North Korean and US Nuclear Threats: Discerning Signals from Noise

The signal to noise ratio on the Korean Peninsula is usually very low with a great deal of noise and only a few signals. Recently, the signals increased in amplitude and frequency, but so too has the noise. Interpreting the signals correctly is even more challenging when the parties are not talking to each other but rather, past each other.

North Korean threat rhetoric is often hard to decipher. For example: "If the US imperialists brandish nuclear weapons, we — in complete contrast to former times — will by means of diversified, precision nuclear strike in our own style turn not just Seoul, but even Washington, into a sea of fire."1

Thus wrote a North Korean official in the authoritative party newspaper Rodong Simun on March 6, 2013. This was the first time the North threatened to use nuclear weapons against cities, emulating the operational practices of the United States, China, and Russia. Perhaps that was the point.

This was followed shortly by a March 7 2013 declaration that North Korean forces could “carry out preemptive nuclear strikes on the strongholds of the aggressors.”2 It was another attempt to assert that the North is a nuclear weapons state on equal footing with the United States, China, and Russia – a status that can only be accorded via the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is therefore unattainable for North Korea.

Run-up to B52 and B2 Deployments

If we read the DPRK decisive system-wide policy pronouncements, and not just those statements that are public but tactical in nature and designed to twang nerves in Washington or Seoul we find a more deliberate positioning of the North Korean nuclear weapons strategy than the casual reader might assume from reading the headlines based on the latest threat statement from Pyongyang, or the latest riposte from Washington.

Until mid-March, DPRK foreign affairs officials asserted that as “an all-powerful treasured sword that defends the country's sovereignty and security,” its nuclear weapons were not negotiable. At least, not “as long as the United States' nuclear threats and hostile policy exist.”3 As late as March 16, when this statement was broadcast, the North held open the possibility that it might abandon its nuclear weapons provided US nuclear threats and hostility are removed.

This posture shifted dramatically in the last week of March. On March 25, US B52 bombers flew over South Korea in military exercises that simulated nuclear bombing runs against North Korea.4 Nuclear-capable B2 stealth bombers followed on March 285 and F22 stealth fighters on March 31 that could accompany B2 bombers in a nuclear strike mission on North Korea.6

Pentagon press secretary George Little reportedly said on March 19, referring to the participation of B52s in the joint exercises in Korea: ““The B-52 Stratofortress can perform a variety of missions including carrying precision-guided conventional or nuclear ordnance,”7 These days, Pentagon officials usually refer to “extended deterrence” without referring to “nuclear extended deterrence.” This and similar statements were neither routine nor accidental, and this was surely noted by the North Koreans.

There are very deep North Korean memories of airpower killing an estimated twenty percent of the populace and flattening most vertical structures during the Korean War. The nuclear-capable B-52 and F111 flights and the near war during Operation Paul Bunyan in 1976 struck a particularly resonant chord with the North Koreans. What one side intends as deterrence can easily be perceived as a provocation given an unsettled strategic environment. The B52s and B2s could also reduce China’s influence to zero or even negative in Pyongyang given its inability to affect the US mobilization of countervailing nuclear threat against the North. 

Beijing may also perceive that this unilateral move shows that the United States has given up on China to influence Pyongyang. From the Chinese perspective, sending the bombers embodies the “Pivot” in the worst possible way—especially given the likely association in Chinese minds of the B2 bombers over Korea with the mistaken stealth bombings of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the war in Kosovo.

On March 26, the North Korean foreign affairs ministry informed the UN Security Council that the United States was “fostering a vicious cycle of escalating tensions in order to come up with an international justification for provoking a nuclear war against us under the pretext of ‘non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.’” 

