The Necessity to Discuss ‘Deterrence Failure’ Regarding North Korea’s Nuclear Threat

AuthorHwee-Rhak Park
Published date01 January 2023
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
60(1) 67 –90, 2023
© 2023 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817231154389
Research Article
The Necessity to Discuss
‘Deterrence Failure’
Regarding North
Korea’s Nuclear Threat
Hwee-Rhak Park1
This article introduces the ‘deterrence failure’ concept and applies it to North
Korea’s nuclear threat situation. For this purpose, it selects five factors, including
retaliation posture; credibility of retaliation; probability of the challenger’s
success; challenger’s irrational leader; and situational desperateness, to evaluate
the US–South Korea nuclear deterrence posture against North Korea. Except
for the retaliation posture, most factors are very concerning. Therefore, to
strengthen their deterrence posture against North Korea, the United States and
South Korea should take a few practical measures to ensure the implementation
of the US extended deterrence, including the forward-deployment of more US
retaliation assets around the Korean Peninsula.
Deterrence failure, international relations, North Korea, nuclear deterrence,
nuclear war, US extended deterrence
Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons has been a constant concern in the war
between Russia and Ukraine. Security experts have publicly worried that ‘Putin
could play the madman and apply nuclear shock as an acceptable risk for ending
the war on Russian terms’ (Betts, 2022). In August 2022, António Guterres, the
United Nations Secretary-General, warned that nuclear annihilation was ‘just one
misunderstanding, one miscalculation away’ (Fassihi & Levenson, 2022). Though
it is uncomfortable, the world must discuss the possibility of a ‘deterrence failure’
in Europe.
1 Kookmin University, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Corresponding author:
Hwee-Rhak Park, Kookmin University, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul 02707, South Korea.
68 International Studies 60(1)
A similar concern has grown on the Korean Peninsula. After gaining a
considerable number of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, Kim
Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, said in April 2022 that his country’s military
‘has to decisively complete its unexpected second mission’, a reunification war
against South Korea. North Korea has regarded its deterrence and defence against
the United States as its first mission. In June, he convened the Central Military
Commission to revise the operational plan to include the use of nuclear weapons
(Ji, 2022). In July 2022, he threatened to destroy South Korean forces with his
nuclear weapons (Davies, 2022). In September, he proclaimed a law that allowed
him to use nuclear weapons even against an imminent non-nuclear attack or for a
military operational necessity (Smith, 2022). In October, he personally directed
the drills of missile units that were supposed to conduct nuclear attacks on South
Korea. In November, he held the largest demonstration of North Korean air forces
ever with missiles in response to the combined air force drills between the US and
South Korean militaries. In response, the US Secretary of Defense had to warn
that ‘any nuclear attack against the United States or its Allies and partners,
including the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, is unacceptable and will result
in the end of the Kim regime’ (Department of Defense [DoD], 2022).
However, it is challenging to distinguish between a bluff and North Korea’s
intentions for a nuclear attack. North Korea does not have sufficient military and
economic resources to initiate a war against the United States and South Korea.
North Korean leaders would risk the survival of both the regime and individual
leaders if they provoked a nuclear war. China and Russia might also not allow
North Korea to use nuclear weapons. In this sense, many North Korea experts in
the United States have considered that North Korea had developed its nuclear
weapons for defensive purposes to guarantee its survival (For recent examples,
Byman & Lind, 2020; Howell, 2020; Lee & Lee, 2020; Warden, 2017). As there
has been no nuclear war in the world since the nuclear deterrence concept was
introduced, it would be very difficult for North Korea to initiate a nuclear war.
Nevertheless, while North Korea has never given up its national goal to reunify
the whole Korean Peninsula, it has become too poor and isolated to sustain its
regime under the current status quo. Moreover, North Korea has shown too many
strange behaviours to be considered rational. As a result, several US defence
practitioners have warned about the probability of North Korea’s offensive use of
nuclear weapons (McMaster, 2020, p. 375; Pak, 2020, p. 235; Robinson & Platte,
2021, p. 330).
In fact, the scale of North Korea’s nuclear build-up seems to exceed the level
of defensive purpose. Due to extreme secrecy and isolation, it is almost impossible
to have accurate information on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Still, a report
written by two prominent US and South Korean research institutes (RAND and
ASAN) estimated 67–116 nuclear weapons of North Korea as of 2020 and
predicted 150–242 by 2027 (Bennett et al., 2021, p. 37). Considering North
Korea’s concentration on nuclear armament and its order-execution culture and,
most of all, the number of centrifuges (about 4,000 centrifuges that operate 24/7)
(38 North, 2021), the estimate may not be too wild. In recent military parades and
test-fires, North Korea displayed its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs),

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