Tactical nuclear weapons: North Korea’s next lethal weapon of war?

(From the National Interest)

By Van Jackson

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.

blastBut focusing on the possibility of near term violence obscures a potentially more dangerous longer term shift: Is North Korea signaling an intention to embrace tactical nuclear weapons? The answer is still unclear, but that option seems increasingly plausible. This should become a serious line of debate for Korea watchers because such a turn has critical consequences for how we think about deterrence and war-fighting on the Korean peninsula.

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. Read more


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