The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.
My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.
But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.
Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.
SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.
The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:
If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.
These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion: