October 6, 2022

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said his nation's status as a nuclear power
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said his nation’s status as a nuclear power is “irreversible”

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s declaration that he will never give up his nuclear bomb and the introduction of the “first strike” doctrine into law are part of a troubling new escalating dynamic in nuclear weapons policy around the world, analysts say.

Since the height of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals have served primarily as a deterrent to be used only as a last resort — but when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, that all began to change, experts say.

Russian officials have refused to rule out a nuclear strike on Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly issued thinly veiled threats of nuclear war, vowing on Wednesday that Moscow would use “all means at our disposal to protect Russia.”

North Korea — long a world pariah for its nuclear weapons program — revised its laws this month, declaring itself an “irreversible” nuclear power and offering a range of scenarios for when it would use its nuclear weapons.

“We have entered a new era where a nation is open to the use of nuclear weapons, unlike the Cold War doctrine,” Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies told AFP.

Along with talk of “automatic” first strikes and tactical deployment of nuclear weapons, North Korea’s new policy “reflects Kim’s response to changing nuclear dynamics around the world,” he said.

Pyongyang doesn’t just answer to Putin: The United States has also played a role, the analyst added, pointing to the revival of its tactical nuclear bombs — smaller weapons designed for battlefield use — under President Donald Trump.

In 2018, the Pentagon under Trump pointed to Russia’s tactical nukes to prove that the United States has the right weapons as a credible deterrent.

“We should not equate Pyongyang’s latest move as an irrational decision or Kim’s unpredictability. Kim is quickly adapting to the new global trend,” he said.

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.

Washington’s decades-long goal of getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons for aid is now “impossible to achieve” and Seoul should seriously consider acquiring its own nuclear weapons, Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute told AFP.

It’s a move that even hawkish new President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has rejected — though he has hinted on the campaign trail that he might be open to the United States deploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Kim’s new law also “carries a message to President Yoon,” Cheong said, describing it as a clear warning that “Seoul will not be spared nuclear strikes” if it attacks or joins a US attack on North Korea.

The aim of the law is to “underline that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are part of its national identity and are non-negotiable,” Mason Richey of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies told AFP.

“There is also a message to potential aggressors that attempting a first, disarming strike against North Korea will fail,” he added, saying it raised the stakes in the region.

“There is a risk here that North Korea is playing into the dynamics of the ‘use it or lose it’ escalation logic.”

Kim is trying to use his nuclear weapons to thwart any threats to his rule, analysts say.

The US and South Korean militaries have trained together for years, and recently stepped up exercises under Yoon.

There have been reports that commandos from both countries are practicing so-called “decapitation” strikes that would target the North Korean leadership.

Kim “apparently fears the decapitation of an embattled regime and even a pre-emptive strike by the US or South Korea against North Korea’s strategic assets,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

He chose to respond “by promoting an irresponsibly risky and aggressive nuclear doctrine.”

Seoul and Washington 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 the risk that North Korea will be punished globally for its move is small.

“With Russia and China avowed enemies of the United States, the North feels emboldened and knows that enforcement of sanctions will be very weak,” Harry Kazianis, president of the Rogue States Project think tank, told AFP.

Therefore, Pyongyang has focused on building “a world-class program that can kill millions of people in minutes.”

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