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North Korean denuclearisation stasis – an unfortunate reality

By Liang Nah - posted Wednesday, 12 October 2022

On 9th September Pyongyang introduced a new law ossifying North Korea's nuclear weapons status, provoking significant media alarm. However, nuclear realities on the Korean peninsula remain unchanged.

So what if Pyongyang claims that its Nukes are Permanent?

Via this law, Kim Jong-un pledged that the DPRK's nuclear weapons would never be surrendered or bargained away. However, this adds nothing to the denuclearisation discourse since few analysts expected Kim to relinquish his atomic munitions, even when he appeared to exercise negotiative intent during previous summits in Singapore and Hanoi. Notwithstanding those who still made policy recommendations to keep the door to denuclearization open, such attitudes still acknowledged difficulties getting the North to agree to nuclear abnegation. As such, nothing about Kim's nuclear weapons policy has changed.


North Korean Nuclear First-Strikes?

Next, the new law authorizes pre-emptive nuclear strikes, but given North Korea's reputation as a rogue state, security planners in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington would surely have factored such an attack by the Kim regime into their calculus. Consequently, there should be no change to the current military or nuclear deterrence postures of the North's neighbours.Just because the Kim regime did not previously embrace a first strike nuclear policy did not mean Pyongyang would not authorize the launch of nuclear tipped weapons if any perceived need arose.

Moreover, the global nuclear balance of power still enforces stability. Kim surely knows that any pre-emptive attack would rapidly result in the elimination of the DPRK as a state, because both the ROK and Japan are protected by the US nuclear umbrella, while nuclear retaliation by Washington is inevitable and complete.

Pyongyang's Non-Proliferation Ethics?

Thirdly, Pyongyang tries to adopt the trappings of nuclear responsibility by declaring that it will not disseminate nuclear arms or technology to others.This is effectively an old development as the Kim regime has since 2006 denied that it will ever export nuclear technology. However, North Korean actions have demonstrated otherwise since ample evidence exists of the DPRK, i) selling missile technology to the Middle East in the late 2010s, ii) helping Syria construct a nuclear reactor in the early 2000s, and even iii) a UN detected attempt to sell Lithium-6 (Li-6), an isotope used in the production of thermonuclear weapons in the early 2010s. As can be seen, Pyongyang can do anything notwithstanding earlier policy announcements.

The Weak Case for Arms Control


Due to the stubborn nature of the North Korean nuclear problem, there have been European and Asian voices among others, calling for arms control negotiations with the North, where the aim is to limit rather than eliminate the DPRK's nuclear arsenal, hence acquiescing to its nuclear weapons while trying to manage the strategic threat from the latter.

However, arms control as a strategy has a few serious drawbacks. Even if it's not declared, it is tantamount to a de facto recognition of North Korean nuclear arms on the world stage. This becomes a shining beacon encouraging nuclear proliferators and a serious blow to the moral influence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The North Korean case then serves as an exemplar to pariah regimes that security lies with an illicit nuclear munitions program.

Next, notwithstanding the pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to join the nuclear club to deter Pyongyang, there is the salient issue that Kim cannot be trusted to keep his word. The Kim dynasty has never permanently adhered to any past denuclearization agreements, always violating them at some point. Relatedly, any arms control treaty rests on the efficacy of verification and surveillance mechanisms to ensure that the relevant parties are honouring their side of the deal. Even if neutral IAEA inspectors are present in North Korea, the Kim government's penchant for deception will make it impossible to be assured that the latter is acting in good faith.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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