North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s declaration that he will never give up his nuclear weapons and enshrine the “first strike” principle into law is part of a worrying new escalation in global nuclear weapons policy, analysts said.
Experts say that since the height of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals have been used primarily as a deterrent and only as a last resort — but that all began to change when Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Russian officials have refused to rule out a nuclear strike on Ukraine, while President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly concealed the threat of nuclear war, vowed on Wednesday that Moscow would use “every means at our disposal to protect Russia.”
North Korea, long a global outcast of its nuclear weapons program, revised its laws this month, declaring itself an “irreversible” nuclear power and offering a range of scenarios for its use.
“We have entered a new era in which countries are open to the use of nuclear weapons, which is in stark contrast to Cold War doctrine,” Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute of North Korea told AFP.
North Korea’s new policy “reflects Kim’s response to changing nuclear dynamics around the world” when it comes to “automatic” first strikes and tactical nuclear weapons deployment, he said.
It’s not just Putin that Pyongyang is responding to: Analysts add that the United States has also played a role, pointing to the resurgence of its tactical nuclear weapons – small arms designed for battlefield use – under President Donald Trump.
The Pentagon under Trump pointed to Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons in 2018 to demonstrate that the United States has matching weapons as a credible deterrent.
“We should not equate Pyongyang’s latest move with an unreasonable decision or Kim Jong Un’s unpredictability. Kim Jong Un is adapting nimbly to new global trends,” he said.
In announcing North Korea’s new policy, Kim Jong Un said the country’s status as a nuclear power was “irreversible”, effectively eliminating the possibility of denuclearization talks.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute told Washington that the decades-long goal of getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons in order to seek assistance is now “unachievable” and that Seoul should seriously consider acquiring its own nuclear weapons. AFP.
Even Yoon Se-yeol, the hawkish new president who took office in May, has ruled out such a move — even though he suggested on the campaign trail that he might be open to the U.S. deploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Kim’s new law also “sends a message to President Yoon,” Cheong said, describing it as a clear warning that “Seoul will not be immune to a nuclear strike” if it attacks or joins a U.S. attack on North Korea.
The aim of the law is to “emphasize that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are part of its national identity and cannot be eliminated through negotiation,” Mason Ritchie of the Korea University of Foreign Studies told AFP.
“It also sends a message to potential aggressors that the first attempt at disarmament against North Korea will be a failure,” he added, raising the risk in the region.
“The risk here is that North Korea is playing an escalating ‘use it or lose it’ logic.”
Analysts say Kim Jong Un is trying to use his nuclear weapons to thwart any threat to his rule.
The U.S. and South Korean troops have been training together for years and have recently stepped up exercises under Yoon.
There have been reports that commandos from both countries have been carrying out so-called “decapitation” attacks targeting the North Korean leader.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, said Kim Jong-un was “clearly afraid of the regime being beheaded in a conflict, or even of a pre-emptive strike by the United States or South Korea on North Korea’s strategic assets.”
He chose to respond by “promoting irresponsible risk-taking and aggressive nuclear theories.”
Seoul and Washington have strongly condemned North Korea’s new law, saying any attempt by Pyongyang to use nuclear weapons would be met with an “overwhelming and decisive” response.
But there is little risk that North Korea’s actions will be punished globally.
“Because Russia and China are clear enemies of the United States, North Korea feels emboldened and knows that enforcement of sanctions will be very lax,” Harry Kazianis, president of the Rogue State Project, a think tank, told AFP.
As a result, Pyongyang focused on building “a world-class program that could kill millions in minutes.”