- North Korea’s government passed new laws authorizing a nuclear counter strike if North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is killed.
- In the event North Korea’s leadership is incapacitated, the military is authorized to launch a counter strike.
- No matter what Kim says, however, the hard reality is that the use of nuclear weapons would mean the end for him and his regime.
North Korea’s government has spelled out brand new conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons, and they’re fairly broad. The country will launch a preemptive nuclear attack if it detects signs another country is preparing to attack it—a break from previous policy. The regime spelled out what other conditions could lead it to using nukes—including tactical nuclear weapons—to reverse failures on the battlefield.
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The laws, NK News reports, were passed at the Supreme People’s Assembly held in North Korea’s capital city Pyongyang, on September 9. The Supreme People’s Assembly is North Korea’s version of the U.S. Congress but completely lacking in political opposition, resulting in a legislative body that rubber stamps any laws Kim Jong-un wants passed. This gives the dictator’s reign a thin veneer of legitimacy.
The laws loosen the circumstances in which the country would use nuclear weapons. According to the new laws, North Korea will now not only retaliate if attacked, it will launch a preemptive attack if it detects signs that it is about to be attacked. It can also launch due to “unspecified” reasons “that threaten the survival of the regime and its people.”
The law also expands the use of nukes outside of strategic, all-out nuclear warfare, allowing their use when it is “unavoidable” due to “tactical” reasons. This hints at the use of smaller tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, in case North Korea invaded South Korea—or vice-versa. It can also be used to respond to “non-nuclear” attacks. Attacks against the country’s “core strategic targets” would also face a nuclear response.
One of the biggest changes is a new policy of what nuclear experts call “pre-delegation,” in which the sole decider for launching nuclear weapons sets conditions for others, usually the military, to act in their absence. Under the new policy, the North Korean People’s Army can launch its nukes “automatically” if the “core command leadership” (read: Kim Jong-un) is in danger or already killed.
This policy is in direct response to South Korea’s buildup of conventionally-armed precision-guided cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. This arsenal has one goal: to decapitate North Korea’s leadership and decouple it from its nuclear arsenal in a crisis. The reasoning is that Kim Jong-un himself must be made to fear for his life if there is a crisis, to dissuade him from using nukes; or barring that, separate him from the ability to issue launch orders.
Kim has apparently taken these preparations personally, and South Korea’s plans for a decapitation strike have clearly gotten under his skin. Under the new law, if Kim is trapped by a South Korean attack in an underground bunker, his internet and telephone lines cut, his generals will still retaliate with nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s old nuclear policy was actually fairly restrained. Previously, North Korea stated it would only use nukes in the event it was first attacked with nukes. This policy, known as “No First Use,” is the official policy of China and India and is meant to be stabilizing in a crisis. If you’re at war with either Beijing or Delhi, you don’t have to worry about their nukes, unless you plan on using your own. The problem with Kim Jong-un’s policy is that it’s made by a dangerous dictator, accountable to no one, who can easily change his “policy” at a moment’s whim. So, his policy doesn’t really mean much.
How much of a big deal are Kim’s new nuclear laws? A lot of this is merely window dressing: in a dictatorship like North Korea, whatever Kim wants is the law and that’s that. Passing a “law” during a meeting of the enormous Supreme People’s Assembly just amplifies the message and ensures that everyone hears about it.
Another inspiration for the new laws is probably the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, once considered by some an inevitable victory for Moscow, has run into serious problems, and the war is now in doubt. North Korea’s ability to invade South Korea has been degrading for decades, as the country’s economy makes it no longer possible to fully modernize and supply its massive, 1.2-million-member army. North Korea’s statement it could use nukes for “tactical” reasons in wartime is likely meant to put teeth back into any invasion threat.
The official policy of the United States is to still aim for “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” according to the National Security Council, as reported by Politico. And despite Kim’s big reveal, North Korea has to operate under one dominating constraint: if it uses nukes, the United States will likely launch a devastating nuclear counter strike that will kill Kim Jong-un and the rest of the country’s senior leadership.
Kim must walk a fine line between saber-rattling and boasting, and being seen as a rational actor who understands this new existential danger he has put his country—and himself—in.
Writer on Defense and Security issues, lives in San Francisco.
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