Conflict Alerts # 552, 15 September 2022
In the news
On 8 September, North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly passed legislation to replace the 2013 law that defined its nuclear status. According to the new law, the country retains the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect its national security and establish itself as a nuclear power. According to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, “The utmost significance of legislating nuclear weapons policy is to draw an irretrievable line so that there can be no bargaining over our nuclear weapons.”
On 9 September, the US White House Spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre responded, “We continue to seek diplomacy, and are prepared to meet without preconditions. The United States remains focused on continuing to coordinate closely with our allies and partners to address the threats posed by DPRK.”
On 13 September, South Korea’s Defence Ministry’s Deputy Spokesperson Col. Moon Hong-sik retorted saying: “We warn that should North Korea attempt to use nuclear arms, it would face the overwhelming response from the South Korea-US alliance, and its regime would enter a path of self-destruction.”
Issues at large
First, the need for an irreversible nuclear status. The nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the US can be traced decades back to 1985 when Kim Il-sung ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although the talks to denuclearize went smooth initially, North Korea’s frequent violations followed by the nuclear tests stalled any further success of the talks. In 2001, US President George Bush adopted a harsher stance against North Korean nuclear activities. And in 2008, South Korea elected a hardliner, Roh Moo-hyun, as President. In more recent years, Trump and Biden have emphasized the need for denuclearization talks. The recently elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is also known to have a strong position on the issue. However, for North Korea, the possibility of denuclearization has been closed for some time now and is perhaps a result of the consistent pressure imposed by the international community.
Second, the missile tests. In 2022 (until June 2022), North Korea has already conducted 31 missile tests, a steep increase from the previous year when eight missiles were tested. The country has been preparing for a nuclear test in 2022. The sixth and last nuclear test was conducted in 2017. In April 2022, North Korea allegedly excavated a new entrance 50 meters from the South Portal, which was previously demolished. The new portal is capable of containing 50 to 120 kilotons of explosion, similar to the test conducted in 2017. Despite the sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Korean nuclear programme has not lost momentum and has continued with its independent scientific program. In 2021, Kim Jong-un announced six goals for the nuclear weapons programme which included producing super-sized nuclear warheads, reducing the size of the warheads, increasing the precision rate, working on hypersonic technologies, making advancements in the fuel industry, and working towards a nuclear-powered submarine.
Third, the changing South Korean attitudes towards North Korea. Under the Presidentship of Yoon Seok-yeol, South Korea adopted a far different and intolerant stance toward Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. With Yoon’s entry into South Korean politics, the country has, after a long time, voted to bring in a conservative leader who promised to take a harsher stance on North Korean issues.
The new law that annuls North Korea’s previous position on the No-First-Use Policy endangers the fragile peace in the Korean Peninsula. The possibilities of an accidental attack or an attack caused by a misunderstanding have also increased with the passing of this law. Moreover, it could roll back all advances made on nuclear disengagement as the US will now increase its missile deployment in the region.
North Korea’s preemptive nuclear strike policy is a cause for concern for neighbouring countries and the US because of its unusual understanding of a threat. North Korea has, on numerous occasions, accused military drills of being a provocation to war. It is hard to say what counts as a threat and what doesn’t for Kim Jong-un.