to target buildings and nodes important for their respective combat actions.

Now, if North Korea is going to attack South Korea with nuclear-armed SRBM’s (since that is the only set of targets in range), that means a change of plans. The plan has been to take and hold ground as they move south with conventional forces. If this plan change has occurred then it could mean that in any future war North Korea is planning on a more (literally) scorched earth set of operations because they see this as the clearest path to victory.”

Bruce Bennett, RAND Corporation: “Actually, I find this subject a bit mystifying.

If we look at the estimates of North Korean nuclear weapons, we find that many of the academics say maybe enough materials for 50, whereas some are thinking more like materials for 100 nuclear weapons.

With 50-100 nuclear weapons, they are like the United States in the late-1940s: The U.S. concluded that strategic-operational use of nuclear weapons was first priority, and therefore that it did not have enough for battlefield nuclear weapon use. It is not until 1951-1952 when the U.S. has hundreds of nuclear weapons that it is building tactical nuclear weapons, and even then the U.S. concluded that it did not have enough tactical nuclear weapons for use in Asia—they were reserved for use in Europe.

So I look at North Korea and with 50-100 nuclear weapons, I would guess that they would hold 20-30 for regime survival, end of conflict purposes. And the other 30-70 would not be enough to hit all the political targets (e.g., the ROK Presidential offices), ROKAF airfields (fighter airfields and airfields supporting US force flow), ROK Navy ports, and command and control facilities.

Moreover, tactical nuclear weapons have very limited effectiveness against ground force targets unless the targets are out in the open attacking, and even then pretty limited:

– 1 Kt (some US artillery shells go this big): lethal radius of about 0.8 km against attackers, half that against dug-in defenders,

– 10 Kt (big for a tacnuc): lethal radius of about 1.2 km against attackers, half that against dug-in defenders.

This radius is relevant against defenders because it has to create a hole both in width and depth. Remember that the US planned tactical nuclear weapons use against Soviet attackers, hoping to stop their advance. So you need a fair number of such weapons to affect much of a front. And if you want to create a breakthrough on the offense, using tactical nuclear weapon ground bursts will leave craters that will slow the advance of any vehicles and enough fallout to be a concern. Why not just use artillery? Aren’t 8,000 or so NK artillery pieces (counting MRLs) in the forward area enough?

My bottom line is that North Korean discussion of battlefield nuclear weapons is actually political hype, seeking to grab media attention (with which they have been very effective). That combined with ROK over-reaction. Unless NK is very concerned about ROK counterbattery capability against the NK artillery (and there are other ways to deal with it), why take nuclear weapons away from more important targets.

After all, the ROK have been plowing much of their Defense Capability Improvement monies into ROK fighter aircraft, located on just 12 airfields. Yes, most are defended by missile defense, but NK SOF ought to be able to take out much of that. Why not hit these high-value targets with nukes?”

Daniel Davis, Senior Fellow, Defense Priorities and a retired LT. Colonel, U.S. Army -“Reports that North Korea has or will soon have operational tactical nuclear weapons comes as no surprise and is in part, further evidence of the failure of the Western approach to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program.

For decades the United States has, at various times, sanctioned the Kim regimes, ignored them, threatened them with “fire and fury,” and tried economic incentives to entice them to denuclearize.

All too often we have accused North Korea of breaking promises, but failing to note that, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, we likewise failed to deliver on all our promises.

After observing the fate of non-nuclear states falling to American attack and regime-change operations – such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – Kim knows that his conventional force could never withstand a concerted U.S. military attack. He likely concluded that having a nuclear deterrent was the only thing that could ensure North Korea’s security.

The reality is that the nuclear Rubicon has been irrevocably passed and nothing is going to reverse it. Fortunately, U.S. security isn’t dependent on North Korean denuclearization, but on our own conventional and nuclear deterrent. Kim will never use a nuclear weapon in a first strike because he correctly understands that nuclear retaliation from the United States would obliterate his state.

The best policy the Administration could pursue would be to foster better North-to-South Korean engagement with the goal of eventual normalization of relations. That path has worked for 70 years with the USSR, China, and now Russia. It can work with Pyongyang too.”

Markus Garlauskas, Former National Intelligence Officer for North Korea, National Intelligence Council:Pyongyang’s regime almost certainly knows it cannot survive an all-out nuclear exchange, but I expect it to see greater viability for limited nuclear use once it has proven tactical nuclear capability. 

In an escalating conflict, Pyongyang could take the calculated risk of a limited nuclear strike—backed by threats of further nuclear escalation—to end it on acceptable terms. Such a scenario would pose a tough dilemma for Seoul, Washington, and even Beijing, and could spiral out of control.

Such employment would also be the first since 1945, setting a dangerous new precedent globally undermining non-proliferation and US extended deterrence.”

