In the wake of Pyongyang’s fifth and biggest nuclear test Friday, the South Korean military is reportedly touting the value of so-called decapitation strikes on the North Korean leadership.
But such plans — which Seoul says are necessary in lieu of its own nuclear deterrent — have prompted concern that they could create a vicious cycle, reinforcing Pyongyang’s view that its nuclear arsenal is indispensable.
Decapitation or “beheading” strikes are targeted attacks to eliminate an adversary’s leader or leadership in an attempt to disrupt or destroy its chain of command as soon as a crisis breaks out or appears imminent.
In the case of the Korean Peninsula, an impending nuclear attack by the North would trigger such a strike. The target: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself.
Seoul has already developed a plan to “annihilate” Pyongyang in a massive bombing campaign if the North shows signs of a nuclear attack, the Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean military source as saying Sunday.
The plan, known as “Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation” (KMPR), was revealed after the Defense Ministry briefed the National Assembly last week on the subject, Yonhap said.
Using colorful language reminiscent of North Korean state media, the report said that Pyongyang would be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map” if signs of an imminent attack were uncovered.
“Every Pyongyang district, particularly where the North Korean leadership is possibly hidden, will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells as soon as the North shows any signs of using a nuclear weapon,” the report quoted a source as saying.
The source said any KMPR campaign would employ surface-to-surface Hyunmoo 2A, 2B and Hyunmoo 3 ballistic missiles, which have ranges of 300 km (185 miles), 500 km (310 miles) and 1,000 km (620 miles), respectively, to pummel the North’s capital city.
“The KMPR is the utmost operation concept the military can have in the absence of its own nuclear weapons,” the source added.
The Yonhap report also quoted a separate source as saying that the South Korean military had recently created a special operation unit “dedicated to targeting the North Korean leadership and launching retaliatory attacks on them.”
Massive joint U.S.-South Korea military drills held last spring also reportedly incorporated training and simulations of surgical, pre-emptive strikes on nuclear and missile sites, along with training for a decapitation operation aimed at assassinating Kim and toppling his government in the event of war.
North Korea is no stranger to decapitation strikes, having failed in an attempt to kill current President Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, in a 1968 commando raid on the Blue House, the president’s official residence in Seoul. The U.S. has also conducted targeted assassinations in the war on terrorism, often employing drones to take out key terrorist leaders around the globe.
Georgetown University professor Victor Cha, who served as former U.S. President George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korean affairs, said that while such a plan to take out Kim and his cohorts probably exists, it is likely “more an expression of anger and frustration than a strategic attempt to deter the adversary.”
“Indeed, I am certain such statements only reconfirm in North Korea’s eyes the need for a survivable nuclear deterrent,” Cha told The Japan Times.
Kent Boydston, an analyst focusing on the Korean Peninsula at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, agreed, noting that such a strike would also face immense obstacles.
“Certainly North Korea would take precautions against a decapitation strike and it is unlikely that South Korea and the U.S. could know exactly where the top leadership is located in a crisis,” Boydston said. “It is also hard to imagine a decapitation strike not escalating to broader hostilities.”
The floating of the KMPR plan by an anonymous South Korean military source comes just days after the North conducted its fifth atomic test.
The estimated explosive yield of Friday’s test was 10 kilotons, nearly double the strength of the previous test conducted in January. Perhaps more importantly, the North has also claimed to have created a compact “nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets.”
Experts say fears that the North could rain down nuclear-tipped missiles on South Korea has prompted Seoul’s full-throated approach to decapitation strikes.
“The North must not forget that Seoul, too, can respond to … threats and the fact that South Korea does not have nuclear weapons does not mean that it is defenseless or unable to destroy Pyongyang,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.
Glosserman said that the decapitation plan is also a reminder to the U.S. of the high stakes Seoul faces in the event of a crisis.
“Washington must be very sensitive to ROK concerns or risk being dragged into a conflict that Seoul might trigger,” he said, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea. “I have been very concerned about the prospect of Seoul developing a strategy or doctrine like this as compensation for not having nuclear weapons. To my mind it is potentially more worrisome than an ROK nuke.”