On September 8, 2022 the DPRK passed a new law on the DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces, which was adopted at the 7th session of the 14th convocation of the country’s Supreme People’s Assembly.
Although this news was portrayed in the media, including in Russia, as “the DPRK having declared itself as a responsible nuclear power”, the nuclear status had already been included in the country’s constitution in 2012.
This law would instead replace the previous law: “On Further Strengthening the Status of the DPRK as a Self-Protecting Nuclear Weapons Possessing Country” of April 1, 2013 and is an updated version of the document that governs the country’s stance on nuclear weapons and the rules for their use. This new doctrine is analyzed in detail below.
Right at the beginning, it is pointed out that “the DPRK, as a responsible nuclear weapons state, opposes all forms of wars including nuclear war and aspires to build a peaceful world in which the international justice is realized.” Accordingly, North Korean nuclear weapons are intended to “for defending the sovereignty, territorial integrity and fundamental interests of the state, preventing a war on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia and ensuring the strategic stability of the world”. Given the current international situation, this declaration is vital.
“The nuclear forces of the DPRK shall regard it as their main mission to deter a war by making hostile forces have a clear understanding of the fact that the military confrontation with the DPRK brings about ruin and give up attempts at aggression and attack.” This is very much in line with the concept of reliable deterrence, with which the North inflicts unacceptable casualties on the enemy so that the outcome of the conflict is null and void even if Pyongyang is defeated. As the author wrote more than once, even a single successful nuclear attack on an American metropolis like San Francisco will not allow the United States to declare victory – it will be too costly. If case the deterrence of the war fails, “the nuclear forces of the DPRK shall carry out an operational mission for repulsing hostile forces’ aggression and attack and achieving decisive victory of war,” given the wide range of delivery vehicles, especially at the operational-tactical level – Kimskanders, large-caliber MLRS with nuclear warheads, railroad-based missile systems, etc.
The author deems important the third article of the law, according to which “the nuclear forces of the DPRK shall obey the monolithic command of the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK,” who “shall have all decisive powers concerning nuclear weapons.” This means that the decision on the use of nuclear weapons is made by Kim Jong-un as the supreme leader of the country. Note that the law does not refer to him as commander-in-chief, but as the holder of the highest state title. The rest of the structure is only authorized to “assist the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK.”
This would seem to create the illusion of a successful concept of a “decapitation attack (no Kim – no command)”. However, this option is provided for by analogy with the Soviet “dead hand”: “In case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces including the starting point of provocation and the command according to the operation plan decided in advance”.
The fifth and sixth articles define the principles and conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, which are described as “the last means in order to cope with outside aggression and attack seriously threatening the security of the country and the people.” In this context, “the DPRK shall neither threaten non-nuclear weapons states with its nuclear weapons nor use nuclear weapons against them unless they join aggression or attack against the DPRK in collusion with other nuclear weapons states.” You can note an important reservation that points directly to Seoul.
The specific conditions are as follows:
- In case an attack by nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction was launched against the DPRK. Everything is clear here, but in both this and the following paragraphs there is an interesting passage – “in case an attack … was launched or drew near is judged.” This is essential since modern warfare takes place in a “fog of incomplete information.” Here the Northerners write honestly that a decision can be made not only in the event of an actual attack but also when the country’s leadership decides, based on a combination of circumstances, that one is taking place. The strategy of “waiting for more precise confirmation of the facts” can be suicidal.
- Nuclear or non-nuclear “attack by hostile forces on the state leadership and the command organization of the state’s nuclear forces.” This is an allusion to the popular notion mentioned above that a “decapitation attack” during a war or a successful assassination attempt on the North Korean leader will ensure victory.
- “In case a fatal military attack against important strategic objects of the state was launched or drew near is judged.” Strategic objects are not to be understood only as military ones, and the author understands this point as a warning to those who want to use the so-called anti-value strategy against the DPRK by forcing surrender through the destruction of the population of cities or key infrastructure facilities.
- In addition to the strategic use of nuclear weapons, tactical use is also regulated – “in case the need for operation for preventing the expansion and protraction of a war and taking the initiative in the war in contingency is inevitably raised.”
- Interesting is the last point, which looks like a reference to “an extreme case not described above” – more precisely, “in other case an inevitable situation in which it is compelled to correspond with catastrophic crisis to the existence of the state and safety of the people by only nuclear weapons is created.” This paragraph is unfortunately open to wide interpretation, but the crisis must still be catastrophic.
Furthermore, this emphasizes the fact that the DPRK’s nuclear forces “shall be regularly ready for action so that if an order to use nuclear weapons is issued, it can immediately execute it in any conditions and circumstances”, and that they are constantly reinforced and updated, as is the strategy for their use.
