Enhancing space deterrence thought for nuclear threshold threats (part 2)
Assessing North Korean nuclear spacepower
by Christopher M. Stone
|The framework provides a tool to space strategists to analyze potential adversaries’ strategic behaviors, postures, and intentions via the sources and functions within the cultural dynamic.|
The first limitation is that the framework analysis is limited by a lack of primary source documentation into the strategic decision cycles and thoughts of the Kim regime and its military. Part of deterrence is finding an answer behind the “why” question undergirding an adversary’s decision calculus and resultant strategic actions. Analysis with access to primary source government documents that detail the specific organizational, political, and strategic processes and thoughts in a leader’s own words aids precision analysis of perceptions. Understanding the rationale behind a nation’s cost/benefit worldview is important for effective deterrence. Typically, Western deterrence analyses, especially of Asian nuclear or space powers, rely upon mirror imaging or the rational actor model to fill in the gap of understanding on why an adversary would or would not behave in a certain way. The framework within this series of articles is designed to address this very issue of lack of primary source materials by using strategic culture analysis as the foundation of getting to the “why?”
Strategic cultural analysis is intended to aid in assessment of adversary perceptions and intent which are vital to crafting an effective strategy for deterrence. The purpose of the framework is to get strategists to think within the potentially unique worldviews of non- Western adversaries. These worldviews could have an impact on how an adversary leadership views deterrence, weaponry, and even the United States. This unique worldview can directly counter the assumptions of the Western rational actor model or mirror imaging. The framework’s strategic cultural analysis is not intended to be predictive, but to determine how “culture influences strategy.” This analysis then must be compared with past and future behavior within both force posture and action to logically “provide plausibility, but not proof” of future behavior. If the evidence of strategic behavior appears to match with the strategic cultural sources and functions, then it can be understood to be a manifestation of strategic culture and worth a strategist’s consideration for posture and strategy shifts to achieve advantage or victory. The framework provides a tool to space strategists to analyze potential adversaries’ strategic behaviors, postures, and intentions via the sources and functions within the cultural dynamic.
The second limitation is the use of strategic culture. It is assumed as a means of explanation and influence upon strategy. According to Kerry Kartchner, strategic culture as context “explicates [strategy] in terms [of] how states are thought by its own and other peoples as being likely to act based on the ‘way they are’ (i.e., its identity, or character, is said to predispose them toward certain policies).” In other words, “culture influences strategy because mind moves muscle, and muscle moves material.” While it is important to avoid mirror imaging when assessing the perceptions and intentions of potential adversaries, “culture is…a conditioning influence upon behavior and as such it cannot be operationalized as a reliable predictive analytical tool” alone.
Nevertheless, the framework as developed enables strategists to tailor their analysis to a specific adversary, with limited information, and not assume that each nuclear power thinks exactly the same and is capable of deterrence through traditional means.
The first step in the framework of analyzing a Tier 1 Deterrence adversary such as North Korea is through a strategic cultural analysis. Strategic culture can be viewed as a shared system of meaning, including language and terms that are both understood and agreed upon within a specific cultural context. Strategic culture provides the foundations and presuppositions from which North Korean leaders “perceive their external environment” and frame their worldview regarding the use of force and perceived external threats. Three foundations that drive North Korean thinking are geography, self-reliance, and the perceived existential threat from the United States.
From a geographic standpoint, the land mass is mostly mountainous and not good for agriculture. This geographic drawback for farming makes the entire peninsula dependent on imports to meet their food requirements. While the mountains make for difficult subsistence, leaders initially thought, mistakenly, they would provide a natural barrier against invasion. Korea’s early governments found that its natural barriers did not protect them well enough; the country was invaded 900 times over a 5,000-year period. As a result, for centuries early monarchic governments managed its “strategic vulnerability through cultural and diplomatic stratagems, such as intermarriages and alliances, limited shows of force, and the acceptance of tributary status” to aggressive neighbors like China. By the end of the first half of the twentieth century, Korea had been forced to surrender its sovereignty to the occupation of Japanese forces and found it split into two countries at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II.
|To avoid relying upon extended deterrence, Kim pursued indigenous nuclear weapons capabilities while pursuing training and assistance from the Soviet bloc.|
Following the war, Korea was divided into two states at the 38th parallel. The Korean War, called the Fatherland Reunification War by the North, was launched by the North Koreans as the means to reunify the peninsula under the Kim regime and its communist ideology. Its defeat and acceptance of an armistice was viewed by the Kim regime as humiliating and required the development of an even more aggressive military posture, including the development of nuclear forces. The United States, as the leader of the United Nations forces that preserved a divided Korea and defended the South Korean government, is seen as the sole reason for this failure and is perceived as an existential threat to North Korea.
The second foundation of North Korean strategic culture that explains its nuclear behavior is Juche. Translated as self-reliance, Juche was adopted in 1972 as North Korea’s official “guiding ideology.” It focuses the country toward “complete political and ideological independence, economic self-reliance and sufficiency; and a viable national defense.” This concept of independence invokes traditional Korean ideas of isolationism and self-sustainment. In addition, it also now includes a hatred of the United States and a reliance upon extended deterrence by other states. Kim Il-sung, founding father of the state and grandfather of the regime’s current leader, said, “North Koreans must absolutely repudiate the tendency to swallow things of others undigested or imitate them mechanically” in reference to reliance upon Soviet or Chinese nuclear aid. To avoid relying upon extended deterrence, Kim pursued indigenous nuclear weapons capabilities while pursuing training and assistance from the Soviet bloc.
Juche’s notion of national governance views the nation as a body, with the “respected leader” as the nation’s overarching head, and the communist party as the “nervous system” that circulates all directives to the people. This body politic concept connects with the traditional Confucian cultural norm of hierarchy and authority, with a “proclivity for conformity and uniformity that is common in East Asian cultures.”
In addition, North Korea’s government is also viewed as an analogue to the Confucian family unit with the survival of that family falling under the responsibility of the “collective father” who is the spiritual leader and center of the universe. By extension, the idea of possessing nuclear weapons, missile systems, and access to American targets through space makes North Korea’s posturing as a nuclear space power “nothing less than an ideological (even spiritual) commitment” to the Kim regime and its followers. This commitment to hierarchical government, undergirded by strength initiated by Kim Il-sung was continued by his descendants. Never again would a North Korean leader neglect the military instrument to ensure a viable defense infrastructure capable of achieving dominance. Kim Il-sung’s own writings state that, “Without Chawi (viable, strong defenses), Korea’s complete unification, independence and prosperity will never be realized.”
This fixation toward superior military strength was reinforced at the end of the Cold War by the loss of the Soviet Union as North Korea’s military support and ally. North Korea concluded that it alone would have to be prepared to face and defeat the United States as its principal enemy. The other element of this ideology is the doctrine of Songun, which means military first. Songun places the armed forces as the central institution of the North Korean society granting all resources and support from the population. Under Kim Il-sung, Songun was subordinate to Juche but his death in 1994 enabled his successor, Kim Jong-il, to change that. That year, Kim Jong-il placed the armed forces above the party and issued the new guidelines that “officially replaced Juche with Songun as the basis for state planning” and strategy. According to James Strafford, this decision contributed to North Korea’s economic woes, as most of its resources and imports went to the armed forces of the state, not the population. How does this cultural and historical background affect the Kim regime’s nuclear and space power behavior?
Due to North Korea’s links to ancient Korean culture, its national security strategy is a derivative of Confucianism and its resultant commitment to hierarchy. Confucian thinking tends to view the world as an “organic whole, difficult to separate into parts, just as the various schools of thought are often interrelated.” The Kim regime is primarily concerned with ensuring its survival. This push for regime stability is “synonymous with the desire to maintain personal power and perpetuate the cult of personality of three generations of the Kim family.”
