Through a Glass, A Little Less Darkly: North Korean Nuclear Command and Control in Light of Recent Developments

Kim’s Strategic Dilemma

In 2021 we began a study to examine alternative approaches to nuclear command and control (NC2) that North Korea could pursue, given the strategic goals of its nuclear program.[1] Our premise: North Korea’s ability to operationalize a nuclear strategy for assured retaliation or regional warfighting will depend critically on the NC2 system it adopts—and that its choices with respect to NC2 would reflect an effort to reconcile a number of competing imperatives unique to Pyongyang’s political and military culture. Whatever approach North Korea adopted would tell the world something important about how it intended to achieve the missions assigned to its nuclear forces.

Our framework for analysis focused directly on identifying the dilemmas and tradeoffs associated with alternative NC2 models North Korea could consider. We viewed this as a critical but underdeveloped area in Western analysis of the North Korea nuclear problem and assumed that even as we puzzled through the options facing the regime, it, too, was working its way toward decisions on this question. Indeed they were. We completed the study in August 2022. On September 8, 2022, Pyongyang enacted a new law that reaffirmed some aspects of nuclear policy, refined its nuclear doctrine and revealed decisions about how nuclear command and control will operate.

(Source: KCNA)

The NC2 provisions of the new nuclear policy law, discussed in greater detail below, point to the balancing act Kim Jong Un must sustain—and the risks that could result—as he seeks to maximize the deterrence value and operational utility of his maturing nuclear arsenal within the constraints of his highly personalized governing system and the North’s peculiar political, military and social structure. Whether North Korea principally emphasizes the goal of assured retaliation or moves toward a more ambitious warfighting strategy, it must put in place procedures for transmitting or transferring authority to employ nuclear weapons beyond Kim in case he is unable to give such orders during a crisis or conflict. Otherwise, attacks or operations directed at Kim personally could be an effective means to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear capability and undermine its deterrent.

Alternative NC2 Models

In our study, we describe five models by which North Korea could address this central dilemma to convey launch authority beyond Kim himself. All pose significant tradeoffs for the regime and its emerging nuclear strategy.

An “automatic” model—closest to what is described in the new law—is probably the simplest NC2 approach North Korea could adopt. The proverbial “button on Kim’s desk,” this likely would involve a pre-programmed or pre-recorded order that would be provided to military commanders under extraordinary circumstances in which Kim fears an imminent attack might remove him from command. This approach seems most suited to North Korea’s one-person rule system, as Kim would retain sole authority to employ nuclear weapons; this would be prioritized over attaining a higher degree of readiness and responsiveness in the nuclear force. This model likely would involve tight physical controls over the weapons themselves to preclude unauthorized access. For example, weapons and delivery systems could be maintained at separate locations under distinct though parallel chains of command. During a crisis, Kim could direct mating and dispersal of these nuclear systems and issue orders to nuclear operators to await further instruction.

To ensure maximum political control, this model accepts a high degree of vulnerability to outside threats by creating a single point of nuclear failure and powerful incentives for adversaries to target Kim himself. This would suggest a highly fragile form of deterrence by calling into question any claim the regime makes about its ability to absorb attacks and impose unacceptable costs on an adversary. An automatic model also offers little or no flexibility in the employment of nuclear forces, emphasizing instead likely pre-determined orders to be transmitted quickly to units at a time of extreme stress.

A “devolution” model would feature an institutionalized line of succession to maintain political continuity over nuclear operations in the event that Kim cannot transmit orders or convey launch authority. Such a system could not be established reliably in an ad hoc way during an acute crisis. Instead, it would need to be established in advance, codified and promulgated to lower tiers of the chain of command referencing conditions under which orders from someone other than Kim are to be executed. Those in the line of succession would require deep understanding of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and operations to manage these forces effectively if and when the time comes. A separate command center from which to manage nuclear operations would also be required; the “next in line” cannot be in the same location as Kim if he is expected to be the target of attacks.

A devolution model would also ensure, in Kim’s absence, continuity in political leadership that would be necessary to bring a conflict to an end prior to a larger nuclear exchange. But it could also undermine North Korea’s assured retaliation deterrent if there are questions or doubts about whether Kim’s successor would be prepared to respond decisively to a decapitation strike that targeted Kim—or would choose instead not to respond in order to preserve their own survival. Politically, a devolution approach presents a high degree of vulnerability for Kim: In naming a successor, he risks undermining North Korea’s leader-dominant or Suryong-based system of governance on which the regime has long relied. As with all personalized autocracies, naming an heir apparent or line of succession could encourage alternative centers of domestic power, rivalries and potentially even challenges to Kim’s rule.

A “delegation” model envisions Kim Jong Un granting military authorities a degree of discretion in the execution of a nuclear employment decision he has already made. This would allow him to maintain personal control over release authority for as long as possible, delegating decisions of an operational nature only after he has issued a launch order. A key challenge in this type of approach is calibrating the timing of an order to launch a nuclear strike. Whether for political reasons or because of poor situational awareness, Kim could wait too long to issue a launch order; it’s also possible he could be eliminated or incapacitated prior to such a point. Indeed, he could, alternatively, delegate too soon out of fear that he might be the target of a decapitation strike and lose the ability to manage a crisis to an outcome in which he survives.

A “pre-delegation” model would transfer conditional launch authority to the military in case Kim loses contact with his forces or becomes incapacitated, in particular at the outset of a conflict. This model maximizes military readiness and operational flexibility regarding when, where and how to employ nuclear weapons. In so doing, pre-delegation also increases the risk of unintended or accidental launch of nuclear weapons, given that those at lower echelons of command may lack the situational awareness to make appropriate nuclear employment decisions. Further, in adopting this type of model, Kim would, in essence, be signaling to his people that others are equally or better suited to make such fateful decisions for the nation, potentially undermining his absolute authority.

