Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow
On the 9th of September, a potentially dangerous development for Indo-Pacific security flew largely under the radar. During the seventh session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), North Korea reaffirmed itself as a "nuclear weapons state" and unveiled a new nuclear doctrine. Most significantly, the doctrine included new clauses that permit first use. Pyongyang also vowed never to abandon nuclear weapons and codified this into law. What are the implications of this development and is there a potential way forward for dialogue over North Korea’s complete denuclearisation?
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) new Policy on Nuclear Forces remains largely similar to the 2013 law in that it declares North Korea a "full-fledged" nuclear weapons state and emphasises deterrence. However, it is more comprehensive and marks an official shift in Pyongyang's nuclear posture from purely defensive use towards potential "first use". First use is now permitted to "prevent the expansion and protraction of a war and gaining the initiative" and "respond to a catastrophic crisis that threatens the existence of the state", which resembles Russia's policy on first nuclear use in a conventional war.
Notably, for the United States (US) and its Indo-Pacific allies, the new doctrine stipulates first use when a "non-nuclear attack on the state leadership and command organization of nuclear forces was launched or drew near is judged". In this scenario, nuclear strikes would be "launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces". This would apply to South Korea in a hypothetical crisis, as it would be deemed as "joining aggression or an attack against North Korea in collusion with other nuclear weapons states". This heightens the risk for miscalculation as any real or perceived conventional strike to disable North Korea's nuclear capabilities would be viewed as directed by the US, allowing Pyongyang to respond by launching a nuclear strike against the South and the US.
Although hardly surprising given North Korea’s often aggressive rhetoric, the law's timing seems to constitute a direct response to remarks made by South Korean officials in July over the "kill chain" strategy. Under such a strategy, Seoul would preemptively launch conventional strikes against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities and “decapitate” the North Korean leadership if it perceives a nuclear attack as imminent. The kill chain strategy is highly risky, and a renewed emphasis has likely angered the North's leadership, prompting it to reveal its updated deterrence strategy. Most significantly for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the new law makes explicit that any attempt by the US and its allies to force regime change non-viable without inflicting high costs.
An "Irreversible" Law?
Alongside the new first-use doctrine, Kim Jong-un stated in a speech on the second day of the SPA that North Korea's status as a nuclear weapons state has become legally "irreversible" and there "would never be any declaration of giving up our nukes, nor any of kind of negotiations". Kim also pledged to continue developing Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities even if it faced “sanctions for 100 years". By codifying this into law, it would appear North Korea has effectively ruled out any dialogue over Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearisation (CVID) in the foreseeable future.
Despite this, not all hope is lost. The US and South Korea have reaffirmed their commitment to CVID. The US condemned Kim's speech and stood by its "tried and true policies". South Korea continued to pledge aid for "complete denuclearisation", resembling former conservative president Lee Myung-bak's failed "Vision 3000 Plan". Whether these policies are due to genuine beliefs that CVID is still possible, preferences for the status quo for political gain, or a lack of strategic imagination remains to be determined.
A Way Forward for Denuclearisation?
It is almost certain that North Korea's stance towards dialogue will remain until the US or South Korea alter their respective positions. Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected offers for talks, aid, and even COVID-19 vaccines despite reports of an impending humanitarian crisis. Particularly, the North Korean leadership remains wary of US intentions due to previously unfruitful attempts at engagement, the cancellation of the Agreed Framework, and fears of a US-led invasion similar to Iraq, which Pyongyang claims its nuclear weapons ultimately prevent.
Even if the US offers partial denuclearisation for sanctions relief, a fracturing international order has eroded much of the US and its allies' persuasive power. Growing realignment between North Korea, China, and Russia mean that Pyongyang may refuse future negotiations altogether, turning instead to these more sympathetic partners for economic aid. In particular, their shared opposition to AUKUS, which North Korea perceives as encouraging a regional arms race, exemplifies this realignment.
There is a way forward for dialogue over denuclearisation. However, it remains improbable in the short to medium term, and denuclearisation would most likely be partial. Compliance may require the US and South Korea to normalise relations, a strategy which the Biden administration is likely to reject considering the potential for nuclear aspirants to copy North Korea’s blueprint. It is more probable that the US and South Korea could reach an agreement with North Korea over nuclear arms control, however, the growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula indicate that even this remains unlikely for now.
Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.