The third foundation that drives North Korean strategic culture and its nuclear and space power pursuits is the perceived existential threat posed by the United States. What is the basis for this perception? First, North Korea considers the United States to be the main reason it was prevented from overrunning the South and unifying Korea. Second, United States forces are stationed in South Korea as a result of the US–South Korean mutual defense treaty. Through this treaty, the US provides extended nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense assets for the protection of Seoul. North Korea views these forces as a threat to its survival and national security. Finally, the North concludes that if given the right opportunity, the United States would overthrow the Kim regime and destroy all of North Korea. Fear of an American invasion has been a core theme in North Korean propaganda as well as its threats to destroy America, since the Korean War.
These strategic cultural foundations serve as the baseline for the North Korean military strategy that relies on large, offensively postured armed forces, with emphasis on deep strike capabilities, including nuclear weapons and space access. Its doctrine of deterrence for both its conventional and nuclear forces is one of pre-emptive strike given its smaller size and capabilities relative to the United States. Its nuclear forces are seen as a “guarantee that North Korea will be treated as an equal and with the respect due to it by its neighbors.” What type of capabilities have the North Koreans been developing to ensure self- reliance and security? In a 2015 study by Joseph Bermudez of the US– Korea Institute, provides three possible future paths for North Korean nuclear strategy: low-end scenario, medium scenario, and high-end scenario.
The low-end scenario shows North Korea “armed with 20 nuclear weapons” and “able to field only minor improvements to its current force of 1000 ballistic missiles.” They would be “able to reach most targets in Northeast Asia, including limited deployments of rudimentary sea- launched systems and possibly the fielding of the road-mobile Musudan IRBM in an emergency operational status.” In addition, it was projected that in this scenario, North Korea might be able to deploy a small number of ICBMs in an “emergency status,” meaning only a few might be ready for use in time. As a result of this limited capability, North Korea in this scenario would only use these weapons in a posture similar to asymmetric deterrence and only if attacked by the United States.
|Since January 2014 there have been more than 77 North Korean missile tests, whereas there were only 36 in the preceding 29 years.|
The medium scenario entails a deterrent force of 50 weapons with a “growing variety of yields,” but with a few that can reach as high as 50 kilotons. In this scenario, North Korea would field a road-mobile Musudan IRBM and the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM that could be used operationally. With these developments and a projected development of a sea-launch ballistic missile capability, North Korea would have a more robust and “assured retaliatory capability able to more credibly threaten targets in Northeast Asia and the United States.” Under this posture, nuclear weapons would only be used for deterrence and, if that fails, to be used in response to an attack by the United States, South Korea, or Japan.
Finally, within the proposed high-end scenario, “North Korea would successfully accelerate its development and deployment of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.” As part of this acceleration in numbers of warheads and delivery capabilities, “significant advances in weapons design such as miniaturization and a wider variety of yields” would become possible. These weapons would be capable of being delivered at intercontinental ranges towards the United States, not just in the Asia-Pacific region, and include a more rapidly deployed solid-fuel missile able to conduct broader arrays of strike options. In this situation, the limited use of nuclear weapons on the peninsula would be provided for the “threshold for use against Japan” and the United States would “be lowered.” More recent developments indicate that the Kim regime is pursuing the most threatening, high-end scenario and any hope of Pyongyang using its nuclear, missile, and space programs as bargaining chips for negotiations is over.
Since Bermudez assessed North Korean capabilities, Kim Jong-un has rapidly accelerated his nuclear, missile, and space program efforts. These efforts have reportedly yielded capabilities not assessed to have been achieved by the regime, such as miniaturization of warheads, the testing of thermonuclear-level yields, and the launch of a solid-fuel ICBM capable of reaching the United States mainland. Kim Jong-un began this rapid growth in capability in earnest in May 2016. Since then, his regime’s testing of IRBM and ICBM capability has increased in frequency and success, yielding some analysts to assert that the focus has shifted from one of “appearance” to one concerned with “efficacy of its missiles.” This pursuit of efficacy is shown by the fact that since January 2014 there have been more than 77 tests, whereas there were only 36 in the preceding 29 years. In addition, this enhanced focus on developing a credible arsenal capable of hitting the United States and its allies includes the capability and testing for the employment of EMP-capable weapons.
