A Ukrainian Perspective on North Korea’s Self-Declared Nuclear Status

By | September 15, 2022 | No Comments

The current news cycle is abuzz with reports that Ukrainian forces are making significant progress in their fight against our Russia’s invasion. Yet just as some Koreans have seen parallels between Ukraine’s current situation and the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula, some Ukrainians in turn see a connection between their country’s current situation and the most recent history of the inter-Korean conflict.

Independent international relations analyst Nataliya Plaksiyenko-Butyrska outlines what she sees as a telling connection between Ukraine’s denuclearization and North Korea’s lack thereof. The fact that North Korea remains adamant about maintaining a nuclear arsenal and openly expresses its willingness to use it could bode ill for any sense of restraint Russia may feel in terms of using its own nuclear capabilities. 

 

How Empty “Guarantees” to Ukraine Feed into the North Korean Nuclear Threat[1]

Pyongyang wants to achieve recognition as a nuclear state.

 

The leader of North Korea, after North Korea adopted the law allowing it to carry out a preventive nuclear strike, declared its status as a nuclear state to be “irreversible”.

North Korea has refused to carry out any negotiations regarding denuclearization and wants to gain international recognition for its status as a country in possession of nuclear weapons. Last week, during a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the leader of the country, Kim Jong Un, called the country’s nuclear track “irreversible” and spoke of the importance of the law adopted by the country’s legislature for the issue of nuclear forces. In his speech, the leader of the DPRK stated that nuclear weapons constitute a tool of deterrence and “the anti-imperialist struggle” with the US, whose goal is not only to “eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons, but to weaken and overthrow our government.” 

Kim Jong Un blamed the Americans for fostering threats to the stable development of the state through pressure from sanctions, to “force Koreans to consider the price of their nuclear choice, to foment and strengthen dissatisfaction among people with the party and the government, so that they would let go of their nuclear weapons.” Furthermore, without specifying who, he mentioned that some states ended up giving up their nuclear weapons, only later to be forced to undergo bitter tragedies. 

The examples of Iraq and Libya have long been the basis of arguments against the possibility of giving up nuclear weapons for economic aid.  “Gaddafi’s Ghost” haunts the North Korean regime, jettisoning any hope for the country’s denuclearization, even though, it would seem, there was some possibility during Donald’ Trump’s administration. Today there is no doubt that while North Korea openly supports Russia and its aggression against Ukraine, it took into account Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian nuclear threats. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian case of voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons in exchange for hollow security “guarantees” has given North Korea and similar regimes additional proof as to why it is necessary to possess nuclear weapons. This is a very dangerous trend, one that could increase the specter of nuclear threats around the world. 

Mention of the fact that the DPRK considers itself a nuclear state was first legally established in 2012 through an incorporation into the preamble in the country’s constitution. In 2013, a law was adopted strengthening the state’s position, which possesses nuclear weapons. The most recent law, which replaces the 2013 law, outlines five conditions for the use of nuclear weapons: 

 

  • An attack on the DPRK using nuclear weapons or another type of WMD, including when such an attack is imminent;
  • An attack on the country’s leadership or those in command of the country’s nuclear forces;
  • An attack (or threat of an imminent attack) on strategic objects in the country;
  • The rise of emergency situations that create the need to operationally prevent the expansion of the scale of war;
  • The need to seize the initiative in wartime

 

In contrast to the previous law, which outlined the exclusively defensive nature of its nuclear weapons – to deter an attack or invasion from a hostile country with nuclear weapons or respond in kind – the current law goes beyond these parameters and allows North Korea to carry out preemptive nuclear strikes in the case it detects an imminent attack. As we understand it, the term “imminent attack” can be broadly interpreted. 

Most experts consider the modification of the law to be connected with the need to respond to South Korea’s “kill chain” policy – proactive strikes on the DPRK’s nuclear infrastructure and command system in response to the emergence of suspected imminent attack, which lies within the realm of the South Korean strategy of Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR). The newly-elected president of South Korea, Yoon Seok Yeol, has unmistakably emphasized his readiness to carry out a preventive or preemptive strike on the North if Pyongyang prepares to attack the South. In contrast to his predecessor Moon Jae-in, Yoon belongs to the conservative party, known for its tougher stance toward South Korea’s northern neighbor. 

