What Would Happen If A North Korean Nuclear Missile Launch Appeared Imminent?
North Korea is developing missiles with greater ranges and nuclear bombs with higher explosive yields. While the North regularly threatens America and its partners in Asia, the U.S. and its allies in the region are by no means unprepared for a North Korean nuclear attack.
The U.S. and South Korea both have preemptive strike plans for a situation in which a North Korean nuclear attack appears imminent, and while Japan is considering new options, it still relies heavily on U.S. defense.
South Korea has a three-stage defense system, the first stage is a preemptive strike option designed to eliminate the North’s offensive capabilities. The “Kill Chain” preemptive strike system detects signs of an impending nuclear missile launch and strikes the North’s nuclear weapons sites and missile bases with cruise missiles and other weaponry.
The U.S. and South Korea also have a joint response plan, Operations Plan (OPLAN).
While the specifics for OPLAN 5015 are classified, the plan is believed to consolidate previous contingency plans, specifically OPLAN 5029 (internal instability in North Korea), OPLAN 5027 (preparations for an all-out war), and a peacetime plan involving localized provocations from North Korea. OPLAN 5015 is suspected to call for preemptive strikes on the North’s essential military facilities and weapons, and possibly North Korean leadership.
In the event that a nuclear missile strike appeares imminent, allied forces might attempt to eliminate the North’s missiles at launch. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year that the U.S. could move to “take out launch capabilities on the launchpad” if North Korea appeared poised to launch a nuclear armed-missile.
The U.S. and South Korea regularly train for such contingencies. For example, during the annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises, U.S. and South Korean troops practice a “4D” operational plan which involves preemptive military options to detect, disrupt, destroy, and defend against North Korean strikes. The focus is precision strikes on the enemy’s core military facilities and weapons systems.
The challenge is that more and more of North Korea’s missiles are on mobile launchers and scattered about the country. Furthermore, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has started using solid-fueled missiles, which require significantly less preparation time as they can be fueled in advance and need only a limited crew. Solid-fueled missiles can be fired with less warning and are much harder to track, making them less vulnerable to preemptive strikes.
Another issue is that preemptive strikes on North Korea would be much harder to justify diplomatically, especially if war breaks out in the aftermath, which is practically guaranteed.
This article is based on a larger analysis of the prospects of nuclear fallout with North Korea published April 14.
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