What a North Korea nuclear crisis in 2023 would actually look like

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and his daughter oversee an ICBM missile test, in images released by state media

North Korea’s supreme leader Kim jong-un began 2023 with bullish rhetoric calling for the “exponential” expansion of the country’s nuclear arsenal, in a speech which came after weeks of missile tests rattling the nerves of the hermit kingdom’s neighbours.

Kim appeared indignant in that speech at the lack of engagement he was seeing from the US and other world powers, which he accused of being “keen on isolating and stifling” his country. Despite tests of newer and bigger missiles from North Korea and launches that have flown directly over Japanese territory, there have been no overtures from Washington or its allies trying to get Pyongyang round a negotiating table.

Since making that New Year’s speech, Kim and his military have been ominously quiet, but with preparations underway in Pyongyang for a major parade likely to take place next month, no one is under any illusions that the tensions on the Korean peninsula are going to go away on their own.

Jitters have been felt most keenly in neighbouring South Korea, with president Yoon Suk Yeol feeling pressed enough to remark that Seoul – until now a non-nuclear state reliant on the US for its deterrent – could “deploy tactical nuclear weapons or possess its own”. Yoon openly talked up the prospect of an arms race with Kim, saying that if that happens, the South will “be able to get a hold of them sooner with our science and technologies”.

Experts monitoring the tensions say the prospect of an all-out military conflict breaking out – at least this year – are very slim, given the current reluctance from the US and Seoul to directly engage in any tit-for-tat escalation. North Korean test launches in recent months have mostly been met with stern words, and occasionally the test-firing of less powerful South Korean artillery armaments.

But with North Korea on a trajectory that is expected to see it continue to launch more missiles as well as conduct a landmark seventh major nuclear weapons test in the coming year, both Koreas are likely to exchange hawkish words and countermeasures, says Daehan Lee, secretary general and research fellow at the Republic of Korea Forum for Nuclear Strategy in Seoul.

Stage set for rapidly escalating crisis

“If North Korea fires more ballistic missiles or conducts another nuclear test this year, Seoul’s public opinion will move far more to the right, further igniting the ongoing nuclear debates and the actual need for [South Korea’s] own nuclear weapons as a means of proportional response and self-defence,” he tells The Independent.

Relations between North and South Korea are likely to worsen further in 2023, sustaining instability risks across east Asia, according to a forecast by the geopolitical and security intelligence firm Dragonfly.

“The new South Korean president is more US-aligned, further increasing the likelihood of deadlock and assertive responses from Seoul. We anticipate that Pyongyang will conduct further ICBM tests and engage in military skirmishes, commencing a short-term security crisis,” the firm’s strategic outlook for this year said.

It also points to the growing economic pressure on Pyongyang, which could lead the isolated nation to act “more erratically as it seeks sanctions relief and international recognition as a nuclear state”.

Experts expect North Korea to restart its testing of nuclear weapons, pushing South Korea and the US to give a response such as live-fire exercises off the western coast of the Korean peninsula – bringing together the combination of elements needed to constitute an immediate crisis in the region.

Where South Korea is most vulnerable

Experts say that the initial phases of a major Korean nuclear crisis would involve the targeting of sectors of the South Korean economy where it is perceived as being most vulnerable – the aviation sector, banking institutions as well as a general probing of Seoul’s cybersecurity – as well as the more regular deployment of Pyongyang’s puportedly vast missile arsenal. Some 80-100 projectiles including short-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles were fired just last year.

A crisis would hit the South’s aviation sector first as the North is “very intent on targeting commercial aircraft,” says Barbara Kelemen, senior Asia associate at Dragonfly. “It has been mounting these missile tests and it is a matter of concern primarily because North Korea doesn’t issue ‘no-times’, causing a lot of unpredictability and uncertainty around flight timings and paths on which the aircraft and missiles are moving,” she tells The Independent.

