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We Must Plan to Defend Against North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

North Korea
North Korean missile test. Image Credit: KCNA.

This week North Korea once again attracted world attention to its nuclear weapons program by passing a law rejecting denuclearization and negotiation about its weapons program. This legislation emerged from North Korea’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, and was pronounced by the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. The law also included a frightening provision for North Korea to use its nukes preemptively.

South Korea responded by insisting that it still seeks denuclearization and that North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons would bring about the regime’s destruction. The U.S. has insisted that it has ‘no hostile intent’ toward North Korea and that this new North Korean language is an unnecessary escalation.

Law does Not Mean Much in North Korea

There has been much anxiety and global attention to these new statements, but they almost certainly do not actually change North Korean nuclear policy that much.

The most obvious reason is that North Korea is not a rule-of-law state. Its elites do not feel bound to formal policy statements emanating from the North Korean state. De facto policy does not come from the national legislature because North Korea is run more like a mafia clan than a modern state. The people who run the country are the cronies, friends, and family of Kim himself.

As such, formal statements like this new law have no binding power on elites or constrain or channel their behavior in any meaningful way. By way of illustration, legislation emerging from the U.S. Congress regarding policy or procurement for the US military, such as the National Defense Authorization Act, does constrain both the American president and US commanders. Law is meaningful in the US, and the content of the annual NDAA is a contentious annual budgetary issue which tells us important information about US military choices.

Kim faces nothing like this. He could change North Korean policy at whim.

The Law’s Real Value is Rhetorical

North Korea produces an enormous amount of political language like this week’s statements: aggressive, belligerent, frightening, paranoid, and so on. But it rarely acts on its regular threats and abuse. So its statements are of questionable utility as policy indicators, much less as binding ‘law.’ Far more likely is that they signal stylized commitments to North Korea’s external opponents and its internal population.

In this case, the North is telling the world once again, in rhetorical ‘legal’ language, that it is committed to its nuclear weapons track, will not denuclearize, and is leaning ever harder into its nuclear weapons for security and prestige. And to its people, it is signaling, again, strength and determination in the face of hostile external pressure – a nationalist message of resistance to explain why North Korea must remain poor and backward. Most national resources must go into defense, because the country’s neighbors are plotting to pull it down.

What Do We Do? Defense

This week’s statements are yet another reminder that North Korea sees its nukes as non-negotiable, or would demand such a high price for denuclearization that the US and South Korea will not pay it. During the presidencies of Donald Trump and South Korea’s Moon Jae-In, the two made a major effort to pull North Korea into nuclear negotiations. North Korea offered little seriousness at those meetings. Kim never seemed to take the negotiations seriously, and never put forward an offer in exchange for his weapons.

It seems very likely that North Korean nuclear weapons are here to stay and that we must adapt to their existence and integration into North Korea’s warfighting doctrine. We must now consider defense against these weapons, as Kim will likely never give them up. I see three options:

Missile Defense

The US pushed South Korea for two decades to beef up its missile defense, either through indigenous development or by buying more systems from the US. This is now the most obvious option, as South Korean cities are effectively naked against North Korean missile strikes.

South Korean Nuclear Weapons

Elsewhere I have argued that South Korea’s own direct nuclear deterrence against North Korean nukes is an increasingly likely option given that missile defense does not work well enough to block most inbound missiles.

North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un near Hwasong ICBM. Image Credit: North Korean State Media.

Preemption

South Korea’s president floated this option earlier this year, but its risks are enormous. It could ignite the very war it seeks to prevent. I think this is unlikely.

Whatever the South Koreans decide, the debate on Northern nukes is increasingly moving away from negotiation – as this week’s rhetoric makes clear again – and toward defense and military options.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    September 16, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    Here is a question to ponder. After decades of sanctions and stupid geopolitical posturing on our part has any of it actually achieved anything? N Korea still has nukes. So let’s just dump the sanctions so at least their people don’t suffer as much and loathe us as much.

    It all just seems like an exercise in futility. Those people suffered so they could build nukes anyways.

    Who cares if they have nukes. They won’t use them. Neither will we. No one is that stupid or desperate. So let’s skip the pretense.

  2. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 16, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    North Korea has nukes but Kim isn’t dumb enough to use them as his only desire is to remain in power. He knows we could remove him from the planet very quickly if need be.

  3. Arash P

    September 16, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    American way of war for a great part of 20th century can be summed up as
    “avoid enemy soldiers and level their cities instead!”

