This Could Be the Year North Korea Gets Tactical Nukes

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is edging dangerously close to his “Next Big Thing”: a tactical nuclear warhead for wiping out a target like a military base or biological/chemical weapons capable of inflicting instant death on millions—or both.

South Korea’s defense ministry, reflecting rising fears, has just created a directorate dedicated to countering all North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological and chemical—the precursor of a separate strategic command. “Should North Korea make an attempt at using nuclear arms,” the ministry warned, “ it would lead to the end of the Kim Jong Un regime.”

The U.S. also launched a unit of the newly formed Space Force, a separate branch of the armed forces, at South Korea’s Osan Air Base last month to track North Korean nukes and missiles.

Kim signaled his ambitions by declaring the “resolute will” of his regime “to respond nuke for nuke” as he welcomed production of super-large rocket systems for firing tactical nukes into targets in South Korea, including the largest U.S. military base, Camp Humphreys, near Osan, 60 miles south of the North-South Korean line. All South Korea is “within the range” of a missile “carrying a tactical nuclear warhead… as a core, offensive weapon of our armed forces,” said Kim.

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The Supreme Leader may test a tactical nuclear warhead any time, there’s no telling when. The latest speculation ranges from his 39th birthday, on Jan. 8, to Feb. 8, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army in 1948, to Feb. 16, anniversary of the birth of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who was 70 when he died in 2011. Kim ordered the North’s sixth, most recent, nuclear test in 2017.

Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush, believes the North Koreans “are after tactical nuclear weapons that can be used on the battlefield. They “don't want to have to escalate to the big bomb in a conflict,” he told The Daily Beast, considering “they have no way” to match the U.S. and South Korea “in terms of conventional capabilities.”

Moreover, said Cha, who is now a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown, “tac nukes also aid their effort to decouple U.S. security from South Korea’s.” The U.S. would not have to respond to the threat of using tac nukes against South Korea as it would if Kim tried “holding the U.S. at bay by targeting a U.S. city with an ICBM”—“kind of the way Putin has done so with nuke threats and NATO.”

The frequent emphasis on tactical nukes, said Bruce Klingner, the CIA’s former deputy division chief for Korea, comes after North Korea tested a new missile that the North proclaimed would “drastically improve the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhance the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes.” Then, in June, Kim and his aides “discussed enhancing capabilities and revising operational plans for ‘frontline units’—likely an indirect reference to deploying tactical nuclear weapons.”

Klinger, who now works at the Heritage Foundation, sees tactical nukes as serving multiple purposes—“in a first strike against leadership, hardened command and control, or high-value military targets, as well as a retaliatory second strike and battlefield counter-force attacks.” And, of course, they “could target U.S. forces arriving on the Korean Peninsula and allied forces preparing a counteroffensive into North Korea, hold allied and U.S. cities at risk, and potentially provide the means for Pyongyang to reunify the peninsula on its terms.”

As if to show the North can fire missiles anytime, anywhere, Kim ordered a barrage of missile tests on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. On Saturday, KCNA reported the test-firing of “super-large multiple rocket launchers” displayed at a conflab of the central committee of the Workers’ Party the same day.

“The three shells of multiple rocket launchers precisely hit a target island” between North Korea and Japan, said KCNA. Then, on Sunday, KCNA reported a long-range artillery sub-unit had greeted the new year by firing a single shell into the sea using a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.”

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All told, Kim ordered close to 100 missile tests in 2022 from multiple bases, demonstrating the North’s ability to strike targets almost anywhere in Japan as well as South Korea. It’s widely believed the North’s next underground nuclear test will be that of a tactical nuke rather than a massive hydrogen bomb of the sort that blew up much of a mountain in the North’s most recent nuclear test in September 2017.

Tempting though it is to dismiss Kim’s braggadocio as rhetoric, the more big talk Kim utters, the more missile tests he orders, the more likely he’ll make good on his threats. Clearly he wants the world to pay attention to his grandiose boasts and claims rather than shrug them off as the usual nonsense.

