North Korea in Regional—and Global—Multi-body Nuclear Strategy

February 2024 No Comments

Speakers: Mr. Markus Garlauskas (Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council) & Dr. Lauren Sukin (The London School of Economics and Political Science)

Date: 8 February 2024

Speaker Session Summary

If a global multi-front conflict were to erupt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would emerge as a significant player due to its possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal and a large conventional force. Mr. Garlauskas underscored that the initiation of conflict doesn’t necessarily require malicious or premeditated action between friendly autocratic states, particularly China and the DPRK. Rather, the opportunistic tendencies of authoritarian leaders, coupled with poor communication and inherent distrust, could swiftly escalate tensions to a global scale. In the event of a multi-front war spanning numerous theaters, the formation of alliances and the implementation of intra-war integrated deterrence strategies would likely prove instrumental in preventing nuclear escalation. 

This strategic deterrence framework assumes paramount importance in the approach of the United States and its allies towards the DPRK, which appears comparatively more inclined to utilize its limited nuclear arsenal than Russia or China. The DPRK’s readiness to deploy nuclear weapons stems from the deep-seated paranoia of its Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, regarding potential decapitation strikes or invasions aimed at toppling his regime. Dr. Sukin illuminated this mindset by illustrating the DPRK’s systematic pattern of responding to US and allied activities (joint military exercises, for instance) with routine, overt threats. 

Dr. Sukin’s extensive research involved the meticulous collection and analysis of hundreds of thousands of transcripts and documents, culminating in a substantial corpus of data. Her findings reveal that approximately half of the DPRK’s threats are linked to nuclear tests, while a third are associated with adversarial joint military exercises. While the frequency of DPRK’s threats underscores the tense dynamics in the region, it is noteworthy that the regime remains cognizant of the catastrophic consequences of all-out war, thereby diminishing the probability of a full-scale nuclear conflict. 

Speaker Session Recording

Also forthcoming!

Briefing Materials

Biographies: Markus Garlauskas is the director of the new Indo-Pacific Security Initiative of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, which replaces the former Asia Security Initiative. He leads this new initiative’s efforts focused on security, prosperity, and freedom in the Indo-Pacific region. He led projects focused on deterrence and defense issues in East Asia as a nonresident senior fellow from August 2020 until assuming his duties as director in January 2023. Mr. Garlauskas served in the US government for nearly twenty years. He was appointed to the Senior National Intelligence Service as the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for North Korea on the National Intelligence Council from July 2014 to June 2020. As NIO, he led the US intelligence community’s strategic analysis on North Korea issues and expanded analytic outreach to non-government experts. He also provided direct analytic support to top-level policy deliberations, including the presidential transition, as well as the Singapore and Hanoi summits with North Korea. Garlauskas served for nearly twelve years overseas at the headquarters of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and US Forces Korea in Seoul. His staff assignments there included chief of the Intelligence Estimates Branch and director of the Strategy Division. For his service in Korea, he received the Joint Civilian Distinguished Service Award, the highest civilian award from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Garlauskas holds a BA in History from Kent State University. He earned a Master’s Degree from Georgetown University’s Security Studies graduate program, where he is now an adjunct professor.

Lauren Sukin is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Centre Affiliate at the LSE Phelan US Centre. Dr. Sukin’s research examines issues of international security, focusing particularly on nuclear weapons and alliance politics. Her book project argues that credible nuclear guarantees can create fears of reliance on nuclear allies, leading to support within client states for stronger and more independent military capabilities. Her broader research agenda also explores the dynamics of crisis politics, cyber security, public opinion, security challenges on the Korean Peninsula, and international conflict. Prior to joining LSE, Dr. Sukin was a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). She holds a PhD and MA from the Department of Political Science at Stanford University as well as BAs in Political Science and Literary Arts from Brown University.


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