At the same time, the DPRK remains committed to the ideas of nuclear non-proliferation. Pyongyang “shall take thorough protective steps for fear that nuclear weapons, technology and equipment concerned, nuclear substances, etc. will leak out” and also “as a responsible nuclear weapons state, shall neither deploy nuclear weapons in the territory of other countries nor share them and not transfer nuclear weapons, technology and equipment concerned and weapon-grade nuclear substances.” These are the standard formulations of any responsible country, and violations of them by Northerners are unheard of.
Let us end the review of the doctrine with the last paragraph, which says: “None of the articles of the law shall be interpreted to restrain or limit the exercise of the DPRK’s just right to self-defense.” In other words, this applies to military operations involving the use of nuclear weapons and not to military operations in general.
An important addition to the text of the law is Kim Jong-un’s speech at the National Assembly session, in which he stated some elements of his position more clearly. Kim stressed that the more the DPRK develops, “the greater the challenge and revolt against imperialism” is. As long as there is imperialism “which uses aggression as a means of survival”, confrontation and struggle between socialism and imperialism are inevitable. This means that for “socialism to develop and flourish, it is necessary to create conditions and an environment that can withstand any threat of aggression.”
According to Kim, “the era when the United States unilaterally posed a nuclear threat” is over. But now the United States is using the sanctions blockade to subjugate us while trying to demonize the regime on the international stage. Washington “prays” that the toughest sanctions blockade in history could create an environment in which we feel insecure and threatened, reflect on the price we choose to pay for nuclear weapons and cause people to become dissatisfied with the party and the government. But “this is a misjudgment and a miscalculation and by the enemies.” No matter how long the sanctions last, “we will not give up the right to the survival of the country and the right to self-defense for the security of the future of the country and its people, and we will not give up nuclear weapons even if we live under harsh conditions.” But “our people are aware of many historical events of the 20th and 21st centuries” that show where abandoning the nuclear program or pursuing economic prosperity leads to the detriment of the country’s security and sovereignty.
Therefore, the DPRK nuclear forces “will responsibly carry out their great mission to stop the serious political and military provocations of the United States and its supporters against our country and to deal with the prospect of threats, as the national legislation provides today.” The promulgation of the new law makes the country’s status as a nuclear weapons state irreversible. And that means “there is no renunciation of nuclear weapons, no denuclearization, no negotiations on it, no agreements that could correspond to this process.”
And this is an essential passage. Not only because it puts an end to the recent “bold plans” of the Yoon Seok-yeol government, which are really a rehash of Lee Myung-bak’s ideas on denuclearization in exchange for economic aid. As long as there are sources of threat, they can only be dealt with by nuclear weapons in the current international situation. Disarmament, unfortunately, has no place – something the author wrote about a year and a half ago.
Kim Jong-un pointed out that such a decision by Pyongyang will have consequences – “all kinds of reactionary forces frightened by the DPRK’s political determination to adhere to the policy of nuclear weapons as a national law will act even more violently and viciously.” But he is sure that “achieving great victories, constant development and progress is a unique feature of our republic” and that this round of trials will also be overcome.
From the subject of the law, the North Korean leader then moved on to the tasks at hand: “The defense industry should accept the idea of the defense development strategy put forward by the Convention and actively develop a new generation of military equipment in line with modern warfare.” In particular, “we must constantly expand the operational range of tactical nuclear weapons in order to increase the combat reliability of our nuclear weapons and the effectiveness of operational operations, as well as realize the diversification of operational means.”
Foreign policy did not go unnoticed either. Kim Jong-un pointed out that “the contradictions between righteousness and negativity, progress and reactionaries, especially the balance of forces around the Korean peninsula, are becoming evident” and that the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world is noticeably accelerating. In this situation, the DPRK must “expand and develop goodwill and cooperation with surrounding countries, oppose imperialist invasion and interference, domination and enslavement, and cooperate with all countries and peoples oriented towards justice, regardless of differences in ideas and institutions.” In addition, he says, one should “wage a diplomatic struggle for the development of multifaceted exchanges and cooperation with capitalist countries that respect our country and treat it kindly.” The author sees this as a reference to cooperation with the Russian Federation.
Let us summarize. There is an update of the nuclear doctrine, the main principles of which, adapted to regional specificities, are quite consistent with such a document as the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of June 2, 2020 No. 355 “On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence”. North Korea is indeed a responsible nuclear power whose concept of using nuclear weapons is quite appropriate to the existing world order and regional specificities.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.