If North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un orders a nuclear strike on South Korea, Seoul will attempt to kill him with missiles and devastate Pyongyang in the process.
That's according to a recent report from the Yonhap News Agency citing a military source. "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 source told the agency.
North Korea carried out its most recent nuclear test — its largest ever — on Sept. 9 at its underground facility at Punggye-ri. The DPRK claims it has "standardized" its nuclear warheads and can mount them on ballistic missiles. It's unknown if the regime can do that yet, but it probably will soon.
Notice that the South Korean plan, or "Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation" (KMPR), echoes similar statements from North Korea which regularly — and more blatantly — threatens to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."
North Korea has hundreds of long-range artillery pieces and rocket launchers positioned to bombard South Korea's capital on the first day of a conflict. Though it's debatable how much damage North Korea really could do, and Pyongyang is likely exaggerating for effect, there's no doubt a full-scale attack would prove devastating and kill thousands of people.
To echo the bravado, Yonhap's source added that if the DPRK attacks the South with nuclear weapons, "the North's capital city will be reduced to ashes and removed from the map."
Bluster or not, military officials in Seoul have made similar comments hinting at plans for a decapitation strike during the opening hours of a major conflict.
Hyunmoo-1 ballistic missiles, kept in reserve, during a parade in 2013 | (South Korean defense ministry photo/Courtesy War is Boring)
"If North Korea pushes ahead with provocations that would threaten the lives and safety of our citizens, our military will strongly and sternly punish the provocations' starting point, its supporting forces and command," Maj. Gen. Kim Yong Hyun said in 2013 during a tense period of military exercises on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.
Normally, "command" in this phrasing would refer to divisional commanders, according to a South Korean military source quoted by The Chosun Ilbo. "But if Seoul comes under attack, the top levels of North Korea's regime including Kim Jong Un could become targets," the source added.
Another official, Brig. Gen. Cho Sang Ho, mentioned decapitation strikes during a 2015 seminar, according to The Telegraph. "We will develop asymmetric strategies that give us a comparative advantage over the North," Cho said, "like psychological warfare, decapitation operations, intelligence advantage, and precision strike capabilities."
A decapitation strike would likely rely on fast moving ballistic missiles, precision-guided cruise missiles, and warplanes. Seoul has rapidly introduced modernized cruise and ballistic missiles under the name Hyunmoo, but it's unclear how many it possesses.
We do know that in the early 2000s, Seoul bought more than 200 short-range ATACMS ballistic missiles from the United States. From the South, these weapons could reach Pyongyang, pop open and disperse hundreds of tiny bomblets.
They would not have to travel far. Pyongyang is a mere 90 miles from the DMZ, roughly the same distance between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.
Seoul's latest version of its Hyunmoo-3 land-attack cruise missile can deliver 500 kilograms of high explosives anywhere inside North Korea. The weapons also come equipped with sophisticated guidance computers similar to the U.S.-made Tomahawk.
But be skeptical.
South Korea has the means to attack North Korea's leaders. The problem is that decapitation strikes rarely succeed. One reason being that leaders take precautions, and targeting them requires extremely precise intelligence to stand any chance of a hit.
Kim probably has a plan in case he needs to go to ground. It'd be shocking if he didn't.
During the opening hours of the invasion of Iraq, the United States carried out dozens of air strikes aimed at Saddam Hussein and other high-profile Iraqi officials. These attacks failed to hit their targets. However, they did kill dozens of civilians.
"We failed to kill the HVTs and instead killed civilians and engendered hatred and discontent in some of the population," Marc Garlasco, who headed "high-value target" operations in 2003 for the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The New York Times.
North Korea would likely lose a war, but an insurgency developing in an occupied North is a real possibility, according to a 2013 RAND Corporation report. At the same time, South Korea hinting at massive retaliation reflects the government coming to believe it doesn't have many alternatives.
In 1998, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung embarked on the "Sunshine Policy" intended to calm relations with the North by providing economic aid. He hoped to encourage Pyongyang to make internal reforms, eventually leading to a peaceful reunification like East and West Germany.
His successor, Roh Moo Hyun, continued the policy. But in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and detonated its first nuclear bomb three years later.
South Korean voters brutally punished Roh's successor during the 2007 election, and elected Lee Myung Bak of the conservative Saenuri Party, who vowed to take a harder line.
With the policy discarded, South Korea shifted to a "principle of proactive deterrence," in Lee's words, following the sinking of the corvette ROKS Cheonan by a DPRK submarine in 2010.
If the North struck, the South would strike back … proportionally. Future benefits would also be contingent on North Korean behavior. The current president, Park Geun Hye, has carried on this policy.
However, responding in kind to North Korean provocations carries the risk that a conflict could escalate and plunge the whole peninsula into a catastrophe. In any case, revealing plans to send a cruise missile into Kim Jong Un's bedroom is unlikely to convince him to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
But Kim doesn't seem like he'll do that under any circumstances.
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