Tactical Nuclear Weapons: North Korea’s Next Lethal Weapon of War?

This article demonstrates one of the more dangerous aspects about North Korea: The perception that it isn’t capable of anything. Kim Jong Un, who has always gotten away with making threats, one day going to make good on his threats because people dismissed and laughed at every one of them. Remember, there’s still a possible EMP satellite making passes over the American homeland, plus a mini submarine that’s been “missing” for weeks now.


On March 2, 2016, Kim Jong Un gave direction to the military to “get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired at any moment.” The North reiterated versions of this formulation for days afterwards, including a “preemptive nuclear strike of justice.” These threats drew international attention because of concerns about the prospect of imminent violence, particularly in the wake of unprecedented UN sanctions and the kickoff of Key Resolve, the combined US-ROK annual military exercise.

Why a Tactical Nuclear Turn Is Plausible

The threat of preemptive strikes from North Korea is hardly new. In 2010 alone, North Korea threatened a “preemptive nuclear attack” 20 times. And the typical formulation of North Korean threat rhetoric has often been to establish some “red line” condition—the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s, for instance—that would lead to North Korea launching a full attack, even at the risk of suicide. Scholars (including me) have likewise argued that North Korea has strong incentives to launch preemptive strikes if it believes the survival of the regime is in jeopardy.

The Danger of a Tactical Nuclear Turn

North Korea is on a trajectory with its nuclear and missile programs to achieve an assured second-strike nuclear capability. But if North Korea develops tactical nuclear weapons, it opens the door to operational first-use for reasons of both battlefield efficiency (i.e., the most damage for the least effort) and deterrence (i.e., the implied threat that things may get out of hand). The purpose of its missile forces—a kind of mutually assured destruction—would remain unchanged but there may be a doctrinal distinction between strategic and operational forces.

This path poses a distinct danger because, for the United States, it should not matter whether the nuclear threshold is breached with strategic or tactical weapons. Nuclear first-use—even if only with low-yield, non-strategic weapons—would force the United States into a nuclear warfighting posture, or more precisely, fighting limited conflicts even as an adversary employs nuclear devices. This increases the risk that the United States would resort to nuclear retaliation, which the last formal US Nuclear Posture Review (conducted in 2010) continues to permit as an option. And even if the United States avoids nuclear options itself by limiting alliance counter-attacks to conventional ones, it has no experience fighting nuclear-armed adversaries. We do not know how to “win”—or even what “winning” looks like—when waging military campaigns against nuclear-armed adversaries. What is more, North Korea’s early use of even one low-yield nuclear device may be sufficient to trigger a full-scale US or alliance invasion. Therefore, North Korean employment of tactical nuclear weapons would pose a greater risk of miscalculation and conflict escalation on the Korean peninsula.

Full article: Tactical Nuclear Weapons: North Korea’s Next Lethal Weapon of War? (The National Interest)

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