    This ghoulish policy was implemented on both Germany and Japan during WWII and on North Korea and Vietnam in the respective wars.
    The policy was always, ALWAYS, accompanied by first de-humanizing the enemy so that indiscriminate killing of their civilians, men, women and children could be justified. Everybody was either a “Natzi”, a “Jap” or a “Commie” and there you have blank check to kill them all!

    And of course American public is one of the least educated in the world. Most Americans don’t even know that ALL north Korean cities were leveled by American bombing in the Korean war. If Stalingrad was 90% destroyed during WWII, Pyongyang was 100% destroyed.

    North Koreans have all the reasons to not believe American promises of goodwill and lack of hostility towards them.
    They built their nuclear infrastructure fair and square, mostly developed indigenously.

    Good for them that they have achieved nuclear capability and glad to see that they have leadership that is not foolish enough to ever give it up.

  4. pagar

    September 16, 2022 at 5:43 pm

    How to deal with north korean nukes and be safe from them.

    By turning north-east asia into a burnt wasteland. This is how to ensure US become safe from kim’s nuke arsenal.

  5. xheavy

    September 16, 2022 at 5:48 pm

    The one thing Koreans have told me that they love with all that they are is one word:

    “Reunification” the disposal of the Norks as a Government and liberation of their population to turn both Koreas into one will save potentially a billion lives from Nuclear destruction or worse.

    I prefer Reunification.

    However. Should the Norks proceed to make preparations of a war footing to launch anything nuclear or launch even one or managed to even say detonate over Guam etc… we will turn the Norks into a Parking Lot.

    Then the South Koreans can migrate north to reclaim their homeland and eventually by procreation in joyful freedom establish a new Land for themselves free of war as we have lived it for Decades as such.

    I have on computer models fought the two Koreas before. Its very intense and almost requires a nuclear solution.

  6. Yrral

    September 16, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    As an American,I tired of bunch of insecure American, saying what we should do,and do not do anything,but be a keyboard general,NK have not proved they have the capacity to use GPS and tested reentry vehicle mean of delivering anykind of payload successful be from orbit to another location

  7. Yrral

    September 16, 2022 at 11:01 pm

    This author is a day late and a dollar short ,South Korea have deployed or about deploy the Thadd system in South Korea Google South Korea Thadd be System

  8. Yrral

    September 17, 2022 at 6:15 am

    Biden to implement Def Con 1,on Russia Google Biden Nuke Russia

  9. Joe Comment

    September 17, 2022 at 9:08 am

    Some people here are getting much too complacent about nuclear proliferation. The US has a lot of well-funded institutions with careful protocols for the handling of nuclear weapons, yet still we know of an alarming number of times when we came close to disastrous accidents with them. Then how do you think it will go with North Korea, considering the quality level of their institutions? This is apart from the very questionable legitimacy of the North Korean program, and the fact that if North Korea succeeds in getting away with this without consequences, every other tin-pot dictatorship around the world will also want nuclear weapons.

  10. Joe Comment

    September 17, 2022 at 11:22 am

    Arash P: This must be what they mean when they talk about the blame-America-first crowd. The US was too rough on the Axis in WWII and on the Communists when they invaded South Korea, are racist and uneducated, etc. all in support of letting rogue states have illicit nuclear arsenals without consequences.

  11. xheavy

    September 18, 2022 at 12:06 am

    Biden will do nothing nuclear. It requires two to get it started and the consent of the warfighting commands on down the tree. Thats just not going to happen.

    What will happen is really important stuff in the USA will be deleted, then EMP will erase most of all of our modern shit including the internet and computers etc.

    Then by the time the associated surviving sensors burn through the resulting nuclear noise and detect the main attack waves coming in, we might have time to launch what is left.

    Both RU and USA will cease to Exist and in due time the Earth as well. I expect very few humans to be alive this time next year. As in maybe a few million at best in very isolated spots where its possible to get clean water and grow or catch food.

    I know Biden is too sick mentally in decline to old age etc. Nothing doing in the nuclear style even when faced with a classic 1983 wargames style first strike by RU. I will be destroyed when the nuclear targets near me get hit properly. So frankly it does not matter if Biden did anything or not. We as a Country have pathways to execute a nuclear war without the Civilian Leadership being alive if necessary.

  12. OIF Combat Vet

    September 19, 2022 at 10:49 am

    That will difficult with a woke and broke military…

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