According to testimony to Congress of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP Commission), all of these rapid advances highlight that the thermonuclear tests and several missile flight trajectories indicate that an EMP attack is part of North Korea’s assessed capability goals. Some analysts argue that despite the longer ranges and miniaturized thermonuclear capabilities, the lack of precise guidance and navigation controls for its weapons systems would focus its efforts strictly upon counter-value targets such as individual cities. While acknowledging these concerns, the EMP Commission asserts that given this limited capability, combined with the advances in its nuclear technologies and space access abilities, North Korea “may well prefer using a nuclear weapon for an EMP attack, instead of destroying a city.” The Commission argues that “state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons… may obtain the greatest political-military utility from one or a few such weapons by using them—or threatening their use—in an EMP attack” on the United States.”
According to official statements and what few documents analysts in South Korea and the West have obtained, the North Korean armed forces were directed to perfect the “method and operation” of nuclear weapons as the “pivotal” means for “deterrence and war strategy” of the state. Sources “make clear that North Korean thinking on nuclear weapons centers on the concept of a pre-emptive strike” as part of its defensive, deterrence posture. First-strike deterrence is similar to the Chinese perspective of deterrence as “active deterrence” or a posture of “attack to deter.” This Chinese concept states that rather than waiting for the threat to fully materialize through a direct attack, it would be considered an act of self-defense to conduct the first strike. This logic also appears in the American deterrence theory of Herman Kahn, who stated in 1960, “Most governments when asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace because it looks safer. These same governments if asked to choose between getting the first or second strike will very likely choose the first strike… once they feel war is inevitable, or even very probable.” If the North Korean regime concludes that an “imminent attack” is possible from the United States then “all the powerful strategic and tactical strike means of our revolutionary armed forces will go into preemptive and [justice] operations against the enemy.”
Given its limited intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, documents show that North Korean “strategic forces” will be ready “at any time to strike ‘the U.S. mainland, their stronghold, its military bases in the operational theaters of the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea.’” There remains considerable uncertainty and ambiguity in public statements from the Kim regime regarding this strategic view, but “ultimately North Korea’s quest for deterrence is determined… from North Korea’s perspective, [that] striking first would be a rational act, because at the present time the regime would be unlikely to survive a first strike from the US; if it fears it is about to be struck, it might as well strike first.” Thus, because of this rapid progression in capability, its strategy for first strike as a deterrent posture, and its recent access to space, the EMP Commission asserts evidence suggests a space-borne EMP strike is being developed by North Korea, which may even have two pathfinder spacecraft in orbit currently.
|“The most frightening aspect, I’ve come to realize, is that exactly such a scale of insanity is now evident in the rest of their ‘space program.’”|
Some observers, such as the EMP Commission’s William Graham, argue that the evidence suggests that North Korea’s first-strike deterrence posture and current capabilities indicate that its two currently orbiting satellites, KMS-3 and KMS-4, are the right size and in the right orbital type and altitude to assert an existential threat to the United States homeland. While some analysts like Jack Liu argue the North Koreans lack the size and numbers of weapons to achieve catastrophic damage upon the United States, Graham asserts otherwise. He cites a prior Commission report to Congress that states, “certain types of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons can be employed to generate potentially catastrophic EMP effects over wide geographic areas, and designs for variants of such weapons may have been illicitly trafficked for a quarter century.” Graham, in an editorial for the US-Korea Institute’s website 38 North, cites the 2004 interview of two Russian generals who stated that the “design for Russia’s Super-EMP warhead, capable of generating high intensity EMP fields of 200,000 volts per meter, was ‘accidently’ transferred to North Korea.” In addition, Graham cites evidence presented to Congress that Russian scientists have been aiding North Korea with its nuclear weapons and missile programs to improve the effectiveness of the EMP weapons platforms. In addition to Russian help, media reports indicate that the North Koreans may be receiving technical assistance and parts for its launch vehicles and ICBMs from China. How does this indicate that North Korea is pursuing the capability of nuclear space power?
