On Monday morning, North Korea launched four missiles from the northwest corner of the country that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.
While none of the launches were the long-awaited test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile--the sort of weapon that could reach the United States--the salvo was a big deal in its own way. Pyongyang very vividly demonstrated the warnings from Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year and described how the country was taking the final steps to arm its missile units with nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict. When combined with what we know about U.S. and South Korean war plans, this fact raises troubling questions about whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula might erupt into nuclear war before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.
In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.
In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing--practicing for a nuclear war.
The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”
This time, North Korea launched four “extended-range” Scud missiles that are capable of flying up to 620 miles. The map showed all four missiles landing on an arc that stretched down to the Marine Corps Air Station near Iwakuni, Japan. Once again, the North Korean statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination: “Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”
So why is North Korea practicing nuking U.S. forces in Japan?
The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest annual joint military exercise, known as Foal Eagle. The exercise, which is really a series of exercises, lasts two months and involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean military personnel, as well as an aircraft carrier, bombers, and--guess what?--F-35 aircraft based out of Iwakuni. Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for the U.S.-Republic of Korea war plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which has been described as a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation. Whether that’s a fair description or not, the North Koreans certainly think the annual exercise is a dress rehearsal for an invasion. This year’s menu of fun and games reportedly includes a U.S.-ROK special operations unit practicing an airborne assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.
What North Korea is doing is simply counterprogramming the Foal Eagle with its own exercise. If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion.
What is disturbing about the situation, though, is how the war plans of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States might interact. North Korea’s military exercises leave little doubt that Pyongyang plans to use large numbers of nuclear weapons against U.S. forces throughout Japan and South Korea to blunt an invasion. In fact, the word that official North Korean statements use is “repel.” North Korean defectors have claimed that the country’s leaders hope that by inflicting mass casualties and destruction in the early days of a conflict, they can force the United States and South Korea to recoil from their invasion. While U.S. officials usually bluster that Kim would be suicidal to order the large-scale use of nuclear weapons, it’s obvious that a conventional defense didn’t work for Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qaddafi when they faced an onslaught of U.S. military power. That was suicide. Of course, that’s where those North Korean ICBMs come in: to keep Trump from doing anything regrettable after Kim Jong Un obliterates Seoul and Tokyo.
Then there is this: Kim’s strategy depends on using nuclear weapons early--before the United States can kill him or those special forces on display in Foal Eagle can find his missile units. He has to go first, if he is to go at all.
But going first is also the U.S. strategy. That means, in a crisis, the pressure will be to escalate. Whatever restraint Kim or Trump might show--and let’s be honest, our expectations here are not high--each will face enormous pressure to start the attack lest his opponent beat him to the punch. Then there is South Korea, which has its own pre-emption plan, separate from OPLAN 5015 and using South Korean ballistic and cruise missiles. Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul all have plans to go first. Two of them are going to be wrong about that.
I understand why the public is fixated on the possibility of a North Korean ICBM. A nuclear-armed ICBM is North Korea’s ultimate goal and would be its final deterrent. It would be the last card that Kim would play. But it is equally, if not more, important to think through how such a war might start. It is important to understand whether the military forces and plans both sides are pursuing make war less likely or more. The launch on Monday might not have been an ICBM, but--in light of Foal Eagle--it was a warning all the same. Not of how a war on the Korean peninsula might end, but of how one might begin.