Lecture Series: Cho Hong Je

Dr. Hong-Je Cho, a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea National Defense University’s Research Institute for National Security Affairs and a Visiting Scholar at the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School, gave his presentation on “North Korea’s Missiles: Past, Present, and Prospects.” Dr. Cho, who has served as a South Korean Air Force Officer for the past 29 years, shared with the audience his knowledge and insight into North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. He began by providing context on the rapidly evolving nature of the Korean peninsula’s security situation, in light of the diplomatic outreaches and proposals for summits following the PyeongChang Olympics.

Dr. Cho stated four different reasons as to why North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons and missiles. He stated, firstly, that North Korea desires to guarantee its survival, ultimately preventing regime change and military “decapitation” by the US. Secondly, North Korea seeks to bolster domestic support through such a program. Third, Dr. Cho claimed that this could ultimately be viewed as an asymmetric strategy. Lastly, its nuclear weapons program and ballistic missiles are to compensate for its outdated conventional weapons. Despite this outdate nature of its conventional weapons, Dr. Cho pointed out that the [North] Korean People’s Army ground force consists of a million active duty soldiers, as well as millions more in civilian reserve.

In the history of North Korea’s missile development and testing, Kim Jong-un has been actively launching missiles to a much greater extent than his father and grandfather. Dr. Cho gave a few numbers to illustrate North Korea’s missile fleet: it currently possesses more than 800 ballistic missiles, with 600 of these being Scud missiles.

However, North Korea’s missiles do face some limitations and challenges. First, North Korea has yet to completely master miniaturizing its nuclear warheads, where they would be small enough to fit on a missile. Second, they are still working on their reentry vehicle technology, where their missiles would be strong enough to withstand enormous temperature and structural pressures during its descent through the earth’s atmosphere to its target. Despite these limitations, Dr. Cho gave an estimate that North Korea would most likely be able to surpass these challenges within the next 2 years.

Given that 2018 is North Korea’s 70th anniversary of the founding of its regime, it is of concern that Kim Jong-un may launch missiles as a means of commemorating this date. For one thing, we can be optimistic that by sitting down at the negotiating table and opening dialogue, we have the potential to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons experiment and missile launches. On the more pessimistic and skeptical side regarding the North’s intentions, the international community can continue to strengthen sanctions, cooperate with one another, and identify countermeasures to the North’s program. Dr. Cho emphasized the need for the complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization of the North and the importance of open dialogue and gathering around the negotiation table to establish perpetual peace on the Korean peninsula. To finish his remarks, he quoted Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”


Written by Bomie Lee

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