She explains that there is also the question of reliability of North Korea’s weapons systems, with unpredictable impacts should its missiles either break up or not fly on the path they’re supposed to.

North Korea’s appetite for risk seems to have grown in the past year, with missiles fired increasingly in non-conventional directions, Kelemen says. In the event of a full-blown crisis, that risk tolerance will only be more heightened.

Examples of high-risk interactions include in 2010 in the last inter-Korean military conflict and bombardment of Yeonpyeong, says Kelemen, who is also a fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies think-tank.

And in December North Korea dispatched rogue drones into South Korean airspace, leading the transport ministry in Seoul to ground flights at Gimpo and Incheon international airports.

“If we have this kind of scenario, this could also rapidly [result in] escalation and this is because of the fragility of the North Korean regime. And then we might have to witness military imbalance taking into account the potential involvement of other powers such as the US,” Kelemen explains.

North Korea will also try to run cyber operations to try and disable communications in the region along with targeting banking facilities in South Korea, experts say, both of which are tactics which have been observed frequently in recent years.

Mass evacuation plans will be in place

Given the extremely close proximity between Seoul and North Korea’s territory – at its narrowest point the gap between the city limit and the DMZ is just 23km – a crisis on the peninsula would leave all administrations involved, both North and South Korea as well as Japan and the US and China, with decisions to make at very little or no notice.

That’s why, experts say, South Korea in particular will have a range of contingency plans in place in the event of a significant deterioration in the security situation. One of its primary concerns would be the preliminary stages of securing the safety of civilians.

This is something that has already been tested in the past year when a North Korean ballistic missile flew directly over one of Japan’s main islands for the first time since 2017. People in the north of Japan, including Hokkaido island and Aomori city, awoke in October to warnings blaring that urged them to “evacuate into buildings or underground”, though many reportedly were confused as to what was going on.

If the South Korean capital does need to evacuate at short notice, Kelemen says, its options are fairly limited. “In Seoul specifically, it is home to almost half of the country’s population and [only] two civil airports. The second largest airport that the country has is at least 270 miles away from the capital city. Others cater to domestic flights and China primarily,” Kelemen says.

She adds: “Another option South Korea will have is a potential evacuation by sea: There are ports on either side of the country so civilians will be able to leave from the east or the west for China and Japan respectively.”

Does North Korea really want all-out war?

Neither side would benefit from a crisis reaching such a drastic point, and there is still a long way to go before anything like that becomes a likelihood, the experts say.

“Despite East Asia being destined for an escalation of regional tensions this year, there won’t be any full-scale military conflicts between the two Koreas [in 2023], since the United States that holds Seoul’s wartime operation control would refrain itself from increasing any security risks,” says Lee.

He adds that North Korea is aware that “wars or such serious military conflicts mean the demise of Kim Jon–un regime by overwhelming conventional forces of South Korea and the US-ROK alliance which is the strongest military power in the world”.

But we can still expect Kim to keep stepping on the gas when it comes to his nuclear weapons programe “until the North Korean nuclear arsenal is completely capable of posing existential threats even to the US mainland through its first-and second-strike capabilities”, Lee says.

Experts suggest that the quiet January so far could be the calm before the storm as Pyongyang’s military development trajectory in 2023 will more likely mirror that of last year than slow down.

There will be a sharp focus on qualitative rather than quantitative improvements, including a modernisation of their nuclear weapons to improve capabilities and build a more credible deterrent, says Doreen Horschig, research associate at school of politics, security, and international affairs at the University of Central Florida.

“This modernisation might include MIRVs (multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles): putting multiple warheads on a ballistic missile. But this could also entail the construction of new satellites, long-range cruise missiles, and/or tactical nuclear weapons,” she tells The Independent.

And specifically, she adds, the testing of a tactical nuclear weapon, a smaller nuclear warhead to be deployed on a short-range ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) or cruise missile, might be on the list of Kim’s tests this year.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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