How Kim could use his nukes

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

How Kim could use his nukes

Chae Byung-gun

The author is the international, diplomatic and security news director of the JoongAng Ilbo.

South Korea’s nuclear development is considered taboo in Korea-U.S. relations. No ally of the United States, whether it be South Korea or Japan, can develop nuclear weapons. Redeployment of tactical nuclear nukes is another issue that cannot be raised easily. Their redeployment is a thorny issue for the U.S., which promotes nonproliferation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are directly challenging the common sense that mankind must not use nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation must be stopped. Putin is threatening a nuclear strike in Ukraine and Kim is making a blunt threat with nuclear weapons.

Putin shows how serious a threat North Korea’s nuclear program is. In June, The Atlantic proposed four possible scenarios of how Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons: a detonation over the Black Sea causing no casualties but demonstrating a resolve to cross the nuclear threshold and signaling that worse may come; a decapitation strike against the Ukrainian leadership, attempting to kill President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers in their underground bunkers; a nuclear assault on a Ukrainian military target, perhaps an air base or a supply depot, which is not intended to harm civilians; and the destruction of a Ukrainian city, causing mass civilian casualties and creating terror to precipitate a swift surrender.

Putin is fiddling with a nuclear card because he thinks a nuclear attack will spread fear in Ukraine, ending the people’s will to fight and forcing them to surrender. At the same time, it can create a rift in the western world over how to retaliate against Russia.

Putin’s scenario can be used to predict Kim’s scenario of using a tactical nuke.

First, North Korea may fire a nuclear missile in the East Sea. Until now, a nuclear test and a ballistic missile launch were done separately, but the North can strike a target on the East Sea to show the world that it is a nuclear power that can undertake a nuclear strike at any time.

Second, North Korea may conduct a decapitation strike against the South Korean leadership by striking the presidential office or presidential residence using a nuclear weapon.

Third, North Korea may conduct a nuclear assault on key military targets including the U.S. air base in Osan.

Fourth, the North may launch short-range nuclear missiles at Seoul. After the North uses both nuclear and non-nuclear missiles, the South and the United States will intercept most of them with Patriot missiles, but one or two tactical nuclear missiles destroy Seoul. Casualties and damages will be high and Seoul will lose its role. When the country is small, like South Korea, there is no differentiating a tactical nuke from a strategic nuke.

What Kim aims to achieve is unifying the two Koreas by overturning economic and military levels with a preemptive tactical nuclear attack. In the second, third and fourth scenarios, the South’s government and military leadership will disappear instantly and any response system will collapse. The U.S. will hesitate, fearing an all-out nuclear war, and miss the timing for retaliation. In this case, Kim’s nuclear gamble will become a huge success. Without any fight, the North will win. The South’s financial and assets markets will collapse.

Putin cannot easily start a nuclear assault because of the possibility of retaliation from the Western world, including Uncle Sam. Just like Putin, Kim must have been calculating the possibility of whether the regime would collapse due to the U.S. military retaliation or not. Furthermore, the U.S. troops in South Korea are serving as a tripwire, unlike in Ukraine, so the nuclear attack against the South can be considered a nuclear attack against the United States.

And yet, there is no time to wait. Foreign and security officials know well that redeployment of tactical nukes is impossible. But we are facing a situation so desperate that we have to raise the issue. When South Korea is in economic crisis, North Korea can shake the currency and stock markets with just one missile. If redeployment of tactical nukes is impossible, we must demand the U.S. show some progress in sharing nuclear weapons. We should have done that before.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)