Getting North Korea Wrong


Recently, North Korea declared a first use nuclear policy, reserving the right to use its nuclear weapons preemptively “in case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed under danger owing to an attack by hostile forces.”

This decision has led to widespread concerns in the International community regarding regional as well as global peace and security. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres has expressed deep concerns over the declaration, calling for Pyongyang to return to talks with key parties to achieve a peaceful resolution to the ensuing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. France has also condemned North Korea’s aggressive nuclear stance, calling it a “threat to peace”. The United States has also expressed concerns. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reflected on past statements while making it clear that the United States was committed to the path of diplomacy while North Korea’s lack of cooperation led to a deadlock.

Understanding North Korea’s nuclear policy

In order to understand the complexities and the possible way out of the nuclear crisis brewing on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary to ascertain the reasons behind North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. 

During the closing days of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration stationed nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula as a deterrent against possible North Korean aggression. These nuclear weapons proved pivotal in getting the North Korean and Chinese forces to sign the Panmunjom armistice and restrict them to the north of the imposed border. Following the Korean War, the United States continued to provoke North Korea by declaring nuclear support to the South while maintaining its troops in the South Korean territory. By the 1980s, North Korea found itself surrounded in major conflicts and insecurities. The economic and military aid from the Communist bloc had waned, the rapid economic rise of South Korea presented a major problem for the regime, and the internal crises created a challenge of sustaining regime legitimacy. The aggressive nuclear policy followed by the United States in the past made the North Korean leadership realise the potential of nuclear weapons in extracting favourable leverages.

Various reasons contributed to this drive for nuclear proliferation. First, North Korea believed that a nuclear programme was important to counter the US nuclear umbrella over the South. Second, North Korea feared an emerging South Korean nuclear programme and wanted to pre-empt its superiority. It was also economically much more feasible to develop nuclear weapons than indulge in a conventional arms race, which it was destined to lose given the economic progress South Korea  had achieved over the past few decades. Third, the North Korean leadership viewed possession of nuclear weapons as a means of gaining diplomatic leverage, perhaps to extract economic concessions from the international community amidst sluggish economic growth. Lastly, in line with the Juche ideology, the presence of nuclear weapons allowed North Korea to reduce its dependency on China and Russia, at least in security matters. Hence, a self-reliance tactic could be better employed.

It was in these circumstances that North Korea turned towards establishing a nuclear weapons programme.

While North Korea has indulged in an aggressive nuclear policy since its first nuclear test in 2006, it is highly unlikely for the nation to use its weapons preemptively. This is largely for two reasons, first, the raison d’etre of North Korean nuclear weapons programme is state survival. North Korea turned towards nuclear weapons to secure survival in the 1980s and while they have threatened adversaries with nuclear strikes since, these have largely remained only threats which were made to extract favourable outcomes to facilitate regime survival. Second, a preemptive nuclear strike will invite a potentially devastating retaliatory strike which will have catastrophic results. Possession of nuclear weapons acts as a deterrent for any country considering a preemptive strike on an adversary. Given North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, it is unlikely the country will come out on top in an exchange of nuclear strikes with the United States and its allies.

The Case for First Use

A nuclear first strike is highly unlikely and potentially suicidal for North Korea which begs the question as to why would the country enshrine such a policy in its law. The answer to this can be found by analysing North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy and understanding the recent developments on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has long followed the path of nuclear brinkmanship. By using the threat of nuclear weapons, the leadership seeks to extract favourable outcomes. In the past, the North Korean leadership has been successful in bringing the United States and the international community to the negotiating table and extracting desired results in the process. The Agreed Framework (1994), the Six Party Talks (2003), the Panmunjom Declaration (2018) and the Hanoi Summit (2019) are a testament to North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy. The threat of use of nuclear weapons is part of a signalling tactic that North Korea employs to achieve its desired ends. Signalling is a crucial aspect of North Korean nuclear diplomacy. Signalling refers to the ability of states to communicate their objectives, interests, and resolve to their adversaries. North Korea has used these tactics to convey its resolve to allies and adversaries alike in the past. Hence, codifying a nuclear first use policy into law seems to be an extension of this intimidation game.

While North Korea’s foreign policy has historically focused on using nuclear weapons to play the intimidation game, the first use policy has also been a result of the recent dramatic developments on the Korean Peninsula. The era of amicable relations under former South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been followed by a rather harsh outlook from the current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.

During the run up to his eventual election as the President, Yoon Suk-yeol made several comments about North Korea, going as far as declaring the country Seoul’s ‘main enemy’. Yoon took an aggressive stance to the North Korean regime by advocating for the possibility of pre-emptive strikes in order to neutralise North Korean targets. Maintaining a credible deterrence against the North Korea’s missile tests has also been high on the priority list of the new President, who made his intentions clear in favour of redeployment of the US made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. Under his policy of countering North Korea with strength, Yoon has shown willingness of working more closely with the United States and its allies, even entertaining the idea of redeploying US strategic assets, such as nuclear bombers and submarines to the Korean Peninsula.

In August 2022, the United States and South Korea began their largest joint military drills in recent years as an attempt to tighten readiness over North Korea’s potential weapons tests. North Korea has criticised these joint military drills as a “rehearsal for invasion” and has reportedly fired two cruise missiles into the West Sea as a retaliatory measure.

It is highly likely that enshrining the nuclear first use policy in law is a measure the North Korean leadership has taken recognising the threats that have emerged due to the US-South Korea joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

Time for Change

A general lack of cooperation looms large on the Korean Peninsula. While North Korea has been accused of it, the United States and the international community have themselves made little to no efforts to establish an era of cooperation. In the past, relations with North Korea were ladened with retaliatory policies as Seoul and Washington pundits predicted the end of the North Korean regime rather than seeking the path of constructively engaging with the nation. Recent years have seen an era of retaliation mixed with disengagement. While the United States participates in military drills with South Korea and shows verbal commitment to diplomacy in dealing with the North, it does little to bring any concrete diplomatic advances to resolve the ongoing crisis. A historical assessment of relations on the Korean Peninsula shows that retaliation and disengagement have failed so far and there seems to be no hope for this policy to succeed in the near future. On the other hand, it can be argued that disengagement and retaliation may lead to terrible consequences as the nuclear crisis continues to boil over. A viable alternative that must be actively sought is reconciliation. The highest points in relations with North Korea have all come under administrations that have favoured a policy of reconciliation as opposed to retaliation. The closest North Korea has reached to an agreement on dismantling its nuclear proliferation programme has been through the channels of diplomacy where cooperation and reconciliation was made the norm. The Sunshine Policy (1998) and the reconciliatory policies under the administration of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in are a testament that peaceful arrangements on the Korean Peninsula are possible if reconciliation and dialogue take precedence over mistrust and coercion.

North Korea’s actions are a result of its growing threat perceptions. The failure of punitive measures thus far demonstrates that continuing to entertain such predictions will not result in any breakthroughs and may very well encourage North Korea to advance its nuclear weapons programme. It is high time the international community recognises the urgency of the situation and comes together to resume dialogue. While just bringing North Korea to the high table will be an arduous task, efforts need to be made to resolve any long standing threat perceptions that North Korea currently faces.

Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari is a Non-resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US. He holds a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia University, India and is currently pursuing Korean language at the University of Delhi. His research interests include Disarmament, Nuclear diplomacy, India's foreign policy, inter-Korean relations and North Korea's nuclear policy.


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