True, the adoption of the new law, which gives Kim Jong Un monolithic command and all decisive powers regarding nuclear weapons, allows the North Korean regime to automatically carry out a nuclear strike to eliminate a provocation if hostile powers threaten the command and control system. Nevertheless, the South Korean “kill chain” strategy, adopted back when North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were considerably more modest, carries greater risks of escalation than victory. 

After the unsuccessful summit in Hanoi in 2019, Pyongyang ruled out the possibility of denuclearization (true, a majority of experts were highly skeptical even during the period of active negotiations between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump) and has also refused sit at the negotiation table with the United States, to say nothing of South Korea. North Korea has repeatedly insisted on cancelling sanctions and joint excercises between the United States and the Republic of Korea as a prerequisite for the mere restoration of the negotiations process.

With Joe Biden’s accession to the White House, issues regarding the Korean Peninsula, which were of obvious importance in Donald Trump’s foreign policy, has taken a back seat. The Biden administration announced that it was working on a new calibrated and practical stance toward North Korea, which is rather similar to the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience.” Joe Biden is emphasizing his openness to talks and his dedication to diplomacy in relation to the DPRK while also bolstering South Korea’s defenses. This is tied to the strengthening of existing deterrence mechanisms, including the revival of the bilateral expanded strategy of deterrence and consultative group; the expansion of joint military exercises (which were suspended as a concession to Pyongyang during the Trump presidency), and also the strengthening of trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea in the field of security to respond to and deter North Korean nuclear and other missile threats. Aside from that, last year the US lifted restrictions on Seoul’s missile program in terms of development and possession of ballistic missile with a range in excess of 800 км. At that time, South Korea became the first non-nuclear state in possession of a ballistic missile that launched from a submarine (SLBM). Besides that, the country’s  Ministry of National Defense revived a plan to allocate around USD 81 billion between 2022-2026 to strengthening defense capabilities and advanced ballistic missiles. 

North Korea criticizes the South for its plans to expand its conventional strike capabilities and revive large-scale joint exercises with the United States, describing them as dangerous military activities that raise tensions. But this year Pyongyang conducted an unprecedented wave of missile tests including with an intercontinental ballistic missile. Some experts suppose that it could go so far as to conduct its first nuclear test since 2017. The North Korean government justifies measures through the necessity of opposing the “imperialist American regime and its satellites.” 

But even under these circumstances Washington and Seoul want to establish diplomatic contact with the North Korean regime. President Yoon Seok Yeol offered North Korea a large economic aid package in exchange for it giving up with nuclear arsenal. The North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, responded to the proposal by calling it “a copy of (former South Korean president) Lee Myung-bak’s unsuccessful policy.” Economic incentives once served as a bridge for establishing a dialogue between the two parts of the Korean peninsula, albeit for a short time. However, times and the stakes have changed. Now Pyongyang is trying to gain recognition of its nuclear status. Even if it means finding itself even longer under stringent economic sanctions. 

North Korea has noticeably increased its missile and nuclear arsenal, which presents a real, not hypothetical threat. Amid a deficit of mutual trust and diplomatic dialogue, neither one of the countries can take their security for granted, and make efforts to strengthen their military prowess with the goal of deterrence. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has gone into serious stagnation. Old methods such as economic aid, exchanging tour groups and the creation of an industrial complex or organizing gatherings for separated families no longer work. And they don’t create opportunities except for brief thaws in relations. Kim Yo Jong ruled out the possibility of talks with President Moon considering his hard stance toward the North. In fact, Pyongyang is not interested in dialogue with the South, whose bets are on exclusive talks with the United States while strengthening their nuclear status. 

Meanwhile, the threat of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine and the risk of a rise in nuclear aggression on the planet reinforce the dangers of nuclear weapons in the world and make North Korea’s demands and its unpredictable regime absolutely unacceptable. Another thing is that there are no actual instruments of influence over North Korea, as this problem vexes Washington with none of the  necessary opposition from Beijing or Moscow. Now these two are not opposed to the very North Korean regime which they support causing problems in the region for the Americans. However, from a strategic perspective, this could have unpredictable consequences even for them.

 

Original article by Nataliya Plaksiyenko-Butyrska. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna. 

 

[1] Source: How Empty “Guarantees” to Ukraine Feed into the North Korean Nuclear Threat [Как пустые «гарантии» Украине подкармливают северокорейскую ядерную угрозу], ZN.ua September 13, 2022, https://zn.ua/amp/international/kak-pustye-harantii-ukraine-podkarmlivajut-severokorejskuju-jadernuju-uhrozu-.html

 

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