On September 8, 2022, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used the second-day sitting of the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) as a venue to announce his most significant update to the country’s nuclear weapons law in almost a decade: The Law on the DPRK’s Nuclear Forces Policy. The Assembly passed the new law in a unanimous vote, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, and the Rodong Sinmun devoted four pages to carry Kim’s speech delivered on the same day. As noted in the speech, the passage of a new law is another attempt by the North Korean regime to ossify its nuclear war-fighting posture that has rapidly materialized since the Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party held in January 2021.
Through a series of actions and narratives, North Korea had already devoted the first half of this year to reveal its intention to keep its nuclear arsenal in a war-fighting posture. The new law, in that regard, offers little new as it encapsulates the regime’s statements and actions into a single piece of legislation. That said, the law’s specific wording, format and the rationale underpinning Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine offers better insight into what the regime is trying achieve with its new nuclear war-fighting doctrine and posture.
During 2018 negotiations with the United States, North Korea saw nuclear talks as a tool to get sanctions lifted and jumpstart its mineral exports and tourism industry. This is why North Korean narratives about nuclear negotiations in 2018 had mainly focused on framing the talks as an “effort to create favorable conditions for an improvement in economic situation.” It appears, however, that a totally different logic has been shaping Pyongyang’s calculus in recent years. The prevailing narrative in North Korea nowadays is that “safety guaranteed by the nuclear forces is critical to achieving a self-sufficient economy,” and this narrative culminated with Kim’s September 9th speech in which he vowed to “never give up” his country’s nuclear weapons. In other words, North Korea has publicly abandoned the rhetoric and framing it had used in 2018 to carve out an entirely different direction.
Even though the idea of gaining global acceptance as a legitimate nuclear state is a non-starter, North Korea has made ceaseless efforts to present its nuclear status as a fait accompli to the world. And as part of that drive, the regime codified a new policy on nuclear forces and established procedures for managing and controlling its nuclear weapons to further cement the status as a “responsible nuclear weapons state.” The latest codification might also be a carefully choreographed response to reassure longtime friends like China and Russia, who might at some point grow overly anxious about the regime’s rapidly maturing nuclear forces.
One of the most striking features of the new law is how it described the command and control system over the state nuclear forces. Some provisions provide greater clarity about command and control of the country’s nuclear weapons, which appears to be part of North Korea’s continued efforts to add substance and credibility to its new nuclear war-fighting posture. In the past, nuclear weapons were a last-resort option. Now with the new law in place, North Korea has cleared the way for first-use of nuclear weapon in conventional warfare should war break out on the Korean peninsula. Seen in this light, public statements from North Korea and a slew of weapons tests conducted this year were like the pieces of a puzzle that have been put together to complete the regime’s new nuclear policy. The passage of the new law on the DPRK’s nuclear forces policy, therefore, was its own perfect way of officializing the country’s almost year-long journey.
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