Could North Korea ‘pre-emptively’ use nuclear weapons?

Threats by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un that his nuclear arsenal could be used in a pre-emptive strike against his enemies, made as he paraded the country’s latest military through hardware the streets of capital Pyongyang, have set alarm bells ringing. The world can ill-afford another military confrontation at this time, say analysts.

Thousands of troops marched through Kim Il Sung Square in a show of force on April 26, alongside armored vehicles and massive tractor-trailer vehicles transporting an array of missiles. Notably among them was a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The North claims to have successfully tested this on March 24 in a launch that marked a reversal in halting tests of both ICBMs and nuclear warheads.

Pyongyang claims the most advanced weapon in its armory can carry multiple warheads and has a range of more than 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles), putting the entire continental US within striking distance.

A shifting philosophy?

“The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nuclear weapons can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent,” state-run media quoted Kim as saying.

“If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish their second mission.”

Kim vowed to increase the nation’s nuclear capabilities at “the fastest possible speed,” adding that North Korea is “now fully prepared for any war.”

His remarks were broadcast alongside the military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.

How did the US and South Korea respond?

The government lead by South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made no official comment on Kim’s bombastic comments — which came just days after the two leaders exchanged “friendly” letters to mark Moon stepping down as president on May 10. But the US was quick to make its position clear.

In a press briefing at the Pentagon on Tuesday, a Department of Defense official reiterated that the North’s nuclear and missile programs pose a “serious threat to international peace and security and destabilize the global nonproliferation regime.”

In a similar briefing at the State Department the same day, a spokesman said the objective of the US remains the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.

What do experts think?

Analysts say the military parade was designed to send a message to audiences at home and abroad.

“North Korea notably paraded solid-propellant rockets that are still under development,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, pointing out that such weapons are easier to hide, move and launch quickly, making them less vulnerable to a preemptive strike.

“Taken together with ambitions for tactical nuclear warheads, submarine-based launch capabilities and more sophisticated ICBMs, Pyongyang is not simply looking to deter an attack,” he said.

“Its goals extend to outrunning South Korea in an arms race and coercing the United States into reducing sanctions enforcement and security cooperation with Seoul.”

On another level, the Kim regime is trying to increase national pride and domestic legitimacy with propaganda about the state, party and its military accomplishments, Easley added.

Easley also singled out Kim’s comment on the right to use nuclear weapons to protect the “fundamental interests” of North Korea as alarming.

“This sounds like an elastic term for which Pyongyang can adjust the meaning according to the situation, similar to how it blames diplomatic deadlock on the ‘hostile policies’ of other countries,” he said.

“Such an ambiguous and potentially escalatory nuclear doctrine should not only worry Seoul, Tokyo and Washington – but Beijing as well.”

Timing is everything

Pyongyang has a track record of attempting to drive wedges between its three main adversaries – the US, South Korea and Japan – and the timing of the parade was convenient for Kim.

Representatives of Yoon Suk-yeol, who will take over as president from Moon on May 10, were in Tokyo for talks about building a closer working relationship, including on security issues, while envoys of President Joe Biden were in Seoul to coordinate talks between the two leaders next month in South Korea.

Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and senior intelligence official charged with monitoring North Korea, said Kim’s comments should come as little surprise given that his promises to improve the lives of his people have failed and the economy is as feeble as when he inherited the leadership of the nation a decade ago.

“The North’s intentions towards the South have never changed,” he told DW, pointing out that the North Korean constitution still contains the assertion that the Korean Peninsula will one day be united as a single nation under North Korean control, with the use of force being one way to achieve that aim.

‘Showing his teeth and claws’

With his economy a shambles and the dream of catching up with the trade and business prowess of the South a pipe dream, let alone the living standards of people living on the southern half of the divided peninsula, Kim thinks he has to “show his teeth” and his claws to the world,” said Rah.

“He has returned to threatening us with weapons of mass destruction, he attempts to intimidate the South Korean people and, in particular, the new Yoon administration, and he breaks promises and treats with the rest of the world,” he said.

“The next thing, which I am sure will happen, will be some sort of military provocation,” Rah warned.

“He certainly will not shy away from some sort of show of force and that could be an ICBM launch or another nuclear test. And I expect Kim to describe it as a ‘special military operation’,” Rah added, in reference to the term used by Russia to describe the ongoing war it is waging in Ukraine.

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