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Planning for the Unthinkable: Countering a North Korean Nuclear Attack and Management of Post-Attack Scenarios

By Bruce E. Bechtol Jr.

October 6, 2011

This report was originally published in the March 2011 Issue of the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis (Vol 23 No 1) .

ABSTRACT

North Korea has shown no willingness to give up its nuclear weaponization programs. In fact, Pyongyang has gone out of its way to keep essential elements of its
nuclear programs hidden unless it was in the DPRK’s interest to publicly display them. With the increase in tensions initiated by North Korea in recent years this is particularly disturbing. A review of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities reveals a two-track agenda consisting of both a plutonium (proven) and a highly
enriched uranium (likely) program. Scenarios involving both of these programs show that North Korea — despite rather primitive capabilities —can deliver a nuclear weapon that would cause casualties in the tens of thousands. While a preemptive strike may seem like the obvious answer to a nuclear attack, North Korea’s ability to strike back with non-nuclear forces would likely mean a full-scale conflict possibly involving hundreds of thousands of casualties. Consequence management for a nuclear attack would be unable to prevent second- and third-order effects that could last as long as a generation. High-level officials in Washington and Seoul have placed renewed focus on planning for nuclear scenarios on the Korean peninsula — but the bottom line is that preventing and deterring a North Korean nuclear attack must be a high priority.