The DPRK Re-Thinks its Relations: Regional Implications of the New Nuclear Doctrine
The Law “On the state policy on the nuclear forces” was adopted at the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 8 September to replace the Law “On further consolidating the position of the self-defense nuclear weapons state” adopted on 1 April 2013. The new law retained the main provisions of the previous one and contains a number of additions that indicate the DPRK is reconsidering its regional role, re-imagining the types of relationships it can have not only with adversaries, but also with friendlier countries such as China and Russia.
Implications for China and Russia
The new law provides for the use of nuclear weapons in case a nuclear or “fatal” conventional attack from the enemy “was launched or is imminent.” Since the DPRK is unlikely to have systems capable of tracking the launch of enemy missiles, it’s likely that its leadership is counting on either receiving such information from Russia or China or receiving their assistance in developing such systems. Moreover, such assistance would be in the interests of both Russia and China since American missiles will have to fly over Russia and China if the US decides to launch ICBMs to attack North Korea. American ground-based interceptors (GBIs) launched to intercept North Korean ICBMs would also fly above the territory of Russia. Given the unprecedentedly tense geopolitical situation, the risk of a nuclear war between major powers increases.
There is also a regional dimension to Article 10 of the law, which states that “The DPRK, as a responsible nuclear weapons state, shall neither deploy nuclear weapons in the territory of other countries nor share them, and not transfer nuclear weapons, technology, and equipment concerned nor weapon-grade nuclear substances.” By comparison, the former law only guaranteed support for international efforts “for nuclear non-proliferation” and “nuclear disarmament against nuclear arms race.” Article 10 can be considered a step forward for the DPRK in terms of nuclear non-proliferation, but only as long as friendly relations with China and Russia are maintained and cooperation with these countries keeps the DPRK economy afloat under tough sanctions. If a negative scenario unfolds (e.g., regimes in China and Russia are replaced with regimes hostile to the DPRK, or foreign policy priorities drastically change in these countries) and the DPRK fails to maintain the stability of its economy through cooperation with other countries, its leadership will likely attempt to save its economy by any means, even by selling nuclear and missile technologies.
In such a scenario, it should also be kept in mind that DPRK nuclear weapons can also serve the purpose of deterring threats from Russia and China—the “enemy” is not specified in the doctrine. In fact, it’s noteworthy that while the previous law characterizes the nuclear weapons of the DPRK as a means “to cope with the ever-escalating hostile policy of the United States and nuclear threat,” the updated version states that “the nuclear forces of the DPRK are a powerful means for defending the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and fundamental interests of the state, preventing a war on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia and ensuring the strategic stability of the world.” This phrasing suggests that, moving forward, the DPRK will see itself as at least a regional nuclear power that makes decisions independently and protects its own interests in the region. At the same time, the DPRK can also pursue global interests as an active participant in the conflicts between major powers, as an independent actor, or as part of a bloc/mechanism/partnership in Northeast Asia.
The official reason offered for publishing the new law is the need to prevent “misjudgment among nuclear weapons states and misuse of nuclear weapons.” However, no doctrine can prevent nuclear weapons misuse. The law does not shed light on the issues of concern to experts and military and political leaderships of other countries: it does not clarify the size of North Korean nuclear potential, nor does it provide answers to questions regarding the accuracy of ICBMs, the availability of MIRV, and nuclear submarine technologies. Such information is usually obtained through tests and demonstrations. It’s more likely that the goals of publishing this doctrine go beyond considerations of deterrence and defense, and also pursue, among other things, foreign policy goals. The publication could have been triggered by both internal factors, like the achievement of a certain level of nuclear development and the formation of a nuclear policy, or external ones, such as global upheavals, escalation of conflicts between major powers, and the loss of a sense that some powers are reliable allies.
Particularly, the publication of this doctrine has many similarities (both in structure and content) with the Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence of 2 June 2020. These similarities may hint at a future military rapprochement with Russia. Earlier, the DPRK openly demonstrated political support to Russia, paraded analogues of Russian weapon systems, and at the moment rumors are actively spreading about the possibility of military assistance from the DPRK to Russia in Ukraine. Moreover, there are fewer and fewer barriers to the resumption of military cooperation between the countries. While the DPRK has options for directly expressing its intentions to Russia, including its readiness to develop cooperation, the publication of the new doctrine could be an attempt at informing adversaries of its intentions to seek cooperation with Russia.
At the same time, the DPRK makes it clear for anyone that further cooperation will be fundamentally different than previous cooperation with the USSR and China. The doctrine mentions hostile forces, but does not mention any allies, especially since the position of the DPRK on all kinds of alliances is clear—typical alliances run counter to the ideology of self-reliance and jeopardize the independence and sovereignty of the state. Thus, countries willing to cooperate with the DPRK will have to maintain this cooperation on a more equal basis, such as a strategic partnership, consistent with the current status of the DPRK as an independent regional nuclear power. The exchange of North Korean nuclear weapons for anyone’s guarantees, including a nuclear umbrella, is now impossible. Russia is bogged down in a protracted conflict in Ukraine, and China has demonstrated that it’s unprepared for a military confrontation with the United States. The law might also be intended to stop talk of denuclearization not only among adversaries, but also among friendly countries (where there may still be supporters of the disarmament of the DPRK in exchange for security guarantees, China’s nuclear umbrella, and even more vague promises).
The law also serves to legitimize the DPRK’s nuclear status in the international arena and to be recognized as a nuclear power by at least two members of the UN Security Council and nuclear club—Russia and China. That possibility may not be so remote; long before the publication of the new doctrine there were active discussions of “nuclear emancipation” and the recognition of the DPRK as a “smaller nuclear state” in both Russia and China.
Although the publication of the DPRK’s updated doctrine was to some extent driven by progress in nuclear development and changes in nuclear policy, it neither gives more information about the nuclear potential of the DPRK nor does it make its nuclear policy, planning, and posture more transparent. The new document reiterates first-strike uncertainty, but does not clarify whether the DPRK will adopt assured retaliation, asymmetric escalation, or a catalytic nuclear posture. Borrowing some provisions of the doctrines of Russia and the United States—countries with fundamentally different theaters of operations, goals, and dimensions of nuclear potentials—is even more confusing and makes it difficult to identify unique features of the North Korean nuclear doctrine.
At the same time, the updated doctrine provides a much better idea of the changes in the country’s foreign policy. In the absence of dialogue with the outside world, the DPRK uses the publication of the doctrine as a foreign policy tool, signaling to the international community the country’s vision for its role in the region and the world, its goals, and its position on relations with other countries and future negotiations. While this should make it easier to understand the DPRK leadership, it also presents other countries with the challenge of developing new approaches to the DPRK, different from the denuclearization-based approaches that have existed thus far.
About the Author
Anastasia Barannikova is a Research fellow at ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University (Vladivostok, Russia).
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Image: President Donald J. Trump and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in bid farewell to Chairman of the Workers’ Party Kim Jong Un Korea Sunday, 30 June 2019. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.