What North Korea Is Learning from the Hamas-Israel War


Oct 24, 2023

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held the Fifth Enlarged Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 11, 2022, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the Fifth Enlarged Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2022

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 24, 2023.

On October 7, Hamas carried out a heinous attack against civilian targets in Israel. And their tactics—torturing and murdering over 1,000 civilians, including women and children—signal their prime objective: to force Israel into retaliating against Hamas in Gaza in ways that would inflict collateral damage on Palestinian civilians. Moreover, Hamas kidnapped many civilians, clearly seeking to force Israel to carry out a ground offensive mission to rescue those hostages. Such a ground offensive would cause substantial Palestinian casualties. Hamas likely hopes it will exhaust Israel and turn the world against it. Hamas perceives that Israeli attacks resulting in large numbers of Palestinian casualties will give it the international support needed for recognition as a separate country.

Implications for Korea

So what effect, if any, will the Hamas attack have on the Korean peninsula? There will be military personnel in both the North and South who will learn tactical lessons from that attack. But at the strategic level, the situations are very different for Hamas and North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be reluctant today to try the overall Hamas strategy. Kim knows that if he did and killed hundreds of South Koreans, he would justify a South Korean military response and become South Korea's number one military target. And while South Korea and the United States may not always know his location, they likely know his location some of the time and have the weapons to precisely eliminate that location and him if Kim ever pushes them to do so.

Because his personal survival is his number one priority, Kim is extremely unlikely to attack South Korea in a way that puts his survival seriously at risk. Indeed, Kim has learned since 2010 that lower-level provocations (like missile launches) and plausibly deniable limited attacks (like the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan) are the best kinds of provocations to demonstrate his power while avoiding serious South Korean and U.S. responses for now.

Nuclear Weapons Are Key to North Korean Coercion

And that appears to be one of the reasons why Kim is trying to build a significant nuclear weapon force. Once he has 200 to 300 nuclear weapons or more, he will likely feel that South Korean and U.S. retaliations will be limited by fears that any retaliation against North Korean attacks could well escalate to nuclear war, which is not an acceptable risk. This condition, called the “nuclear shadow,” could make it safer for Kim to carry out limited conventional attacks.

In June this year, the U.S. intelligence community released an extract from a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that says that Kim is most likely to use his nuclear weapons for coercive purposes. North Korean officials already publicly threatened to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and the United States in response to their combined military exercises and Korean peninsula visits to U.S. strategic weapon systems. Kim seeks to reduce these South Korean and U.S. efforts to strengthen their alliance. Ironically, North Korean threats alone have had the opposite effect—increasing the South Korean and U.S. exercises and strategic weapon system visits.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.

Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.