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CNA Explains: North Korea's new law allows it to launch nuclear strikes to protect itself, but what are the chances of that happening?

While Pyongyang's new law on nuclear power seemingly puts denuclearisation talks at an end, one expert thinks it's the North's way of raising the stakes ahead of future discussions. 

CNA Explains: North Korea's new law allows it to launch nuclear strikes to protect itself, but what are the chances of that happening?

File photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Photo: AFP/STR/KCNA via KNS)

North Korea has officially enshrined the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself in a new law that leader Kim Jong Un said makes its nuclear status "irreversible" and bars denuclearisation talks, state media agency KCNA reported on Friday (Sep 9).

The new legislation, which describes North Korea "as a responsible nuclear weapons state", also states that the country "opposes all forms of war, including nuclear wars, and aspires to build a peaceful world in which the international justice is realised". 

The law comes as North Korea appears to be preparing to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017 despite historic summits with world leaders to convince the state to abandon nuclear plans. 

CNA takes a closer look at what North Korea's new law entails, and what it could mean for neighbouring countries and the US.


According to KCNA, North Korea's parliament passed the new legislation on Thursday as a replacement to a 2013 law that first outlined the country's nuclear status.

The 2013 law stipulated that North Korea could use nuclear weapons to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear state and make retaliatory strikes.

The new law goes beyond that to allow preemptive nuclear strikes if North Korea detects an imminent attack by weapons of mass destruction or of any kind aimed at its leadership and the command organisation of its nuclear forces.

KCNA added that the new law bans sharing of nuclear arms or technology with other countries, and is aimed at reducing the danger of a nuclear war by preventing miscalculations among nuclear weapons states and misuse of nuclear weapons.

It also said that under the law, Kim has "all decisive powers" over nuclear weapons.

North Korea's new law seems to be a response to new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's strengthening of the "Kill Chain" strategy, said Oh Joon, professor of United Nations Studies at Kyung Hee University.

The "Kill Chain" strategy calls for preemptively striking North Korea's nuclear infrastructure and command system if an imminent attack is suspected.

"As North Korea is not able to catch up with the build-up of conventional weapons by South Korea and the US, this might be the only way for Pyongyang to assure its deterrence power," Mr Oh added.

Mr Oh also said: "There must be a strong need on the part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to show to the domestic audience in North Korea that he is fully in charge when it comes to nuclear weapons, as the law stipulates that Kim has 'all decisive powers' over nuclear weapons."

"This might or might not be a sign of weakness in the Kim family's rule of North Korea for the last 77 years, as the country's economy is in deep trouble under the international sanctions and with the negative influence of the COVID-19 pandemic."


United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply concerned" by North Korea's new law on nuclear weapons, reiterating calls for Pyongyang to return to denuclearisation talks.

The US again said it had no hostile intent towards North Korea and is willing to resume talks without preconditions.

However, Mr Oh, who is also former South Korean ambassador to the UN, felt it could be an effort by Pyongyang to raise the stakes before potential new negotiations.

"On the surface this announcement might be interpreted as a refusal", said Mr Oh, adding that given North Korea's past negotiation pattern, it could represent an effort to up the ante before new negotiations, along with a possible nuclear bomb test in the near future.

"That is, now that Pyongyang cannot go back to denuclearisation talks without breaking its law, the US and South Korea should be really ready to give whatever North Korea wants, in order for Pyongyang to even consider denuclearisation."

"Denuclearisation talks could resume, probably after heightening of tensions or even some crisis situations," Mr Oh added.

Meanwhile, Dr Nah Liang Tuang, a Research Fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that the law leaves denuclearisation efforts by the North Korea and US "at a dead end" in the near term.

"The Kim regime will not even countenance steps towards nuclear tension reduction over the next few months because that would make it look weak after having drawn the proverbial 'line in the sand' so clearly."

Dr Nah added that denuclearisation is effectively "dead in the water" for now if nothing in international geopolitics changes.

However, he noted that anything could happen in the future since North Korea is sensitive to the dynamics of regional power politics.

"Any policy changes in Beijing or any other world capitals which result in vital resource imports being strictly denied to North Korea, could bring about significant softening in its nuclear stance over the medium to long term."


Dr Nah said he does not expect any change to the current military or nuclear deterrence postures of the North's neighbours. 

"Just because Kim Jong Un did not clearly enunciate a preemptive nuclear strike policy in the past did not mean that he was unwilling to authorise the launch of nuclear tipped weapons whenever he saw fit," said Dr Nah, who specialises in politics and strategy of nuclear armament and disarmament.

The North's neighbours and the US would have factored Pyongyang's unpredictability into their contingency measures, Dr Nah added. 

"Also, for all his chest thumping nuclear aggrandisement, Kim should realise that any nuclear first strike dooms the survival of his government as both South Korea and Japan are protected by the US nuclear umbrella, while nuclear retaliation by Washington is a truly horrific prospect." 

Dr Nah noted that the US' deteriorating relationship with Russia and China could also come into play. 

Russia and China could be less stringent on enforcing sanctions against North Korea, giving it the space it needs to pursue its nuclear path. 

When asked if Pyongyang's latest move will push Seoul to seek its own nuclear deterrent, both Dr Nah and Mr Oh said it was unlikely.

Dr Nah observed that the South was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and stood to "retain the global moral high ground" by refusing to initiate a "tit-for-tat" nuclear arms programme.

"Seoul will not jeopardise US support by seeking an independent nuclear deterrent", he added. 

Mr Oh added that it would be possible only if the "current stalemate continues for too long a time without a breakthrough".


North Korea's law legitimises its use of nuclear weapons as a form of self-defence and a "last means" to deal with external attack and aggression. 

It is the "main force of the state defence which safeguards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the lives and safety of the people from outside military threat, aggression and attack". 

It elaborates that its use of nuclear forces will make clear to hostile opponents that "military confrontation with (North Korea) brings about ruin" so that enemies would give up attempts at aggression. 

Dr Nah, noted however, that the North's law is not definitive.

He pointed out that while Kim re-affirmed its commitment to denuclearisation during the first Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore in 2018, the new law essentially rendered all promises "null and void". 

In the event that the "command and control system over the state nuclear forces" - referring to Kim and the members he appoints to govern the nuclear forces - are in danger from a hostile force, a nuclear strike can 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".

However Pyongyang maintains that it will not threaten non-nuclear weapons states or use nuclear power against them, unless these states collude with aggressors carrying nuclear weapons. 

"Essentially, nothing that the Kim regime says can be trusted. The only things that matter are what Pyongyang does, not what it says," Dr Nah added.

Mr Oh said that when it comes to the possibility of a real nuclear strike, he thinks North Korea's new law is "more of a bluff than a well-prepared military plan".

But he added that North Korea might go for military provocations against South Korea or the US more easily, assuming that the new law has given the North "greater leeway in an escalation of tension, which could lead to a dangerous development". 

Source: CNA/Agencies/wt(rj)


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