Defense Policy Defense Technologies Korea Missile Defense Nuclear Deterrence Nuclear Nonproliferation United States and Canada
Report December 23, 2021

Proactively countering North Korea’s advancing nuclear threat

By Markus Garlauskas



As North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile arsenals grow larger and more sophisticated, the United States could soon be faced with a terrible choice when Pyongyang attempts to coerce Seoul—risk an intercontinental nuclear war or abandon a key ally. To avoid such as scenario, Scowcroft Center nonresident senior fellow and former National Intelligence Officer for North Korea Markus Garlauskas recommends that Washington adopt a new strategy to proactively counter North Korea’s nuclear threat by impeding its nuclear and missile programs, investing to stay ahead of its arsenal, and adjusting military operations on the Korean Peninsula.

The growing nuclear threat and its consequences

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is improving in three key areas. First, its so-called standardized nuclear warhead designs improve the credibility of its nuclear threats. Second, continuing fissile materials production means that it can quantitatively expand its arsenal. Third, improvements in the number and sophistication of missiles and (especially mobile) launchers means that the United States is less able to find, fix, and destroy missiles, either preemptively or once launched. Pyongyang is likely to use all of these developments to gain coercive leverage and warfighting advantage over allied forces on the Peninsula, risking the “decoupling” of the alliance.

Key recommendations

To avoid potentially unacceptable aggression from the North or deterrence failure, Washington needs a new strategy including policy changes to limit the North’s arsenal growth, expanded investments to stay ahead of the threat, and operational countermeasures to be implemented by US and South Korean forces on the Peninsula.

Policy changes

  • Negotiate with Pyongyang for a formal moratorium on missile flight testing, especially to prevent tests of long-range missiles with multiple reentry vehicles.
  • Counter North Korea’s effort to undermine existing sanctions to constrain resources to the nuclear program, understanding that sanctions are unlikely to lead to either denuclearization or regime change.

Investments to stay ahead

  • Improve theater-level counter-missile systems (i.e., those able to track and destroy mobile launchers and their supporting infrastructure, as well as detect and defend against missile launches).
  • Calibrate National Missile Defense to stay ahead of the North Korean threat while making clear to Russia and China that US homeland missile defense is not directed at their nuclear weapons.
  • Complete ongoing US nuclear modernization efforts, including of those capabilities relevant to nuclear counterforce operations.

Implementation of operational countermeasures

  • Reinvigorate US-South Korea training to deter and defeat the full range of North Korean aggression.
  • Reinforce resilience of allied forces, including the ability to operate under attack from North Korean conventional and nuclear missiles.

[T]his report provide[s] a pragmatic and feasible roadmap to proactively counter the threats this continuing development would pose to US national security—rather than waiting for Pyongyang to initiate a new nuclear crisis when it feels its capabilities are sufficient.

Markus Garlauskas

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Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.