North Korea has put itself in a dangerous situation by ruling out denuclearization and legalizing the use of its nuclear weapons preemptively to strike adversaries who threaten its leadership, experts say.
Pyongyang prioritizes the survival of the regime and North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s parliament, on September 8 legitimized the preventive use of its nuclear weapons “automatically” if its leadership or command centers and of control are threatened.
On the same day, leader Kim Jong Un stressed in a speech that the law stipulating the justifiable use of nuclear weapons made North Korea’s position as a nuclear state “irreversible” unless the world, as well as the political and military situation on the Korean Peninsula, do not change. , according to state media KCNA.
Kim said he would “never give up” his nuclear weapons and ruled out negotiations for denuclearization. His assertion came weeks after his powerful sister Kim Yo Jong rejected an offer from Seoul to provide aid in exchange for denuclearization, saying “nobody trades their fate for corn cake”.
Experts said Pyongyang’s official declaration of its preemptive intent made the regime more vulnerable as its nuclear strike would be met with a counterattack from the United States.
“The United States has actually been crystal clear about what will happen to North Korea if it ever uses a nuclear weapon,” said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review indicates that if North Korea uses a nuclear weapon, the regime will not survive. Since survival is the regime’s number one goal, it is a deterrent goal. effective if the United States is serious about implementing it,” Bennett continued.
The United States said “Pyongyang’s extensive nuclear and missile programs suggest the potential for early nuclear use in support of conventional operations,” according to the report released four years ago.
The posture review continued, “Our deterrence strategy for North Korea makes it clear that any North Korean nuclear attack on the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will bring about the end of this regime.”
David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, said Washington and Seoul “must make sure the regime knows that the use of weapons of mass destruction will bring about its destruction.” He continued, “The recent message from the South Korean spokesperson demonstrates strategic assertiveness and strategic determination.”
Moon Hong Sik, spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry, said on Tuesday that North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons would set the regime on a “path of self-destruction” in the face of a “response overwhelming” from Washington and Seoul.
VOA Korean contacted North Korea’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York for a response to experts’ assessment of the new law, but did not receive a response.
Pretext for preemption
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics program at the NAC, said North Korea may have formalized its intention to use nuclear weapons to bolster its position against Seoul’s “beheading strategy” targeting Pyongyang’s leaders.
In July, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced it would create a strategic command by 2024 to oversee its “chain of destruction” strategy and the military means to implement it.
The chain of destruction is Seoul’s preemptive strategy to hit North Korean leaders and key military centers if it senses that Pyongyang is about to launch an attack on South Korea.
Joseph DeTrani, who served as the special envoy for the six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea, said Seoul’s new stance on enhanced deterrence could also have “motivated” Pyongyang to include a preemptive nuclear response.
At the summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden in May, the two agreed to reactivate the bilateral Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG).
The EDSCG was launched in 2016 to discuss and implement military options to deter North Korean aggression, including the use of US nuclear weapons to defend South Korea.
On Friday, Washington and Seoul will hold the first EDSCG meeting since 2018.
On August 17, U.S. and South Korean defense officials concluded the two-day Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) and issued a joint statement announcing an option to deploy U.S. strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula if North Korea conducts a nuclear test.
Strategic assets include aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and strategic bombers.
Washington and Seoul have assessed whether North Korea is preparing for what would be its seventh nuclear test after detecting preparatory activities at its main nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive negotiating experience with North Korea, said, “With the ROK’s recent reference to its ‘chain of destruction’ strategy and the ongoing discussion between United States and the ROK on “strategic assets”, we can also see the new DPRK law and Kim Jong Un’s speech in response to these developments.”
South Korea’s official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK), and DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Revere continued, “But it’s important to remember that North Korea’s nuclear weapons strategy has been moving in this direction for many years. The actions of the ROK and the United States have only provided a convenient pretext for this decision by Pyongyang.”
Denuclearization is dead but ultimate goal
Experts said North Korea’s new nuclear law and Kim’s continued refusal to give up its nuclear arsenal have made it more difficult to pursue denuclearization diplomacy. The talks have stalled since 2019 and Pyongyang has countered any attempt to resume them with 19 arms tests this year.
Revere said, “Denuclearization is almost certainly a dead issue, and the North Koreans just reminded us of that bluntly.”
Revere added, “Policymakers would be wise now to focus on ways to make the cost to North Korea of its continued quest for nuclear weapons truly unbearable.”
However, he continued, “the United States and the ROK should continue to pursue the ultimate goal of denuclearization, because abandoning that goal would play into the hands of a North Korea that seeks to ‘accept “its nuclear status”.
DeTraini said, “The policy toward North Korea should not change, and indeed it would be a mistake to accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state.”