A last security option
The author, a former editorial writer and director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, is a senior researcher of the institute.
In early 2015, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head entered the defense minister’s office at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul to brief the minister about an advanced SLBM and submarine being developed by North Korea. A few years later, North Korea identified the SLBM and submarine as the “Bukguksong missile” and the “8.24 Yongung” submarine. North Korea recently said it fired an SLBM capable of carrying nuclear warheads from the submarine. If the announcement is correct, North Korea completed the development of the SLBM and submarine seven years after the move was first detected by South Korea-U.S. intelligence authorities — and about 10 years after North Korea started to develop them.
After the briefing, the defense minister was deeply concerned about the possibility of the missile and submarine. At that time, one of the attendees at the briefing gallantly proposed to just “sink them into the deep East Sea by sending our subs before their deployment for a real battle.” The attendee went on to say, “If you were the defense minister of Israel, you would have done that just as the Israeli Air Force raided the Osirak nuclear reactor being built by Iraq to develop nuclear weapons.” As the minister mulled for a second, the official added, “North Korea does not have the ability to find out the reason for the sinking of the sub or salvage it from the deep sea bed.”
The briefing ended with that suggestion. The issue has not been discussed since — as far as I know — but whether the defense minister really ordered the Navy to embark on such mission cannot be confirmed. And yet, that could be our last resort to safeguarding the people from North Korean nuclear weapons.
The decapitation operation plan drawn up by the defense ministry is a last-ditch campaign to deter North Korea from rushing to a nuclear attack, above all, which could kill or injure millions of people in South Korea. For the clandestine operation, the DIA methodically traces the movement of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with help from U.S. intelligence. Apart from his movement through an underground tunnel linking his residence and office, the DIA can track nearly all his travels. Surveillance is better than ever. For instance, a miniaturized insect-or-bird-shaped drone can collect information after being dispatched from a submarine in the sea off the coast of his luxurious villa.
Decapitation methods vary. A fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets or an unmanned drone equipped with air-to-ground missiles can bomb a target, as seen in the assassinations of enemy leaders by the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. It can be carried out by Tomahawks on U.S. subs or cruise missiles on our subs. Their error range is within 3 meters (9.8 feet).
Today, a super-tiny killer done can do the job successfully. The so-called “slaughterbots” armed with artificial intelligence and facial recognition can fly to where enemy leaders gather, silently land on their foreheads, and detonate a 3-gram (0.1-ounce) explosive to break through the skull. In case of emergency, you can send hundreds of ultra-tiny drones on a bigger drone or missile to critically hit targets through an air duct, for example, as effectively demonstrated by UC Berkeley Professor of Computer Science Stuart Russell in 2017.
The allies are not willing to employ a decapitation strategy as they want a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. They do not want a chaos, like a power vacuum in Pyongyang after a collapse of the regime. And yet, the allies’ ability for decapitation operations help deter North Korea from provoking South Korea in a reckless way.
Decapitation operations or the nuclear umbrella are basically aimed at deterring North Korean nuclear attacks. But presidential candidates of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition People Power Party (PPP) show a big difference on broader security issues. Lee Jae-myung of the DP said he would “demand changes in North Korea’s wrong practices and attitude,” but there is no fundamental difference with the Moon Jae-in administration. For instance, Lee proposed a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for the North’s gradual denuclearization, as Moon wants. But actually, North Korea is more interested in having nuclear reduction talks with the United States, not denuclearization talks. That suggests Lee has no substantial or effective policy to deal with North Korean nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential candidate of the PPP, promised to address the North’s nuclear and missile threats by reinforcing our military power and enhancing U.S. extended deterrence. He also wants to fix a proper procedure with Washington to deploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and regularly conduct a drill to operate them.
South Koreans want a sustainable peace — not another war — on the peninsula. They also do not want North Korea to use nuclear weapons against its southern compatriots. Above all, they want the divided land to be unified and to prosper.
To achieve such goals, the priority must be placed on deterring North Korea’s aggression, which calls for a maximum use of U.S. extended deterrence. However, once the North’s nuclear threats have exceeded permissible levels, South Korea must demand redeployment of tactical weapons or the NATO-style nuclear sharing from Uncle Sam. If protecting the people from the enemy is the most important duty for a country, decapitation operations are a significant option.