Nine countries possess nuclear weapons, but one—due to its perceived irrationality—elicits fear in even the most powerful military in the world, and for good reason. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, North Korea has doggedly pursued a nuclear weapons program since 2003 and has conducted at least twenty-four missile or nuclear tests in 2016 alone. While North Korea has not yet developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach the United States, many intelligence analysts estimate that ability will arrive within the next five to ten years. Miniaturizing a nuclear warhead, which allows a bomb to be fired on long-range missiles, is the next key step for the North Korean regime; their current arsenal—including the Nodong and Musudan missiles—already enables them to hit targets such as Japan, Australia, and strategic U.S. naval bases in Guam.
Debates among U.S. policymakers have persisted on how to best combat the threat, but there seems to be no simple solution. Surgical strikes on missile silos are not a guaranteed success. For example, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un abides by nuclear deterrence theory’s notion of second strike capability. Second strike capability is when a state establishes a nuclear triad of submarine, plane, and ground launched missiles and ensures it can retaliate if attacked. In other words, no matter how well-planned the U.S. strikes are, North Korea would be able to hit a surrounding country with a bomb if provoked.
Additionally, sanctions have proved ineffective because China is reluctant to enact economic measures that would destabilize the North Korean regime. Initiating negotiations would also likely be a futile effort, since talks to reach a multilateral nuclear agreement have broken down several times. Therefore, President Obama was left with one method of modern warfare to confront North Korea’s nuclear weapons program that has now continued into the Trump Administration: cyberattacks.
The United States and Israel saw infamous success in their cyberattack against the Iranian nuclear program, “Stuxnet,” but infiltrating North Korea has proven much more difficult. North Korea has arguably the most extreme censorship policies in the world, particularly for the internet, and their lack of contemporary technology makes cyberattacks nearly impossible. (Ironically, sanctions are reason to blame for the technology lag.) Their national network, the Kwangmyong, is an intranet of solely state-approved information and access is still not widely proliferated within the country. With respect to cyber defense, having an outdated, dispersed, and highly prioritized internet infrastructure is remarkably beneficial.
The U.S.’s interest in proactively developing nuclear weapon comes from the expense of maintaining a significant nuclear weapons arsenal, which has cost the U.S. $300 billion since the Eisenhower administration. To that end, many officials now advocate a “left of launch” policy, in which the aim is to deter nuclear attacks before or on the launching pad. Yet, just as Ronald Reagan was hindered in establishing his Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as “Star Wars,” due to technological limitations, the U.S. has much work to do before reliable cyber methods can be implemented at the core of its nuclear defense policy.