For the first time in a decade, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un signed a new law updating North Korea’s nuclear policy for the first time in a decade. Pyongyang hardened its nuclear options by vowing never to abandon its ultimate weapons and declaring it will use nukes to prevent regime change.
The new legislation lays out a scenario where North Korea would use nuclear weapons first. The law states, “in case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces."
The new law announced on Friday uses stronger language than the previous North Korean decree issued in 2013 that governed nuclear use, which said that Pyongyang can use nuclear weapons to “repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
North Korea made the announcement amid increasing tensions between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang. The US and South Korea recently kicked off live-fire war games for the first time in several years. While Washington claims the drills are necessary to address the threat posed by Pyongyang, the Kim government views the military exercises as highly-provocative simulations for regime change.
According to the Daily Beast, Pyongyang is correct to perceive the war games as a threat. "Sources familiar with the U.S.-South Korea military alliance say the games will climax in a "decapitation" exercise where they play at invading the heart of the North Korean command structure and taking out the leader, Kim Jong Un," Donald Kirk reported in August.
North Korean media reported Kim stressed that nuclear weapons are an antidote to US imperialism. “The adoption of laws and regulations related to the national nuclear force policy is a remarkable event as it’s our declaration that we legally acquired war deterrence as a means of national defense." He continued, “As long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth, and imperialism and the anti-North Korean maneuvers of the US and its followers remain, our road to strengthening our nuclear force will never end.”
Kim opened his speech on nuclear weapons policy by vowing never to give up North Korea’s ultimate weapons. "[We will] never give up nuclear weapons first, and there is no such thing as denuclearization and there will be no negotiations or bargains to trade off for it. Nuclear is the nation’s dignity, body, and absolute power of the state," the supreme leader said.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, explains why the policy change is so significant. “North Korea mentioning the possibility of using nuclear weapons if and when an attack on the state and leader is imminent is significant, even though it states nuclear weapons as a defensive last resort,” Yang said.