This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has vowed never to surrender the country’s nuclear arsenal despite what he said were efforts by the U.S. to destabilize his government, as parliament passed a law greenlighting an “automatic nuclear strike” in response to the threat of attack, state media reported.
“The aim of the United States is not just to eliminate our nuclear weapons themselves but also ultimately to bring down our [leadership at] anytime by forcing [North Korea] to put down nuclear weapons and give up or weaken the power to exercise self-defense,” the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Kim as saying in an address to the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly on Thursday in the capital Pyongyang.
Kim’s comments came as the country’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a law authorizing an “automatic and immediate” nuclear strike in the face of what the KCNA described as an imminent attack against North Korea’s leadership or “important strategic objects” within its territory.
KCNA published a report explaining the law, which defined five situations under which North Korea would use nuclear weapons, three of which pertain to nuclear or nonnuclear attacks or imminent attacks against the leadership or strategic military targets.
The other two conditions are more vague – in the event that it was “preventing the expansion and protraction of a war,” and in a situation that “causes a catastrophic crisis to the existence of the state.”
South Korea’s Yonhap News reported that the new law allows for an immediate nuclear attack on any provocation that threatens the command and control of Pyongyang’s nuclear forces.
The law essentially gives Kim “monolithic command,” and “all decisive power concerning nuclear weapons,” the report said.
Kim’s remarks and the new law are widely seen as a statement that Pyongyang refuses to negotiate with foreign powers over the denuclearization issue. But South Korea’s government said it would continue its strategy of restraining the nuclear threat and efforts to achieve denuclearization on the Korean peninsula through dialogue with the North.
“North Korea’s continued nuclear weapons development will further strengthen the Seoul-Washington alliance, putting its own security at risk, and further isolating itself from the international community and worsening economic difficulties facing North Korean people,” said an official of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
South Korea’s ruling People Power Party criticized the new law as “a threat to South Korea and the international community.”
“The enactment of a nuclear force beyond the will to possess nuclear weapons is different from previous provocations, and it is very regrettable that it is a threat directly related to national security and people’s lives,” Park Jeong-ha, the party’s senior spokesperson said.
“North Korea is still misjudging the international situation, isolating itself and causing sanctions on itself,” he said, urging North Korea to denuclearize and expressing a firm willingness to respond to armed provocations.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres expressed deep concern about the new law through his spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on Friday.
“The Secretary General has spoken often and recently about nuclear weapons. I think increasing the role of and significance of nuclear weapons and security doctrines is contrary to decades of efforts by the international community to reduce and eliminate nuclear risks,” said Dujarric.
“The Secretary General reiterates his call to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to resume dialogue with key parties concerned with a view to achieve sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the nuclear Peninsula,” he said, using the official name for North Korea.
South Korea and the United States should not be intimidated by North Korea’s refusal to compromise on denuclearization, Alexander Vershbow, the former NATO deputy secretary general and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told RFA.
“Our two countries need to consult on what needs to be done to bolster the Alliance’s deterrence against nuclear coercion and ensure that Pyongyang is in no doubt that it will suffer devastating consequences if it uses its nuclear weapons,” Vershbow said.
“It will not be surprising if the DPRK statement fuels the ongoing debate within [South Korea] regarding acquisition of nuclear weapons of its own,” he said, adding that he believes the best strategy would be to focus on strengthening deterrence. “Our countries should continue to support denuclearization as the only basis for enduring peace on the Korean peninsula and normalization of relations with the DPRK.”
The new law does not change North Korea’s nuclear weapons policy drastically, because Pyongyang already declared itself a nuclear state in 2013 as a means to defend itself, Andrew Yeo, the Korean chair at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told RFA.
“There are two significant implications about the 2022 doctrine. First, North Korea has institutionalized the idea that it will not give up nuclear weapons, signaling to the international community that denuclearization efforts are futile,” said Yeo.
“Second, North Korea seems to be showing more confidence and maturity in its role as a nuclear state based on the language in the preamble, and how it lays out its logic for the use of nuclear weapons – to deter war and defend North Korea sovereignty,” he said.
In reaction to North Korea’s message that “shuts the door” to denuclearization efforts, U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl will pursue more deterrence, Yeo said.
“For engagement to resume, Seoul and Washington may have to accept North Korea as a nuclear state first and move towards an arms control agreement. However, neither side seems prepared yet to move in that direction,” he said.
Pyongyang’s message to the world comes as no surprise, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris, told RFA.
“The notion that North Korea would ever willingly give up its nuclear program is naive,” said Harris.
“Kim Jong Un has confirmed his intent. The U.S. and [South Korea] must continue to ensure the Alliance is prepared for any threat from the North,” he said, adding that Seoul should continue to rely on U.S. deterrence, rather than pursuing its own nuclear weapons program.
North Korea’s new approach to nuclear policy was “a step in the wrong direction,” Robert Gallucci, the former chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with North Korea, told RFA.
“Kim Jong Un’s statement does at least three things. First, it makes the chances of eventual engagement with the DPRK to improve relations and move the North to non-nuclear weapons status even more remote. Second, it clearly has the North embrace ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons, making their deterrent value no longer their ‘sole purpose,’” he said.
“Third, it raises the question of the adequacy of the U.S. extended deterrent to meet the security needs of Tokyo and Seoul, and thus the possibility of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.”
The White House and U.S. Department of State issued statements on Friday denying any hostile U.S. intent toward North Korea. The statements said Washington continues to seek a diplomatic solution to the situation on the Korean peninsula while remaining fully committed to defending South Korea.