North Korea's hit-list: The cities it wants to destroy in the event of nuclear war

Where might a nuclear-armed North Korea strike first?

A European think-tank has revealed a list of targets sourced from the secretive state's official news outlets. They're a mix of military bases and civilian targets, and the European Council on Foreign Relations says Kim Jong-un's regime seems to make little distinction between them.

"Pyongyang is prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike in response to an imminent attack on the country," the report's authors Léonie Allard, Mathieu Duchâtel and François Godement say.

The targets listed are in four general regions - the US mainland, South Korea, Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific.

In the US, North Korea hopes to hit: 

  • the US mainland, ie. the 48 states between Canada and Mexico
  • major American cities
  • Manhattan
  • the White House
  • and the Pentagon.

In South Korea, they're aiming at:

  • US military bases in Osan, Gunsan and Busan
  • Pyeongtaek, Jungwon, Degu and Gyeryongdae
  • Seoul
  • the Blue House (South Korea's equivalent of the White House) and "reactionary governmental agencies".

In Japan, North Korea's targeting:

  • US military bases in Yokosuka, Misawa and Okinawa
  • the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto.

Other targets in the Asia-Pacific region include US bases at Guam and Hawaii, as well as US nuclear aircraft carriers.

"The regime presents its nuclear arsenal as part of a defensive, rather than offensive, strategy," the authors say. "It frames the programme as a response to the risk of a decapitation strike mounted by the United States and its allies, especially South Korea.

"North Korea lacks a clear distinction between the use of nuclear weapons against military targets and their use against civilian targets, or any plan for a gradual escalation from attacking military bases to striking cities. Moreover, the regime seems to lack any defined endgame to its use of nuclear weapons, or evaluation of the consequences of using them.

"In other words, it does not envisage military victory."

North Korea has upped its nuclear efforts since Kim Jong-un took over from his father Kim Jong-il five years ago.

"The official language used under Kim Jong-un marks a clear break with his father's era. Under Kim Jong-Il, denuclearisation was still mentioned as a possible outcome of diplomatic talks."

The change appears to be aimed at giving North Korea a powerful first-strike capability. As a small country with limited resources, North Korea's leaders are aware they probably won't get a chance to hit back if someone hit them first.

"Without certainty that its arsenal could survive a first strike by its enemies, Pyongyang's deterrence relies on the threat of launching the first strike itself… The credibility of its deterrence… lies in the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on an enemy at a very early stage of a military conflict, before the regime can be destroyed. This results in a policy of nuclear pre-emption."

The lack of distinction between military and civilian targets is perhaps a consequence of the tight geography of the region - the two Koreas occupy a small peninsula with a large population, and neighbouring Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

"No use of nuclear weapons could be considered as merely tactical. There is no way to target military forces without killing civilians, and there would be little difference in the political effects," the authors say.

The report is doubtful North Korea will give up its weapons, and the only way to free the country for the Kim family's grip will likely be war.

"Europe should be realistic: it should focus on contingency plans and dialogue on measures to contain the scale of any conflict."

The US under President Donald Trump has rattled sabres with North Korea on a regular basis in the past year, during which the latter has carried out a number of weapons tests.