The news came on September 9 that Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament had introduced a new law codifying North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons power, which has apparently aggravated media alarm regarding a possible nuclear arms race in East Asia. However, a dispassionate analysis indicates that strategic nuclear realities remain essentially unaltered, despite the Kim regime’s irresponsible saber-rattling via the aforementioned law.
Casting the North’s Nuclear Status in Stone
One of the pillars of this newly promulgated law is that top leader Kim Jong Un pledged that North Korea’s nuclear weapons would never be surrendered or bargained away even if his nation faced 100 years of sanctions. Setting aside the dubious certainty that North Korea, or any nation for that matter, could survive such sustained isolation, it can be argued that few serious analysts expected Kim to relinquish his nuclear weapons, even when he appeared interested in negotiations ostensibly toward that end. Even those who made policy recommendations to keep the door to denuclearization open still acknowledged serious obstacles to truly denuclearizing North Korea.
Moreover, in this writer’s conversations with various senior U.S. military officers and South Korean officials, they did not express confidence that Pyongyang would ever willingly relinquish its nuclear deterrent. Consequently, the aforementioned law changes nothing about Kim’s nuclear weapons policy, only serving to remind the international media of his regime’s intractable nature.
A Nuclear First-Strike Doctrine?
The other pillar of the new law is that it authorizes preemptive nuclear strikes. Such an antagonistic and belligerent “first-strike” doctrine stands in stark contrast to a No First Use (NFU) nuclear strategy where a nuclear weapons possessor, like India, pledges to only launch nuclear warheads in retaliation to an initial nuclear or WMD attack on its forces, people, or territory. Essentially, a NFU doctrine commits a state to abstain from nuclear attacks against a non-nuclear or WMD armed adversary, keeping any conflict conventional, thereby maintaining an escalatory ceiling on the violence or destruction inflicted.
As befitting North Korea’s reputation as a rogue state, however, it has declared that it will use its nuclear munitions in the event that it perceives an impending nuclear attack; if the Kim regime, North Koreans, or the state’s existence were threatened; or as an offensive war option. For casual observers, such a provocative enunciation is worrying because the Kim regime could define these “first-strike” conditions in any way that suits the unstable priorities of a government under pervasive international pressure.
For instance, Kim might use this law to initiate nuclear brinksmanship during the next round of South Korea-U.S. military exercises, threaten a nuclear strike if already choking sanctions are further tightened after another nuclear test, or detonate a nuclear device above ground if any future military adventurism like the 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyeong island turns sour for the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
However, it can be argued that from a governmental perspective, there should be no change to the current military or nuclear deterrence postures of the North’s neighbors. Just because Kim Jong Un did not clearly enunciate his pre-emptive nuclear strike policy in the past did not mean that he was unwilling to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons whenever he saw fit. The military planners in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and most importantly Washington are surely worth their salt and have definitely factored North Korean unpredictability into their contingency measures.
Also, for all his chest-thumping nuclear aggrandizement, Kim should realize that any nuclear first strike dooms the survival of his government as both South Korea and Japan are protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and nuclear retaliation by Washington is a truly horrific prospect.
North Korean Nuclear “Responsibility”?
Third, this recent clarification of Pyongyang’s nuclear armaments policy claims that the North will not share nuclear arms or technology with other countries. This official pronouncement is nothing new as the Kim government has since 2006 denied that it will ever export nuclear technology. However, North Korean actions have not tallied with declarations of nuclear weapons non-proliferation as ample evidence exists of North Korea: i) selling missile technology to the Middle East in the late 2010s (missiles are vital for delivering nuclear warheads); ii) helping Syria construct a nuclear reactor in the early 2000s (a vital facility for nuclear warhead production); and even iii) experiment with a U.N.-detected online attempt to sell Lithium-6 (Li-6), an isotope used in the production of thermonuclear weapons, in the early 2010s.
Consequently, Pyongyang’s behavior in practice will not be limited by earlier policy promulgations, including the recent nuclear policy legislation. During the 1990s and most recently as an outcome of the first Kim-Trump summit, it re-affirmed its in-principle commitment to denuclearization, but its most recent law has rendered all earlier denuclearization comments null and void.
Essentially, nothing that the Kim regime says can be trusted. The only things that matter are what Pyongyang does, not what it says.
So What Now?
Having established that the Kim dynasty has affirmed North Korea’s nuclear status and claimed the right to aggressive pre-emption, and that Pyongyang’s non-proliferation ethnics cannot be trusted, what should the international community do?
Practically, denuclearization efforts by South Korea and the United States are at a dead end. Kim will not even countenance steps toward nuclear tension reduction over the next few months because that would make him look weak after having drawn the proverbial “line in the sand” so clearly. Additionally, with Washington’s deteriorating relations with Moscow and Beijing, we might expect the latter two states to be less stringent on enforcing sanctions against North Korea. This might give the North breathing room to persist in its policy of nuclear intransigence.
Yet anything could happen in the future. Since North Korea is sensitive to the dynamics of regional power politics, any policy changes in Beijing or any other world capitals that result in vital resource imports or exports being strictly denied to the North could bring about significant softening in its nuclear stance over the medium to long term.
In the meantime, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and all their allies should maintain unyielding pressure on the Kim regime via watertight implementation of all UNSC and unilateral sanctions, making use of all available intelligence, law enforcement, and even military assets to crack down on smuggling attempts. The aforementioned governments should also redouble efforts to combat North Korean cybercrime, online heists, and cryptocurrency fraud to minimize Pyongyang’s funding lifelines. If all of this is diligently done, the latter’s boast that it can resist a century’s worth of sanctions will remain just that – a mere idle boast.