“The United States,” it said, “is now fully mobilizing its "three nuclear strike means" in the preparations for a nuclear war of northward aggression”—referring to US bombers, land-based missiles, and submarine-based missiles.8 Historically, North Korea signals it is paying attention when key U.S. capabilities move.9 

On March 2, North Korea’s supreme commander Kim Jong Un ordered North Korean forces, including artillery, rockets, and missiles, to “enter No 1 combat ready posture.” He told his subordinates that the DPRK would “answer the US imperialists' nuclear blackmail with a merciless nuclear attack.”10 

It is unclear what “No 1 combat ready posture” consists of because that was the first time North Korea has announced that level of preparation. Again, North Korea likely felt threatened by unprecedented U.S. actions and responded in an unprecedented manner. If a nuclear armed state had gone onto highest alert during the Cold War, it would likely be read as a “super ready status” on Herman Kahn’s classic nuclear Escalation Ladder.11 U.S., Russian and Chinese security advisors and policymakers are at least familiar with the signaling, but North Korea’s understanding of nuclear strategy is unclear although it insisted many times that it was ready to retaliate against an attack with nuclear weapons. However, it is important to note that North Korea did not actually move its conventional military forces in any observable ways at this time, according to US officials.12

Three days later, on March 31, Kim presided over a pre-announced Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee Plenum that “set forth a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously”13 (see Attachment 1). To this end, the Party directed that the Korean Peoples’ Army should make nuclear forces “pivotal” in all aspects of military strategy and deterrence.

For the senior-most leadership of the entire country to announce where and when they would assemble for the Central Committee plenum, including Kim Jong Un, indicates there were at least some in positions of power who did not believe a decapitation strike or pre-emptive attack was imminent. Moreover, a key indicator of U.S. intention to conduct a pre-emptive attack on North Korea based on prior experience—in particular, the August 1976 crisis—is the concurrent presence of US nuclear strike bombers appearing in Korean airspace and US aircraft carrier battle groups offshore. In the present standoff, there are no US aircraft carriers near Korea. To be sure, one is just beginning a transit back to its homeport on the U.S. Pacific Coast, but it is far enough away to be a non-factor. These facts are well known to North Korean intelligence.14 Nonetheless, the threats continue to come from Pyongyang. 

What to make of this nuclear invective and force posturing?

First, the US decision to reassure South Korea (and itself apparently) that it might consider a nuclear strike on North Korea if the North attacked the South by sending nuclear-capable aircraft and submarines to exercise in and around Korea was tailor-made to prompt Northern leaders to escalate. It provided a perfect, undeniable rationale for conservatives in Pyongyang opposed to dialogue with the United States to shoot down any residual notions that the North might enter into a dialogue about the future of its nuclear weapons. 

Thus, the DPRK’s atomic energy department announced15 on April 2 that it would “readjust” and “restart” its uranium enrichment plant and plutonium-producing 5MW reactor at Nyongbyon (hereafter Yongbyon), the latter having been disabled in October 2007 as part of denuclearization talks—a slap in the face of not only the United States, but also China. Second, North Korea does not have the resources to sustain a very large military and a dynamic economy. Its economy is broken. It is sustained only by food and oil provided by China, and the manual labor of its civilian work force digging out minerals or preparing raw materials for export, mostly to China, and its long-suffering agriculture. The only way that Kim Jong Un can square this circle is to reduce the size of the conventional military and push demobilized soldiers into the civilian economy. North Korea lacks the huge surplus labor dedicated to agriculture that China possessed when it began its privatization reforms in the 1970s. To the extent that nuclear weapons allow Kim to substitute nuclear for conventional forces, the former may enable him to pursue military and economic goals simultaneously—at least in theory. It would also require creation of true market institutions—a policy shift that the North Korean state has always blocked. Indeed, every time North Korea increases military tensions on the Peninsula or responds to external security threats, the conversation shifts away from even discussing, let alone trying to implement, anything resembling market reform.

Third, the Party ended its March 31 directive by noting: “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, the DPRK will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world and realize the denuclearization of the world.” 

On April 1, the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly promulgated a law to consolidate the North’s status as a “nuclear weapons state” that enshrined the Party’s directive into domestic law, and laid down important fundamentals for future nuclear weapons doctrine16 (Attachment 2). Many states have written policy into domestic law as a way of ensuring programmatic (budgeting) priority and establishing a bureaucracy to establish inertia and prevent change – this is a classic signal of political will to stick to a decision. It also has the effect of raising the cost to change.

Here, Kim signaled that the door is not yet closed totally on negotiations over his nuclear weapons program. By demonstrating his ability to challenge the United States with the most virulent possible threats, he has positioned himself to be North Korea’s Richard Nixon to engage the United States as Nixon moved to engage China.

