News | Sept. 16, 2022

North Korean Nuclear Command and Control: Alternatives and Implications

By Shane Smith and Paul Bernstein

North Korea’s nuclear strategy is in transition. Evidence suggests that it may soon possess viable second strike capabilities for retaliatory deterrence purposes, but it is already developing options for a more ambitious regional warfighting nuclear strategy—a strategy to enable limited first-use of nuclear weapons against regional targets, while threatening U.S. cities as a means to deter a full retaliatory response from the United States.

Central to North Korea’s emerging nuclear strategy will be the command and control system it establishes to manage and operationalize its arsenal. It will need to develop appropriate arrangements, from its vantage, to maximize deterrence and the operational utility of its nuclear forces under a range of crisis and conflict scenarios. The kind of nuclear command and control (NC2) system North Korea adopts will have potentially profound implications for the combined U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) deterrence posture and defense planning with respect to strategic stability, crisis escalation, and options for degrading North Korean nuclear threats.

Unfortunately, little is known about the type of NC2 arrangements North Korea is considering and research on the different approaches it may take, and their implications, is sorely lacking. This report helps close that analytical gap by offering a framework of alternative NC2 systems North Korea might adopt. It identifies the tradeoffs and dilemmas associated with each model that will likely shape North Korea’s ultimate NC2-related decisions and assesses what the available evidence suggests about the direction it may take. Lastly, it explores the implications for North Korea’s emerging nuclear strategy as well as U.S.-ROK deterrence and defense planning. In doing so, it provides U.S. and allied policymakers and military planners with a clearer picture of North Korea’s emerging nuclear posture, and a roadmap for managing the growing complexity of this challenge.

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