18 December 2017

Updated CRS Report—“The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: Military Options and Issues for Congress”

I wish this top-caliber team all possible energy, as they will surely be asked to update this important report constantly in light of new developments!

Kathleen J. McInnis, Andrew Feickert, Mark E. Manyin, Steven A. Hildreth, Mary Beth D. Nikitin, and Emma Chanlett-Avery, The North Korean Nuclear Challenge: Military Options and Issues for Congress R44994 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 6 November 2017).

If you can’t access the link, click here to download a copy.


North Korea’s apparently successful July 2017 tests of its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, along with the possibility that North Korea (DPRK) may have successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, have led analysts and policymakers to conclude that the window for preventing the DPRK from acquiring a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States is closing. These events appear to have fundamentally altered U.S. perceptions of the threat the Kim Jong-un regime poses to the continental United States and the international community, and escalated the standoff on the Korean Peninsula to levels that have arguably not been seen since 1994.

A key issue is whether or not the United States could manage and deter a nuclear-armed North Korea if it were to become capable of attacking targets in the U.S. homeland, and whether taking decisive military action to prevent the emergence of such a DPRK capability might be necessary. Either choice would bring with it considerable risk for the United States, its allies, regional stability, and global order. Trump Administration officials have stated that “all options are on the table,” to include the use of military force to “denuclearize,”—generally interpreted to mean eliminating nuclear weapons and related capabilities—from that area.

One potential question for Congress is whether, and how, to employ the U.S. military to accomplish denuclearization, and whether using the military might result in miscalculation on either side, or perhaps even conflict escalation. Questions also exist as to whether denuclearization is the right strategic goal for the United States. This is perhaps because eliminating DPRK nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities outside of voluntary denuclearization, and employing military forces and assets to do so, would likely entail significant risks. In particular, any move involving military forces by either the United States/Republic of Korea (U.S./ROK) or the DPRK might provoke an escalation of conflict that could have catastrophic consequences for the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the East Asia region.

In this report, CRS identifies seven possible options, with their implications and attendant risks, for the employment of the military to denuclearize North Korea. These options are

  • maintaining the military status quo,
  • enhanced containment and deterrence,
  • denying DPRK acquisition of delivery systems capable of threatening the United States,
  • eliminating ICBM facilities and launch pads,
  • eliminating DPRK nuclear facilities,
  • DPRK regime change, and
  • withdrawing U.S. military forces.

These options are based entirely on open-source materials, and do not represent a complete list of possibilities. CRS cannot verify whether any of these potential options are currently being considered by U.S. and ROK leaders. CRS does not advocate for or against a military response to the current situation.

Conservative estimates anticipate that in the first hours of a renewed military conflict, North Korean conventional artillery situated along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) could cause tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea, where at least 100,000 (and possibly as many as 500,000) U.S. soldiers and citizens reside. A protracted conflict—particularly one in which North Korea uses its nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons—could cause enormous casualties on a greater

scale, and might expand to include Japan and U.S. territories in the region. Such a conflict could also involve a massive mobilization of U.S. forces onto the Korean Peninsula, and high military casualty rates. Complicating matters, should China choose to join the conflict, those casualty rates could grow further, and could potentially lead to military conflict beyond the peninsula. Some analysts contend, however, that the risk of allowing the Kim Jong-un regime to acquire a nuclear weapon capable of targeting the U.S. homeland is of even greater concern than the risks associated with the outbreak of regional war, especially given Pyongyang’s long history of bombastic threats and aggressive action toward the United States and its allies and the regime’s long-stated interest in unifying the Korean Peninsula on its terms.

Estimating the military balance on the peninsula, and how military forces might be employed during wartime, requires accounting for a variety of variables and, as such, is an inherently imprecise endeavor. As an overall approach to building and maintaining its forces, the DPRK has emphasized quantity over quality, and asymmetric capabilities including weapons of mass destruction and its special operations forces. The Republic of Korea, by contrast, has emphasized quality over quantity, and maintains a highly skilled, well-trained, and capable conventional force. Most students of the regional military balance contend that overall advantage is with the U.S./ROK, assuming that neither China nor Russia become involved militarily. Should they do so, the conflict would likely become exponentially more complicated.

As the situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to evolve, Congress may consider whether, and if so under what circumstances, it might support U.S. military action. Congress could also consider

  • the risks associated with the possible employment of military force on the Korean Peninsula against North Korea;
  • the efficacy of the use of force to accomplish the Trump Administration’s strategic goals;
  • whether and when a statutory authorization for the use of U.S. forces might be necessary, and whether to support such an authorization;
  • what the costs might be of conducting military operations and post-conflict reconstruction operations, particularly should a conflict on the Korean Peninsula escalate significantly;
  • the consequences for regional security, regional alliances, and U.S. security presence in the region more broadly; and
  • the impact that renewed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula might have for the availability of forces for other theaters and contingencies. … … …