As a down payment on that option, he also indicated, albeit ambiguously, that the North does not intend to cross the United States by exporting nuclear weapons or materials.

The DPRK’s nuclear strategy is not about deterrence or reassurance. It has plenty of conventional forces for deterrence or self-reassurance, even if they are relatively inferior and more so with every day that passes. Indeed, although it can still throw a sledgehammer at northern Seoul and inflict enormous damage on the ROK, a North Korean attack on the South would lead to the rapid demise of the Kim regime.17 

Rather, these statements are opportunistic, and express its authentic strategy, which is extortionate, since North Korea presently has so few sources of legitimate rent seeking opportunities. The North’s nuclear forces are intended to compel its adversaries to change their policies towards the DPRK, not to deter unprovoked external attack.

Also, charismatic leadership in a “partisan state” based on an ideology born in guerilla strategy requires an endless reaffirmation in the form of battles against external forces.18 Although Kim Jong Un appears to be secure in his rule, at least on the surface, he needs to establish his own credentials separate from the revolutionary legacy of his grandfather and the military-first politics of his father. Confrontation with the United States and virulent nuclear threat is tailor-made for this renewal of charismatic leadership.

In the latest ambiguous posturing and messaging, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which served as an oasis of exchange that continued even during previous fatal incidents, has been affected directly, at least in the short run. There is precedent for closing KIC, but it is rarely exercised. North Korea said that it allowed activities in Kaesong to continue in order to benefit the South Korean companies who were operating shops there. However, it argued that if South Korea continued to insult North Korea then North Korea would close the zone. North Korea’s sudden interest in the fate of South Korean entrepreneurs indicates a willingness to consider alternative ways of earning foreign exchange—not all of which would be welcome to the international community.

Kaesong is an important symbol of what little Korean unity exists. It is also an important demilitarized area that presents an invasion corridor or “dagger aimed at the heart” of Pyongyang that traverses the DMZ. Threatening to shut down KIC casts a shadow of war over the entire ROK economy. When a rumor circulated for only a few hours that North Korea would close the zone, South Korea’s stock market lost almost over a percentage and a half.19 For all these reasons, threatening to shut down KIC is a perfect wedge to push Seoul to pressure Washington to capitulate to North Korean demands and indeed, on April 3, the DPRK blocked trucks from entering the KIC.20

We do not believe that North Korea intends to attack South Korea, pre-emptively or otherwise, in the current cycle of threat projection. However, miscalculation, accidents, or “wild cards” can all activate an unstoppable chain of events that lead to uncontrollable escalation. Who would have guessed, for example, that a former North Korean defector would steal a fishing vessel from the island of Yeonpyeong, and return to the North across the Northern Limit Line at this of all possible times?21 If he had been discovered and shot at by either side while in transit in a “radar blind spot”, then a firefight could well have ensued and started a kinetic escalatory spiral.

Talk is cheap, valuable, and entails no concessions. They do not entail up-front capital investments. Relative to war or even the costs of maintaining the current level of mutual threat, talking is efficient. In the current charged environment, the only way to obtain badly needed information about North Korean intentions and therefore, the real level of threat, is to talk to them. 

In this regard, it is easy to find the bad news and reasons to have a continuing standoff and fight. It's harder to find the tiny signals that all is not lost. The latter are what matters. We believe we have discerned some of these signals and that these deserve to be the subject of discussions between North Korea and the United States as a matter of urgency.

Comprehensive Security Strategy: Avoiding the Reefs

The fact is that U.S. vital interests in the region mostly don’t revolve around the DPRK. Therefore, the US should establish a framework that addresses primarily the nuclear insecurities of the five parties, not the DPRK, as the first priority. 

The main game is to reduce the risk of Taiwan Strait-induced US or PRC nuclear first-use, and to moderate Sino-Japanese conflict and the potential for Japanese and ROK nuclear weapons. Only a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) can manage the cross-cutting nuclear insecurities of states in this region. A Northeast Asian NWFZ (NEA-NWFZ) requires:

  • Termination of the state of war;

  • Creation of a permanent council on security to monitor the agreement

  • Mutual declaration of no hostile intent;

  • Provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy;

  • Termination of sanctions on North Korea.22

However, as an ancillary benefit, a NWFZ does offer a way to defuse the current crisis and to bring North Korea back out of the cold while denuclearizing its military forces. How might it work?

A nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) is a treaty, affirmed in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, whereby states freely negotiate regional prohibitions on nuclear weapons.23 Its main purposes are to strengthen peace and security, reinforce the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and contribute to nuclear disarmament.

A NEA-NWFZ would provide a stabilizing framework in which to manage and reduce the threat of nuclear war, eliminate nuclear threats to NNWSs in compliance with their NPT-IAEA obligations, and facilitate abolition of nuclear weapons. (It would apply to nuclear weapons only, not to other “WMD.”)

It would also restrain and reverse the DPRK’s nuclear-armament; build confidence that nuclear weapons will not be used either for political coercion or to fight wars; and reassure non-nuclear weapons states that they are secure, thereby deepening commitment to non-nuclear weapons-status. In a NEA-NWFZ, US Forces Korea and a reconstituted UN Command might become a pivotal24 rather than a partisan deterrent, thereby creating an enduring geostrategic buffer between the two Koreas, and between China and Japan.25

Would the North Koreans find valuable a multilateral, legally binding guarantee that they won’t be attacked with nuclear weapons? We don’t know. They have consistently said it’s one of their most important issues and as we have seen North Korea is keenly aware of movements in all parts of the strategic triad. Their perceptions may have shifted now that they have declared themselves “forever nuclear-armed”, but their coverage of the subject remains detailed. Talking to them is the only way to find out.

If they say “no”, then the United States should ignore them and proceed, because a regional NWFZ is in its interests anyway. The United States should not give veto power to the DPRK. This was most clearly demonstrated in a Global Arms Trade Treaty when North Korea, Syria and Iran objected to, but could not stop passage in the UN General Assembly.26 Eventually, the DPRK will collapse into such a construct, or follow the ROK and others into it. Nuclear weapons cannot create an enduring, stable North Korea given the parlous state of its economy. The United States for its part should focus on shaping the regional environment, not bad behavior by itself or others.

If they say “yes”, then the United States should make room in the NWFZ for them to enter, either at the outset, or over time. It is perfectly feasible for the United States to make a guarantee to NPT-Non-Nuclear Weapons States [NNWSs] in the region in a NWFZ, including the DPRK should it disarm and comply with its NPT-IAEA obligations, that it won’t use nuclear weapons against the DPRK. The other Nuclear Weapons States [NWS] have the power to provide the same guarantees.

In this scheme, residual US nuclear extended deterrence will still exist for the ROK and Japan, only rhetoric and legal form will realign (at last) with the restructured US nuclear forces that no longer include any form of forward-deployed theater or tactical nuclear weapons. Until the NWFZ is fully in force, nuclear deterrence will continue to flow “around” the NWFZ between the NWSs, and between them and the DPRK while it is nuclear-armed.

Should a NWS or nuclear-armed state (DPRK) use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a NNWS, then it would face residual nuclear extended deterrence; and render moot NWS’ guarantees to not use nuclear weapons in or against the Zone parties.

This approach is tough on the North Koreans, unlike the current US policy of strategic drift, which is soft on the North Koreans; and leaves the region including two U.S. treaty allies, and a major “non-NATO ally” (Taiwan), and the three largest economies in the world, crashing onto reefs rather than standing offshore, safe in deep water with plenty of room to maneuver.


Peter Hayes is director of Nautilus Institute in San Francisco, Professor of International Relations at RMIT University in Melbourne and an Asia-Pacific Journal Associate. Recent publications include Extended Nuclear Deterrence, Global Abolition, and Korea and The Path Not Taken, The Way Still Open: Denuclearizing The Korean Peninsula And Northeast Asia (with Michael Hamel-Green)

Roger Cavazos is an Associate of the Nautilus Institute and a retired US military intelligence officer.

This is a revised and expanded version of their essay Rattling the American Cage: North Korean Nuclear Threats and Escalation Potential

Recommended Citation: Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos, "North Korean and US Nuclear Threats: Discerning Signals from Noise," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 11, Issue No. 14, No. 2, April 8, 2013


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