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Experts: North Korea's New Law on Preemptive Use of Nuclear Weapons Puts Regime at Risk

People walk after a rain in the Central District, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 14, 2022.
People walk after a rain in the Central District, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 14, 2022.

North Korea has put itself in a dangerous situation by ruling out denuclearization and legalizing the use of its nuclear weapons preemptively to strike against adversaries that threaten its leadership, according to experts.

Pyongyang prioritizes regime survival, and North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, the country's rubber-stamp parliament, legitimized on September 8 the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons "automatically" if its leadership or command and control centers are threatened.

The same day, leader Kim Jong Un outlined in a speech that the law stipulating the justifiable use of nuclear weapons made North Korea's position as a nuclear state "irreversible" unless the world, as well as political and military situations on the Korean Peninsula, changed, according to the state media KCNA.

Kim said he will "never give up" his nuclear weapons and ruled out negotiations for denuclearization. His assertion came weeks after his powerful sister Kim Yo Jong rejected a proposal by Seoul to provide aid in return for denuclearization, saying "No one barters its destiny for corn cake."

Experts said Pyongyang's official declaration of its preemptive intent made the regime more vulnerable as its nuclear strike would be met by a counterstrike by the U.S.

"The United States has actually been perfectly clear about what would happen to North Korea if it ever used a nuclear weapon," said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.

"The 2018 nuclear posture review says that if North Korea uses a nuclear weapon, the regime will not survive. Since survival is the regime's number one objective, this is an effective deterrent objective if the U.S. is serious about implementing it," continued Bennett.

The U.S. assessed that Pyongyang's "expansive nuclear and missile programs suggest the potential of nuclear first use in support of conventional operations," according to the report issued four years ago.

The posture review continued, "Our deterrent strategy for North Korea makes clear that any North Korean nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime."

David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, said Washington and Seoul "must make sure the regime knows the use of weapons of mass destruction will result in its destruction." He continued, "The recent message from the South Korean spokesman demonstrates strategic reassurance and strategic resolve."

Moon Hong Sik, South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesperson, said Tuesday, North Korea's use of nuclear weapons would put the regime on the "path of self-destruction" facing "overwhelming response" by Washington and Seoul.

VOA Korean contacted the Permanent Mission of North Korea to the United Nations in New York for a response to the experts' assessment of the new law but did not receive a response.

Pretext for preemption

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said North Korea might have made its intent to use nuclear weapons official to bolster its stance against Seoul's "decapitation strategy" aimed at Pyongyang leadership.

In July, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced it would create a Strategic Command by 2024 to oversee its "kill chain" strategy and the military assets to implement it.

The kill chain is Seoul's preemptive strategy to strike North Korea's leadership and key military centers if it detects Pyongyang is about to launch an attack against South Korea.

Joseph DeTrani, who served as the special envoy for the six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea, said Seoul's new stance on enhanced deterrence could also have "motivated" Pyongyang to include preemptive nuclear response.

During the summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden in May, the two agreed to reactivate the bilateral Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG).

The EDSCG was launched in 2016 to discuss and implement military options to deter aggression by North Korea, including the use of U.S. nuclear weapons to defend South Korea.

On Friday, Washington and Seoul will hold the first EDSCG meeting since 2018.

On Aug. 17, U.S. and South Korean defense officials concluded the two-day Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) and issued a joint statement announcing an option to deploy U.S. strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula if North Korea conducted a nuclear test.

Strategic assets include aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and strategic bombers.

Washington and Seoul have been assessing whether North Korea is preparing for what would be its seventh nuclear test after detecting preparatory activities at its main Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, "With the ROK's recent reference to its 'kill chain' strategy and the ongoing U.S.-ROK discussion of 'strategic assets,' we can also view the new DPRK law and Kim Jong Un's speech as a response to those developments."

South Korea's official name is the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the DPRK refers to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Revere continued, "But it is important to remember that North Korea's nuclear weapons strategy has been evolving in this direction for many years. The ROK and U.S. actions merely provided a convenient pretext for this move by Pyongyang."

Denuclearization dead but ultimate goal

Experts said North Korea's new nuclear law and Kim's continuing refusal to relinquish his nuclear arsenal have made pursuing diplomacy for denuclearization more difficult. Talks have remained stalled since 2019, and Pyongyang countered any moves to resume them with 19 weapons tests this year.

Revere said, "Denuclearization is almost certainly a dead issue, and the North Koreans have just bluntly reminded us of that."

Revere added, "Policy makers would be wise now to focus on ways to make the cost to North Korea of its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons truly unbearable."

However, he continued, "The U.S. and the ROK should continue to pursue the ultimate goal of denuclearization, since giving up that goal would play into the hand of a North Korea which seeks 'acceptance' of its nuclear status."

DeTraini said, "Policy toward North Korea should not change​, and indeed, it would be a mistake to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state."