Graham, known for his background with early American upper atmospheric nuclear testing in space, assesses that the orbital flight paths of the KMS-3 and KMS-4 spacecraft, their payload size and weight, and altitude indicate that they could be, at best, pathfinders for an EMP weapons platform or, at worst, currently capable of executing such an attack. Another observer, Ambassador Henry Cooper, a former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative, expressed similar concerns when he stated that current missile defense systems “are not arranged to defend against even a single ICBM that approaches the United States from over the South Polar Region, which is the direction… North Korea launched its satellites.” Despite the doubts raised by some other observers like Jack Liu and Patrick Terrell that orbital EMP is not a realistic or credible threat, James Oberg, a former NASA engineer who is the only US civilian space expert to visit the North Korean launch site, asserts these concerns are legitimate and the US government should verify the payloads of these satellites and the intentions of North Korea’s quest for space power:
There have been fears expressed that North Korea might use a satellite to carry a small nuclear warhead into orbit and then detonate it over the United States for an EMP strike. These concerns seem extreme and require an astronomical scale of irrationality on the part of the regime. The most frightening aspect, I’ve come to realize, is that exactly such a scale of insanity is now evident in the rest of their “space program.”
James Oberg’s conclusions were made, in part, due to the extreme lack of transparency of the tours of the launch facilities and spacecraft mating process. In addition, North Korea’s assertions that they are observation satellites to be used for agriculture planning are not credible. He writes, “North Korea is a small country to start with, with limited agricultural space. Airborne sensors could easily cover all required regions with greater flexibility and far lower cost. And commercial Earth observation satellites already exist willing to sell supplementary imagery at all conceivable wavelengths.” After his tour and watching the advancement in nuclear, missile, and space power capacities, Oberg concluded that this may be a pursuit of nuclear space power weapons capabilities: “Now that North Korea can build unshielded nuclear weapons that could fit into that same payload shroud and wind up in orbit an hour away from American airspace, the issue has become a lot more vital, and pressing.” In other words, North Korea has developed a Tier 1 Deterrence threat to the United States.
The pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, missiles, and space technology all point back to the threat-based worldview that is designed to keep the Kim regime in power and its form of communism alive.
Without the existential threat from the United States, there would be no rationale for “military first”; the maintenance of a large, offensive-postured conventional force; or the development, testing, and deployment of nuclear and space weapons. Their geographic context, self-reliance for security, and even subsistence, make it a very challenging environment over which to rule. As a result of these existential fears, the United States should prepare for the use of these nuclear and space capabilities which North Korea may use to ensure the survival of the regime from external threats and the perception of strength within the state.
In addition, this background also highlights the concern behind its strategy and doctrine for employing these weapons. Due to its secondary goal, behind regime survival, of reunification of the Koreas, it is not difficult to see how and why the North Koreans maintain an offensive posture. States that are planning or “bent on conquest will prefer offensive military” strategies. Of interest is that despite all the sanctions and negative impacts on the people of North Korea, the regime’s “cognitive anti-access” hold on the people has continued the existential threat narrative of the United States. However, if the threat of war coming to North Korea is going to lead to its destruction and the loss of power for the regime, scholars indicate that such thinking will push the government to arrange that any future “war will be fought on the territory of the enemy, of neutrals, or even of allies.” Finally, states such as North Korea, who conclude they face multiple threats, internally and externally, may move toward an offensive posture to strike first and minimize the effect of the imbalance of military capabilities for the weaker force. This appears to be the path that Pyongyang is taking.
This article uses the strategic framework to assess the Tier 1 space deterrence threat tailored to North Korea. This framework highlights the importance of conducting a strategic culture analysis to gather the undercurrents of decision making in the Kim regime, the leader’s thought processes, and the rationale behind his development of nuclear space power capabilities such as EMP satellites capable of striking the United States. To effectively posture US space infrastructure for a credible deterrence, strategists and policymakers should understand the foundations of adversary thinking and why they are pursuing such weapons. Only then can strategists create a strategy that can influence the adversary through credible warfighting and defensive capabilities and not just prepare for weapons use.
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