News | Nov. 15, 2022

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

By Paul Berstein & Shane Smith

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.

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