Shaping a Deterrent Strategy for Today’s North Korea

By Ed Timperlake

A key challenge for both the Second Nuclear Age and effective warfighting and deterrent policy in the Pacific is shaping a 21st century approach to the North Korean threat.  This is clearly not 1954 as the North Koreans are now deploying and building out nuclear weapons with regional reach.

It is no longer simply defending South Korean territory; it is about deterring against strikes against regional allies and US forces operating in the region.  It is about regional reach of North Korean weapons; it is not just about preparing for the land invasion coming south.

And a key factor is that our partners must deem a 21st century strategy against North Korean missiles and nukes to be effective or they will take their own approaches.  Notably, if the United States wants Japan to remain non-nuclear, clearly the Japanese need to believe that a credible force exists to take out and deter a North Korean nuclear forces.  The Japanese are not concerned about North Korean land forces.

This can happen but only if the threat is dealt with head on. But is there a disconnect in thinking about warfighting and deterrent strategy with regard to South Korean defense?

It might be the case.  Take in mind two recent stories within two days of one another, which suggests this possibility.

The first is the North Korean effort to enhance their nuclear strike capabilities.

According to an AFP story published on the Defense News website:

North Korea appears to be expanding its main launch site to permit more advanced missiles which may eventually be able to reach the United States, a think tank said Wednesday.

Analyzing satellite images of the Sohae launch site over the past two months, Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute said North Korea apparently tested a rocket engine needed for its road-mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile.

The evidence indicates that North Korea may be preparing “for a more robust rocket test program in the future,” said the institute’s blog, 38 North.

This expansion could involve “larger space launch vehicles and road-mobile ballistic missiles able to attack targets in Northeast Asia and the United States.”

Researchers have repeatedly said North Korea is expanding its nuclear weapons and missile programs, amid questions about the regime’s internal stability after young leader Kim Jong-Un executed his uncle and former mentor.

So what is the US response?

Shortly thereafter, the story of the US Army sending new GROUND forces to South Korea was highlighted, and these troops are seen coming off of a commercial airliner, which hardly highlights a rapid insertion capability.

According to a Stars and Stripes story by Ashley Rowland published on January 30, 2014:

A U.S.-based cavalry battalion, complete with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, has arrived in South Korea for a nine-month rotational deployment.

In a nod to the sensitivities on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone to changes in the U.S. force posture, officials are calling the additions only for defense and have been hesitant to discuss how the deployment affects the actual American troop strength in South Korea.

A 2nd Infantry Division statement described the deployment as a “strictly defensive” movement that will increase readiness and strengthen U.S. and South Korean capabilities.

“The addition of a Combined Arms Battalion makes 2ID a more agile and lethal force more capable of deterring aggression and defending the Republic of Korea if called upon,” it said.

Appearing to deploy more ground troops while North Korea is building up its nuke strike force may not only be the wrong strategy, it might well be considered the wrong signal.

Clearly, the US needs to make clear that there are other priorities and options.

South Korean AF and current AF assets along with F-22s and B-1, and  B-2 (if positioned correctly and on alert) and a CBG  (if in theater) and what ever Marine air is close afloat-can kill anything that shoots or moves are the primary force to deal with the 21st century threat.

The minute after the first serious North Koreans attack, a strike should  be launched to kill the Dear Leader. He can be dug out of what ever bolt hole  he has run into and good Intel is always critical– go back, go back, go back, until he and his generals are dead– AND tell him that this will happen.

More missile defense systems deployed to deal with the threat makes it really a higher probability of success.

I give the ROK -USAlliance full credit in shaping an effective ground maneuver force. The South Koreans are smart and  are capable with the sixth largest Army.  They also have a significant arms industry with which to arm their ground forces as well as to export new systems, such as the Surion helicopter.

WITH demonstrated Nukes, evolving missile technologies and a stated use by the Dear Leader, it is clearly no longer 1954. He just killed his Uncle AND apparently his entire family and “artists” connected to his wife which also adds a real world aspect to any rational actor deterrent strategy.

I always take caution with dastardly propaganda but Dear Leader is clearly crafty ruthless killer.

Consequently, the time factor of deterrence is everything. The US can not assume that nuclear weapons at the end of an escalation ladder; the thing he MIGHT use if he is “losing” in the assault South.  The US wishes NOT to use nuclear weapons, notably tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea.  Then the US needs a very clear and early use deep strike conventional force with high precision, lethality and accuracy to deal with mobile missiles, and dug in leaders.

Today’s potential fight with NK is a come as you are war; not a repeat of a 1991 cascaded build up.

As a former USAF commander in South Korea commented recently:

“There is one brigade of prepositioned equipment — tanks, APCs, etc — in Japan for use on the Korean Peninsula.  Even that takes about 2 weeks to get to Pusan and then get off-loaded. And this does not include the time it would take to get to the front. This is much longer than the expected 7 days warning time of a NK attack.”

The US must accept the HUGE step function change in today’s Korean deterrence requirements. A priority focus on the ground campaign as if this was 1954 is out of touch with 21st century reality and will need deal with the real concerns of our regional partners whose very existence is at stake.

It is no longer simply about deterring the hoard coming South; it is about dealing with a nuke power with regional reach.

We need a clear doctrine and strategy to support the shift.


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