Nuclear weapons have been many things: bombs, missiles, shoulder launched projectiles. Each is designed to counter another threat, deter a new kind of attack. So what about nuclear torpedoes? And nuclear mines? Juicy gossip from the naughty North Korea proposes that the hermit kingdom is well on its way to developing such technology. North Korea’s lagging manufacturing capabilities aside, let’s consider the purpose of such deterrence measures.
First, the nuclear torpedo. South Korea and the United States individually and together outman and outgun North Korea’s navy. Rather than invest billions to catch up (which would likely involve training AND feeding people) North Korea can close the margin with nuclear weapons. Torpedoes can be launched from ships, planes, and submersibles and target seaborne vessels. Unless North Korea specifies which delivery systems utilize nuke torpedoes, the U.S and S.K. see each enemy unit as a potential nuclear delivery vehicle supposedly limiting movement and engagement. In this scenario, entire fleets moving in close quarters remain in danger not just of a nuke’s blast radius but also from tsunami like waves. To mitigate potential damage to its own vehicles and, given proximity to North Korean coasts, to its fishing cooperatives N.K. would profit from fitting its torpedoes with tactical nukes.
But North Korea isn’t known for its practicality and efficiency. Given its numerous missile failures and small nuclear arsenal, any bomb in a torpedo is a good bomb. If the vague promise of a nuke in the water is enough to deter U.S. naval presence or aggression against the N.K. navy then the bomb has served its purpose (if it exists).
A nuclear mine would serve a lesser purpose but an effective one all the same. It wouldn’t be able to deter aggression against a navy but it would make trespassing more dangerous. It would be akin to an ornery neighbor putting bouncing betties in his yard to keep bratty kids out.
If North Korea can realize both of these ideas then it will turn itself into a giant nuclear landmine. This will only serve to make future diplomacy more difficult for incoming leaders isolating it from what little trade it has with Japan and making sea-trade with China arduous. Further, if and when it falls N.K. will leave behind a legacy of torture, not just to its people, but to those de-nuclearizing the ocean.