Tensions Mount Across the Korean Peninsula

As tensions intensify across the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has passed legislation codifying its right to preemptively deploy strategic missiles. The new law, passed by the Supreme People’s Assembly, has been described as the most significant reform of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons policy in over a decade. Analysts suggest its aim is to establish international recognition of the North’s status as a nuclear power while discouraging the development of a more assertive US-South Korea military alliance. 

Alarmingly, in a speech to the Assembly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared his nation’s nuclear status “irreversible,” complicating international efforts to denuclearise the Peninsula. In an attempt to explain the position, Kim stated, “As long as nuclear weapons remain on earth and imperialism remains and manoeuvres of the United States and its followers against our republic are not terminated, our work to strengthen nuclear force will not cease.” 

Revising an expansive 2013 policy that permitted the use of nuclear weapons as a retaliatory response to invasion or assault by another nuclear state, the current legislation broadens the conditions of deployment to include a threat to the nation’s “strategic targets.” The revised law is suggested to address South Korea’s ‘Kill Chain’ strategy – a military blueprint aimed at crippling the North’s nuclear infrastructure in the event of an imminent attack. 

In a joint statement with South Korea, The United States denounced the move as “escalatory and destabilizing,” while confirming that any deployment of strategic warheads would be countered with an “overwhelming and decisive response.” The Department of Defence also said that the two nations had “pledged to improve coordination and strengthen the Alliance’s missile response capabilities and posture.”

Articulating the international significance of non-proliferation efforts, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over the law while highlighting that any pursuit of nuclear armament stands in contravention of international law, UN Security Council Resolutions, and the collective interests of humankind. He also urged the resumption of negotiations between the North and South, to achieve “sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” 

Articulating the potential severity of the North’s new position, military analyst Kim Tae-woo told Bloomberg, “They are elevating a nuclear-deterrent policy to a nuclear-combat policy.” However, while the legislation may constitute an escalation, most analysts have suggested the move does not indicate a significant alteration of the North’s nuclear policy.

Unfortunately, the legislation comes amid a period of unique regional tensions; the US and South Korea recently participated in their largest joint military drills in years, while North Korea has rapidly expanded its missile testing programs. Despite tensions easing between the North and South during the Moon administration – with historic meetings between the two leaders in 2017 and 2018 – negotiations were unable to secure a more sustainable resolution. These negotiations are a testament to the enduring potential for seismic advancements toward peace. At the heart of such an agreement must be a recognition that any attempt to develop or deploy nuclear arsenals presents a threat to regional stability and global peace. Consequently, both Seoul and Pyongyang must continue to pursue the pathway of diplomatic engagement, a process that requires broad support from the international community. Bringing an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the Korean Peninsula can fundamentally alter the geostrategic landscape of the 21st century, and offer lasting peace to the region.

North Korea’s embrace of a more active and ambiguous nuclear policy is a costly and corrosive political manoeuvre that risks compounding a year of rising tensions. And yet, there remain significant opportunities to achieve a paradigm shift in the relationship between North and South Korea, with the potential to secure enduring regional peace.