Kim would like his enemies to think he could find a target for real this year. A big question is whether North Korean engineers have figured out how to attach a warhead to a missile. The next underground test may provide some answers.

“The issue is miniaturization of the nuke and its components,” said David Maxwell, a retired army colonel with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I think the same problem is faced whether the nuke is ‘tactical’ or ‘strategic.’ They have to have a miniaturized nuclear capability.”

Bruce Bechtol, author of books and studies on the North Korean military, said the North’s ability to fit a smaller warhead to a short-range missile “is unknown since we have never seen them do it” despite “what they said they could do in KCNA.” There’s “no evidence,” he said, “unless they got the technology directly either from the Russians or the Chinese—which is of course possible.”

The U.S. and South Korea differ publicly on the degree to which they’re working together to counter the North’s nukes. President Biden responded “no” when asked if the U.S. and South Korea were discussing joint anti-nuclear exercises. South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, however, told Chosun Ilbo, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, “The nuclear weapons belong to the U.S., but the planning, information-sharing exercises and training should be carried out jointly by South Korea and the U.S.”

A spokeswoman for Yoon implied a cover-up by the U.S. Biden “obviously had to say, ‘no,’” South Korea’s Yonhap News quoted her as saying, since “joint nuclear exercise is a term used between nuclear powers.” The White House appeared to echo that explanation Monday, confirming that the U.S. was indeed “providing extended deterrence through the full range of U.S. defense capabilities.” In the face of rising pressure to develop its own nukes, the South has refrained from initiating a nuclear weapons program.

Kim’s enthusiasm for tactical nukes rather than long-range ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles was evident at the meeting of party bigwigs at which he called for “mass production of tactical nuclear weapons” and “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal,” which also includes intercontinental ballistic missiles for destroying targets in the U.S.

The fact that North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency released Kim’s statements in English showed it was intended for North Korea’s foes in Washington and Tokyo after South Korea’s defense ministry, under the conservative President Yoon, re-designated the North as the South’s “enemy”—a word the previous liberal government had banned. Kim cited Yoon’s call for “preparations for war” as making “the development of nuclear force and national defense” his “main orientation” for 2023.

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Bruce Bennett, author of numerous reports on North Korea at the RAND Corporation, agrees “a North Korea designated tactical nuclear weapon is the next big thing”—“the ones he plans to use against targets in theater, i.e., South Korea, Japan and potentially China, whereas strategic nuclear weapons would be ones he would plan to use against the United States.”

But Bennett also notes that Kim has talked ominously about “spraying bomb strikes”—a term that “sounds to me like biological weapon use.” Kim, he believes, would also use drones or special operations forces.

The ease with which the North might spread biological or chemical weapons came into focus last week when North Korea sent at least five drones over South Korea. They did no harm before returning safely to North Korea before South Korean warplanes, helicopters and anti-aircraft weapons could shoot any of them down.

“Such provocations, including drone incursions, appear excessive for deterrence and may be intended to scare South Korea into taking a softer policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The high volume of tests at unusual times and from various locations demonstrate that North Korea could launch different types of attack, anytime, and from many directions.”

Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul, is particularly disturbed by North Korea’s guidelines authorizing first use of nuclear weapons “if the regime feels threatened.”

“This is a dangerous and destabilizing doctrine,” he said, while “the Kim regime is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems designed to give the regime a range of options,” including “a survivable second-strike capability, as seen from its testing of solid-fuel long-range missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and road-mobile, quick-to-launch tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.”

Bruce Bechtol is not convinced, however, that tactical nukes have replaced ICBMs at the top of Kim Jong Un’s agenda.

“The use of nukes of any kind—tactical or otherwise—would likely mean the end of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and the Kim regime,” he said. “Why waste time on something small? I think their highest priority is to have a weaponized nuclear program capable of striking the United States. The most likely platform for this would be an ICBM.”

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