Wallace Gregson, Former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense:In these days of war in Ukraine and high U.S. domestic political drama, North Korea bids to regain access to the news cycle.

A nuclear test has long been rumored and anticipated. The North Korean nuclear weapons program is apparently unhindered despite sanctions often described in terms more powerful than facts support. The Covid pandemic has apparently had no effect.

Now, as reported by the Associated Press and other new agencies, North Korea is signaling changes to duties and plans for units on the border with South Korea. The implication, aided by other boasts, is that North Korea will deploy tactical nuclear weapons forward, taking advantage of their development of solid fuel missiles on mobile launcher systems.

The clear intent here is political, well before we get to any assessments of the military situation. Absolute rulers hate stable conditions. They need a proximate cause to pursue, preferably against identifiable demons, foreign or domestic. Such conditions restrain potentially ambitious internal opponents seeking regime change.

This will raise anew the question of nuclear weapons in South Korea. There is no purely military reason for this. But if South Korea determines that such weapons are necessary for reassurance and deterrence, the only answer is that they be U.S. weapons, under U.S. control.” 

Dr. James Holmes, U.S. Naval War College: “Kim Jong Un doesn’t tell me why he does things, but I would guess he sees a gap in U.S. extended deterrence at the tactical level. And he may be right about that.

It’s become a common talking point in Washington as Congress debates whether to keep funding the development of the SLCM-N, a new sea-based, tactical, nuclear-tipped cruise missile. This is a capability we used to have in the fleet in the form of a nuclear-tipped Tomahawk, the TLAM-N, but that lapsed during the post-Cold War drawdown.

The logic would be that a North Korean tactical nuclear weapon would be a usable weapon against the South or against Japan, not just a deterrent or a coercive implement. A U.S. response with strategic nuclear weapons would be implausible because it would be so disproportionate, or at least that’s the thinking. This may well be Putin’s thinking in Ukraine as well; he might think he could get away with tactical nukes to break a stalemate.

He and Kim could be right.”

Dr. Robert E. Kelly, University of Pusan: “North Korea has been suspected for the last few years of developing tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons. These release energy less than even the small weapons used against Japan in World War II.

North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un spoke of his interest in these tactical nukes several years ago. North Korea has likely achieved the large intercontinental nuclear missiles needed for strategic deterrence against the US. With that accomplished, it can now experiment with putting nuclear weapons on other platforms, such as submarines or artillery.

The value of tactical shells in artillery would be their powerful battlefield effectiveness. Even a small nuke used against enemy formation would do tremendous damage. Because the Korean peninsula is narrow with little room to maneuver, these would be especially potent weapons against South Korean and American forces.

Tactical nukes also help equalize the conventional competition with the South and America. North Korea is conventionally far behind, its weapons technologically outclassed by its opponents. Deploying small nuclear weapons as battlefield weapons helps to reduce that gap.”

Bruce Klingner, former CIA Deputy Division Chief for Korea: “The US and South Korea have assessed for a decade that North Korea had tactical nuclear warheads for its Scud and No Dong missiles. Pyongyang is now striving to develop its next generation of tactical nukes to equip an array of more sophisticated mobile missiles, some of which have greater ability to evade allied missile defenses.

Some experts interpreted Kim’s April 2022 speech as hinting at a new more offensive nuclear doctrine. But Pyongyang has declared since at least 2013 that its nuclear arsenal had dual objectives of deterrence and preemptive attack against the United States and its allies. In 2016-17, Kim Jong-un oversaw missile exercises simulating preemptive nuclear air bursts against South Korean and Japanese targets.

Pyongyang’s continuing development of nuclear and missile programs beyond the necessary requirements for deterrence suggests that the regime strives for a true warfighting capability.”

David Maxwell, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: “It is likely North Korea views nuclear weapons simply as another tool with which to win a war and does not associate it with the same kind of nuclear taboo we in the US do.

The regime likely plans to incorporate nuclear use from the time Kim decides to initiate an attack on the South in order to achieve its objective of rapid occupation of the South before South Korea can mobilize its forces and the U.S. can reinforce the peninsula.

The regime likely believes the use of all capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons, as well as the possible use of nuclear weapons against the seven UN bases in Japan, will improve the chances of victory.

In addition, these capabilities may also support the regime’s political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy by increasing tension to coerce political and economic concessions.

Lastly, I would say that what Kim Jong Un needs to know is that the use of any weapon of mass destruction, to include especially a nuclear weapon of any type, will result in a decisive response from the US that will lead to the end of the Kim family regime.”

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree focusing on International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization.

Note: This piece has been updated multiple times to include a new expert analysis. The latest update was 2:59 PM EST. 

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive and serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.