North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s declaration that he will never give up his nuclear weapons and enshrining a “first-strike” doctrine into law are part of a worrying new dynamic in nuclear weapons policy around the world, analysts say.
Since the height of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals have primarily served as a deterrent to be used only as a last resort — but when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, experts say, that all began to change.
Russian officials have refused to rule out the possibility of a nuclear strike against Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened thinly veiled threats of nuclear war, vowing on Wednesday that Moscow would use “all means at our disposal to defend Russia”.
North Korea — long a global pariah for its nuclear weapons program — revised its laws this month, declaring itself an “irreversible” nuclear power and offering different scenarios for when it would use its nuclear weapons.
“We have entered a new era where a nation is open to using nuclear weapons contrary to Cold War doctrine,” Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies told AFP.
With talk of “automatic” first strikes and strategic nuclear deployments, North Korea’s new policy “reflects Kim’s response to changing nuclear dynamics around the world”, he said.
It’s not just Putin that Pyongyang is reacting to: The United States has also played a role, the analyst added, pointing to its revival of strategic nukes — small weapons designed for battlefield use — under President Donald Trump.
The Pentagon under Trump pointed in 2018 to Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal as a credible deterrent to the United States.
“We should not consider Pyongyang’s latest move as an irrational decision or Kim as unpredictable. Kim is becoming flexible to adapt to a new global trend,” he said.
Announcing North Korea’s new policy, Kim Jong Un said the country’s status as a nuclear power was “irrevocable”, effectively eliminating the possibility of denuclearization talks.
Washington’s decades-long goal of giving up its nuclear weapons to help Pyongyang is now “realistically impossible” and Seoul should seriously consider acquiring nuclear weapons of its own, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute’s North Korea research center. AFP.
It’s a move that new President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has also ruled out — though he signaled on the campaign trail that he might be open to the US deploying strategic nuclear weapons to South Korea.
Kim’s new law “also carries a message to President Yun”, Cheong said, describing it as a clear warning that “Seoul will not be spared a nuclear strike if it attacks or joins a US attack on North Korea”.
Mason Ritchie of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies told AFP the law aims to “show how North Korea’s nuclear weapons are part of its national identity, and cannot be discussed.”
“There is also a message to potential aggressors that a denuclearization effort against North Korea first will fail,” he added, saying it increased the risk in the region.
“The risk here is that North Korea is playing into the dynamics of the ‘use it or lose it’ logic.”
Analysts say Kim is trying to use his nuclear weapons to counter any threat to his regime.
The US and South Korean militaries have trained together for years and recently increased exercises under Yun.
There have been reports that commandos from both countries are practicing so-called “beheading” strikes that target the North Korean leadership.
Leif-Erik Easley, a professor at Ewa University in Seoul, said Kim “apparently fears the regime’s beheading in a conflict and even a preemptive strike by the US or South Korea against North Korean strategic assets”.
He chose to respond by “advertising an irresponsible risk-taking and aggressive nuclear doctrine”.
Seoul and Washington strongly condemned North Korea’s new law and said any attempt by Pyongyang to use nuclear weapons would be met with an “overwhelming and decisive” response.
But the risk of North Korea facing punishment at the global level for this move is low.
“With Russia and China as clear enemies of the United States, the North feels emboldened and knows that enforcement of sanctions will be too lax,” Harry Kazianis, president of the Rogue States Project, a think tank, told AFP.
So Pyongyang has focused on building “a world-class program that can kill millions of people in minutes.”