In contrast to the first two models, which emphasize, each in its own way, political primacy in nuclear decision making, delegation and pre-delegation place greater importance on operational considerations and judgment. As a crisis escalates, forces in the field presumably would be in possession of operationally ready weapons with expressed or conditional authority to release them. These approaches would rest heavily on Kim’s confidence that military authorities would faithfully and effectively execute orders as intended or exercise sound judgment in making their own decisions. This runs sharply counter to experience, as Kim historically has not evinced a high degree of trust in his military leadership. The exceptionally high rate of turnover among his senior military leaders compared to that of his father and grandfather attests to this.

A “hybrid” model might be organized around weapon type and function with the goal of limiting the risks inherent in delegation and pre-delegation to a limited number of elite nuclear units. This would make the most sense if North Korea followed through on earlier statements indicating that it might soon deploy “tactical” nuclear weapons to front-line units. Classifying such systems (e.g., short-range missiles) as tactical could be intended to signal a shift toward a warfighting strategy. In turn, Kim might consider that the deterrent and operational utility of such capabilities would be maximized if authority over their release were delegated to appropriate levels of military command under specified conditions. In this model, nuclear forces that are clearly strategic (e.g., those that could target Japan, Guam and the continental United States) would remain under Kim’s strict authority.

The New Nuclear Policy Law

The new law addresses several aspects of North Korea’s nuclear policy, as assessed in a number of news reports and expert commentaries. There are elements of continuity with earlier laws and pronouncements but apparent refinements to nuclear doctrine, as well, including language indicating preparedness to consider the use of nuclear weapons preemptively to counter imminent attack “against important strategic objects” or to seize the initiative in an unfolding conflict. This clearly would include strikes assessed to be imminent against regime leadership and the nuclear command system—undoubtedly a reference to South Korea’s “Kill Chain” strategy and the emphasis being placed on it by the new government in Seoul.

Kim’s heightened fear of decapitation strikes—whether from South Korean, US or combined forces—is reflected not only in the law’s reference to preemption, but also in the nuclear command and control arrangements it establishes. Here, the new law largely adopts the command and control model we describe as “automatic”—an approach that prioritizes Kim’s decision making primacy and provides for rapid execution of pre-determined nuclear strike operations if he is eliminated or incapacitated.

Regarding Kim’s sole authority, the law states: “The nuclear forces of the DPRK shall obey the monolithic command of the president of the State Affairs on the DPRK” and that Kim possesses “all decisive powers” regarding nuclear weapons. Eliminating the reference found in the preceding 2013 nuclear law to authority vested in Kim as the “Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army” may reflect broader issues in the state of civil-military relations and may also suggest why NC2 arrangements that involve a greater role for military authorities seem unlikely.

With respect to “automatic” command and control arrangements, the law states: “In case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces….according to the operation plan decided in advance.” While this language suggests something akin to the Soviet “dead hand” system known as Perimeter, the new law actually points to “humans in the loop” by stating: “The state nuclear forces command organization composed of members appointed by the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK shall assist the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK in the whole course from decision concerning nuclear weapons to execution.”

How these elements— “an operation plan decided in advance” and assistance to the president in the “whole course” of decision making—are reconciled in practice remains to be seen and bears watching. Our view is that the policy is weighted toward a pre-planned operation not intended to be reviewed or reassessed by surviving leadership figures. This likely would be an order prepared in advance to launch available weapons from pre-designated sites against pre-assigned targets. There is nothing in the law to suggest an intent to pass launch authority or operational command to a successor; rather, the emphasis seems to be on expediting transmission of an execution order to better ensure retaliation.

Quo Vadis?

From Kim’s vantage, these choices make sense, given the threats he perceives and the nature of his rule. But the credibility of an automatic NC2 model may be limited if there are doubts about whether it will be viable under the stresses of war—in which case it may do little to deter decapitation strikes intended to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear capability. Were this the case, “use or lose” pressures could dominate crisis dynamics as Kim weighs the benefits and costs associated with early or later use of his nuclear weapons. This risk is inherent to the model.

Additionally, institutionalizing an automatic NC2 model that prioritizes political imperatives is likely to constrain North Korea’s nuclear strategy, even if its capabilities grow and diversify. The simple reason is that such an approach to command and control is viable only for strategies that rely on forms of spasmodic retaliation that seek to inflict maximum destruction with no clear theory of victory and little regard for what comes next.[2] Here, the basic requirement is to be able to detect that an action or attack has occurred that warrants a nuclear response and then quickly transmit a one-way launch order to the force. There is no need in such an arrangement for the complexities associated with NC2 models, such as devolution and delegation. These models are best suited for more nuanced and demanding strategies that emphasize controlled retaliation or limited employment of nuclear weapons, or even broader battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

We are not suggesting that North Korea has foresworn such strategies or the option to use nuclear weapons first or in limited ways. Indeed, the new law clearly signals that such options are part of an emerging strategy that envisions an offensive role for nuclear weapons beyond deterrence and retaliation. But we believe that adopting and implementing such strategies would compel the regime to reconsider its approach to NC2 and reassess the political risks of less assertive, more delegative models that would not necessarily prioritize Kim’s absolute authority over nuclear release.

The new law makes clear that North Korea will “constantly assess outside nuclear threats” and adjust its nuclear posture accordingly. For now, the regime’s tolerance for political risk is likely to remain a key indicator of its ability to adapt its nuclear strategy in response to evolving threat perceptions and advances in the size, diversity and sophistication of its nuclear forces. Recent decisions on nuclear policy raise important questions about whether North Korea’s purported nuclear ambitions are attainable.

  1. [1]

    The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

  2. [2]

    Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2007), 308.

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