SEOUL: There has been renewed global anxiety about North Korea since it declared its “irreversible” nuclear status in a new law on Sep 9, which also allows it to preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened. Leader Kim Jong Un, said in a speech to parliament, that there could be “no bargaining” over about its nuclear weapons.
This tough new language may appear grave and irrevocable – especially when framed as a law to audiences in countries used to the rule of law. But, thankfully, this is almost certainly rhetorical.
Legality in North Korea applies to its population, not its elites. Though state media reported that the law gives Kim “all decisive powers” over nuclear weapons, the clearer way of looking at it is this: Kim is not bound by law and should he ever wish to step back from it, he certainly could.
Rather, Kim is signalling – both to the outside world and his own people – once again, that North Korea is here to stay as a nuclear weapons state. Denuclearisation will not happen regardless of how much the rest of the world seeks it.
His overt reference to preemption is a way to deter North Korea’s primary opponents – South Korea, Japan and the United States – from considering more desperate actions against Kim’s spiraling, unchecked nuclear programme.
PREEMPTION, A NEW DISTURBING ELEMENT
This emphasis on a preemptive nuclear strike is a new and disturbing element.
The proximate cause is South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s own preemptive threat earlier this year of striking North Korean missile sites first in a crisis. Yoon’s argument is that South Korea is very vulnerable to North Korean missile attack.
The South has invested in missile defence, but those systems are very costly and have a mixed operational record. North Korea would likely overwhelm Southern missile defence if it launched dozens of rockets. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, North Korea is estimated to have 20 nuclear warheads as of January 2022.
But South Korea, Japan, and the US have worried for years that North Korea might launch first. The country has always had strong first strike incentives in a crisis.
It is very vulnerable to airstrikes. Its air force and air defence are outdated. So, its missiles are in a classic “use it or lose it” dilemma. If not used quickly in a crisis, they would likely be bombed and destroyed as events unfolded.
It’s certainly more worrying now that the regime is talking openly about possible preemptive strikes. But has it increased the likelihood that North Korea might press the red button first? Probably not, so long as Kim Jong Un is in power.
Less surprising is North Korea’s rejection (again) of denuclearisation. Pyongyang has said many times in the last decade that nuclear weapons are its right and non-negotiable. They are routinely referred to in press statements and Kim’s annual address to the nation.
Their utility, both military and political, are very high.
Though it is the most militarised state in the world, North Korea’s armed forces are conventionally obsolete.
Nuclear weapons have a large, obvious value. They level what is otherwise a very unequal conventional playing field. And indeed, the North Koreans have begun to develop low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons for battlefield use to firm up their weakening conventional capabilities.
But nuclear weapons are more valuable politically to the regime. Without them, the world would ignore North Korea. The government would have little to show its people for all their sacrifice and privation, especially after a health crisis and economic hardship arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just days after the new law was announced, North Korea featured its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for the first time on new propaganda posters.
So these weapons are a huge point of pride, justifying pain at home and generating attention, if not prestige, abroad.
NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY IN INCHES IS BETTER THAN NONE
There are no good options when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear status.
The best path out of this dilemma would be robust negotiations leading to Northern denuclearisation in exchange for substantial concessions. For a brief moment, this seemed possible when former US president Donald Trump and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in engaged Kim directly in six summits.
Even then, at no point did Kim offer denuclearisation, not even in exchange for huge counter concessions.
But nuclear diplomacy progressing in inches is better than none at all. Negotiations could focus instead on intermediate steps, like allowing international inspections. Efforts to engage and denuclearise could be boosted by a better understanding of how developed North Korea’s nuclear programme actually is.
Missile defence would be the best choice, if only it worked well enough to provide a credible “roof”. Yoon’s preemption idea is incredibly risky and could ignite the very war it seeks to forestall.
A final option, increasingly discussed in South Korea, is Southern nuclearisation. This would provide direct deterrence against North Korea, without the need for shaky American “nuclear umbrella” guarantees.
Given that North Korea, China and Russia already have nuclear weapons and have no intention of denuclearisation, such a move by South Korea will not trigger a nuclear “cascade”.
The bigger worry after North Korea’s new law is that this tangle has resulted in both Korean states floating preemptive attack as strategy against the other. The Korean balance is increasingly on a hair trigger.
Robert E Kelly is a Professor of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea.