Sejong Commentary

Evaluation of Changes in North Korea's Nuclear Command and Control System and Conditions for Using Nuclear Weapons: Focusing on the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy

Date 2022-09-14 View 993

 

Evaluation of Changes in North Korea's Nuclear Command and Control System and Conditions for Using Nuclear Weapons: Focusing on the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy 

 

Cheong Seong-chang 

softpower@sejong.org

Director of the Center for North Korean Studies, 

the Sejong Institute

 

 

On September 8, a day before the 74th anniversary of the establishment of its regime, North Korea promulgated a law on the state policy on the nuclear forces (hereafter referred to as “September 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy”) on the second day of the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). On April 1, 2013, North Korea had issued a “law on consolidating the position of nuclear weapons state,” but all provisions remained at the general level, and the contents regarding nuclear command and control systems, and conditions for using nuclear weapons, lacked detail. Most of the provisions of the September 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy, however, are very specific, reflecting North Korea's advanced nuclear and missile capabilities and the development of command-and-control systems over the past nine years. In other words, the law adopted in 2013 focused on strengthening North Korea's domestic and international status as a nuclear power, and the law adopted in 2022 focuses on providing clear guidelines on the command and control of nuclear weapons in case of emergency, against the backdrop of North Korea's changed position after the declaration of “completing the state nuclear force” in 2017. 

 

In comparison to North Korea's 2013 law, the most noticeable parts of the law promulgated in 2022 are Article 3, which describes the command and control of nuclear weapons, and Article 6, which states the terms of use of nuclear weapons. Article 4 of the 2013 law stated that nuclear weapons can only be used under the final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. However, Article 3.2 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy states that the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK has all decisive powers concerning nuclear weapons. As Kim Jong Un is serving as the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK, there is no substantial change. However, there is a difference that Article 3.2 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy specifies that the state nuclear forces command organization, composed of members appointed by the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK, will assist the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK in the entirety of the process from the decision concerning nuclear weapons to the execution.

 

It is estimated that North Korea has about 50 nuclear weapons or corresponding fissile materials as of 2022—although the number varies between the agencies or institutes that evaluate it. Considering that North Korea is pushing ahead with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons at the frontlines, it can be said that for Pyongyang, it is necessary to operate a command-and-control organ that can effectively manage nuclear weapons. 

 

Specifying through Article 3.3 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy that “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 including the origin of provocation and the commanding leadership according to the operation plan decided in advance”, North Korea has made it clear that a nuclear attack on South Korea will be carried out immediately if the North Korean leadership is in danger due to the South Korea-U.S. “Decapitation” operation. Some experts read this as contradicting Article 3.2 which grants the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK all decisive powers concerning nuclear weapons, but it is important to note that Kim Jong Un, while always having had the final decisive power, has also always delegated certain authorities to key officials since he has taken power. 

 

Article 3.3 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy is designed to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime by allowing the front-line commanders to “annihilate” the “hostile forces” through nuclear weapons according to the operation plan decided in advance when Kim Jong Un is unable to command nuclear weapons strike in case the command-and-control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger. 

However, front-line commanders are usually can never know “the operation plan decided in advance” until the case of emergency actually arises. Therefore, authorities that may be delegated to front-line commanders in case of emergency will still be very limited.

 

Article 6 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy lists the following five cases when the DPRK can use nuclear weapons: In case it is judged that an attack by nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was launched or is imminent; In case it is judged that a nuclear or non-nuclear attack by hostile forces against the state leadership and the command organization of the state’s nuclear forces was launched or is imminent; In case it is judged that a fatal military attack against important strategic objects of the state was launched or is imminent; In case the need for an operation to prevent an expansion and protraction of war, and taking an upper hand in a war, is inevitably raised at the time of contingency; In other cases where a catastrophic crisis has occurred that threatens the existence of the state and the safety of the people, and is inevitably compelled and cannot help but use nuclear weapons to respond (emphasis added).

The 2013 Act had justified the use of nuclear weapons in order to deter and repel the aggression and attack of the enemy against North Korea. Article 6 of the Sep. 8 Act on Nuclear Forces Policy, however, even justifies a preemptive nuclear attack in case it is judged that an attack by “hostile forces” was launched or is imminent, and/or it is inevitably raised at the time of contingency for an operation. In reality, North Korea does not have a way to know that an attack is imminent unless South Korea and the U.S. announce and then attack. As North Korea states that the DPRK can use nuclear weapons even against a non-nuclear attack, the possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons—when the DPRK is absolutely inferior to ROK in the field of conventional weapons—cannot be ruled out in the event of an accidental military clash on the Korean Peninsula (for example, in case North Korea responds to the anti-regime leaflets that some defector groups launch towards the North).  

 

Accordingly, both South Korea and the U.S. should review the fundamental way the ROK-U.S. joint military drills should be conducted, as they were based on the premise that North Korea does not use nuclear weapons. The drills should also consider the worst-case scenarios in which North Korea uses tactical nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear weapons. Also, the South Korean government should obtain a written promise from the U.S. government through the ROK-U.S. Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) meeting that the U.S. will immediately retaliate with weapons corresponding to North Korea if the country uses tactical or strategic nuclear weapons against South Korea. All in all, if North Korea uses tactical or strategic nuclear weapons against South Korea, the U.S. should be able to retaliate against North Korea immediately and automatically with appropriate weapons corresponding to the weapons North Korea uses.

 

Kim Jong Un’s use of nuclear weapons can be deterred when the U.S. makes clear its promise to protect South Korea at the risk of a nuclear war with North Korea both at home and abroad. If the U.S. fails to express its intention to respond to North Korea's nuclear use immediately both at home and abroad, the question of “whether the U.S. will protect Seoul at the expense of Washington, D.C. and New York” will spread rapidly in South Korea.