On 8 September 2022, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly promulgated the ‘law on the state policy on nuclear forces (hereafter “nuclear forces policy law” or “2022 nuclear law”)’, replacing the ‘law on consolidating the position of nuclear weapon state (2013).’ North Korea’s enactment of the new nuclear law, together with its frequent missile tests of all sizes, ranges, and levels of sophistication, has increased military tensions and nuclear risks on the Korean peninsula almost to the level of the nuclear crisis of 2017. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government and the South Korean people are greatly alarmed and offended. North Korea’s ever-expanding nuclear arsenal, combined with an aggressive nuclear use doctrine adopted in the new law, has sparked heated political debates in South Korea on corresponding nuclear options, from self-nuclear armament, to the reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons, to NATO-style nuclear-sharing programs, to the acquisition of nuclear latency. Against this backdrop, this article analyzes why North Korea replaced the 2013 nuclear law with the new one, what the major differences are between the two laws, and finally, what messages North Korea intends to send.
First, calling itself a “responsible nuclear weapon state” in the 2022 law, North Korea seems to be letting the world and its people know that its nuclear armament and nuclear weapon state status are fait accompli. In a speech addressed to the Assembly enacting this law, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un emphasized the ‘impossibility of denuclearization’ and ‘irreversibility of advancement of nuclear forces.’
In Article 1 of the 2013 law, North Korea tries to explain to the world why it had to go nuclear: “The nuclear weapons of the DPRK are just means for defense as it was compelled to have access to them to cope with the ever-escalating policy of the US and nuclear threats.” Also in the preamble of the 2013 law, North Korea explained to its people the reasons for nuclear armament: “Having an independent and just nuclear force, the DPRK put an end to the distress-torn history in which it was subject to outside forces’ aggression and interference and could emerge a socialist power of Juche which no one dares provoke.” However, in the 2022 law, these justifications and explanations for going nuclear were deleted. North Korea might have felt that it is not necessary anymore to justify its nuclear forces.
Second, the new nuclear law specifies ‘five cases’ to use nuclear weapons that encompass almost all thinkable nuclear, non-nuclear, and political crisis situations. Some of those conditions go far beyond the traditional functions of nuclear weapons, such as war deterrence and retaliation: for instance, when the North Korean leadership is or perceived to be under attack or in danger; when an enemy attack, nuclear and non-nuclear, is judged imminent; to end (win) a protracted conventional war; and when a “catastrophic crisis threatens the existence of the state or the safety of the people.” Some of these conditions also seem to address North Korea’s imagined threats from the South and the US, such as leadership change, regime collapse, and a “decapitation operation.” The new nuclear law indicates that even if a national crisis is driven by internal political and economic reasons, North Korea may use nuclear weapons to preserve its leadership and regime.
Third, as a result of the new nuclear law, nuclear use risk has risen to the next level. The decision maker behind nuclear use was changed from the ‘Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army’ in the 2013 law to the ‘President of State Affairs’ in the 2022 law. The new law also establishes the ‘state nuclear forces command organization’ to assist Kim’s nuclear use decisions. Regardless of these changes, the North Korean nuclear command still belongs to one man only, Kim Jong Un, and the role of the assisting organization will remain very nominal. Next, the new law commands ‘automatic nuclear strikes’ when the safety of its leader as well as the nuclear command and control system is in danger. These nuclear use clauses would greatly increase the risks of nuclear use by accident, miscalculation, miscommunication, or even by planning in crises. The new law also requires nuclear weapons to be ready to launch “in any conditions and circumstances” by an order. This requirement demands North Korean nuclear forces be at a higher level of preparedness and alert level than most small and medium nuclear-armed states. Since North Korean nuclear command and control safety and security systems can be expected to be suboptimal by any standards, a high alert level for its nuclear forces means higher nuclear risks. In order to deter and deny North Korean nuclear attacks, the South Korean military adopted a so-called ‘kill-chain’ principle for preemptive military strikes as one of the three-pillar defense systems when North Korean nuclear attacks are imminent. When these preemptive military doctrines and postures of the two Koreas collide against each other, nuclear use risks by planning, accident, miscalculation, or misperception is even higher.
Fourth and lastly, North Korea pretends to be a “responsible nuclear weapon state” by addressing nuclear safety, security, and proliferation concerns by the international society with regard to its nuclear weapons, materials, and technology. While the 2013 law enumerated basic principles of nuclear nonproliferation, non-transfer, and nuclear security and safety, the new nuclear law detailed these further. However, the nuclear disarmament clause in the 2013 law is deleted in the 2022 law. Though “international cooperation” was alluded to for nuclear nonproliferation and security in the 2013 law, such mentions are also dropped in the 2022 law for national sovereign nuclear management systems.
North Korea’s new nuclear law speaks loudly about how it is now a “nuclear weapon state.” However, this new law makes North Korea neither a ‘nuclear weapon state (under the NPT)’ nor a more legitimate nuclear-armed state than before. North Korea has been and will be nothing more than an illegitimate nuclear-armed state that withdrew from the NPT when found cheating under the nuclear safeguards agreement. Worse still, North Korea has shown the most aggressive nuclear doctrine among all the nuclear-armed states, declaring a right to use nuclear weapons preemptively and arbitrarily. North Korea’s record and capabilities for the secure and safe management and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology are also seriously questionable. In order to avoid nuclear incidents and accidents on the peninsula, there is an urgent need to hold a political and military dialogue with North Korea for both denuclearization and reduce military tensions. Otherwise, a nuclear crisis and arms race on the peninsula and even in East Asia will be further aggravated, seeing the region sleepwalking toward a military collision, which could be a nuclear one.
About the Author
Jun Bong-geun is a professor at the Department of Security and Unification Studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) in the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. Jun has held several governmental and non-governmental positions: Policy Advisor to the Minister of Unification (2003 – 2004), Secretary to the President for international security affairs at the Presidential Office (1993-1997), and professional staffer at KEDO New York headquarters (1997-2001). Jun was also visiting fellow at the Asia Foundation Center for U.S-Korea Policy in Washington, D.C. (2010) and Geneva Center for Security Studies in Geneva (2015). Jun’s research area covers the North Korean nuclear issue, inter-Korean relations, nonproliferation, nuclear security, and nuclear energy policies.
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Image: Evening in Wonsan DPRK. Clay Gilliland, Flickr.