North Korea States It Will Never Give Up Nuclear Weapons

On September 9, North Korea celebrated the 74th anniversary of the country’s founding. Amid the growing concern about the country’s possible seventh nuclear test, North Korea held the seventh session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, where the country’s leader Kim Jong-un formally announced that North Korea would never abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Q1: What happened at the Supreme People’s Assembly?

A1: Four things happened. First, North Korea passed new legislation that further enshrined its nuclear power status. Second, under the new law, North Korea announced five conditions in which the country would launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Third, North Korea indicated in the law that it will not share its nuclear weapons or technology with other countries. Fourth, Kim Jong-un made very clear that the country would resist all sanctions pressures to give up its nuclear weapons.

North Korea with these statements is trying to cement its status as a “responsible” nuclear weapons state with a clearly announced commitment not to proliferate horizontally (though there have been actions to the contrary), and an explicit statement against denuclearization.

Q2: What are North Korea’s five conditions for a nuclear preemptive strike?

A2: North Korea effectively stated a new “first use” doctrine for its nuclear weapons. The conditions would be (1) when a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction attack has been carried out or is imminent, (2) when a nuclear or nonnuclear strike on the leadership and national nuclear force command body has been carried out or is imminent, (3) when a lethal military attack on important strategic targets of the state has been carried out or is imminent, (4) when it is operationally unavoidable to prevent the expansion of a war and seize the initiative in times of contingencies, and (5) when a situation that causes a catastrophic crisis to the existence of the state and the safety of the people.

Q3: What does this new legislation mean for North Korea’s future nuclear posture?

A3: The passage of new law yesterday is a step-up effort to cement North Korea’s nuclear power status, calling it “irreversible” and nonnegotiable. This stands in contrast to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) policy that Seoul and Washington have been pursuing toward North Korea. Through the new legislation, North Korea has laid the legal groundwork that there will be no future talks about denuclearization of the country.

North Korea also lowered the threshold of its nuclear weapon use. The five conditions mentioned above suggest a significant change in the country’s nuclear doctrine, marking a remarkable departure from the previous law enacted in 2013, which stated that (1) the country would use nuclear weapons to deter an invasion or attack from a nuclear state and to make retaliatory strikes, and (2) North Korea would not threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states if they do not join the nuclear state to invade or attack the country. The new legislation appears to signal its intent to launch a preemptive, tactical nuclear strike against South Korea and U.S. forces in Korea, specifically to deter Seoul and Washington’s possible military operation against North Korea’s leadership or critical military infrastructure and to prevent U.S. military engagement in the event of contingencies on the peninsula.

Q4: Does it mean denuclearization negotiations are now hopeless?

A4: Clearly, North Korea’s announcement yesterday makes the prospect of denuclearization talks much dimmer than they already are. North Korea has already rejected South Korean and U.S. overtures to engage, including president Yoon Suk Yeol’s “audacious initiative” to revitalize its economy in exchange for denuclearization.

Q5: What are the policy implications of these statements?

A5: These statements may raise calls from allies for the United States to enhance the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence on and around the Korean peninsula. The timing of the North Korean statement, in addition to the commemoration of the founding of the state, may also have something to do with the start of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) scheduled for next week and the recent conclusion of joint military exercises.

While stating the conditions under which North Korea would carry out a preemptive strike helps to reduce opacity about North Korean intentions (when such conditions were previously not enumerated), the reported commitment to automation of command and control at lower levels of authority also raises implications for crisis instability.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair