We know surprisingly little about North Korean nuclear doctrine apart from what the regime itself has said directly on the issue. (A happy exception, and one that I draw on liberally here, is the new book edited by Kim Chull Sung and Michael Cohen, North Korea and Nuclear Weapons, and particularly Kim’s own essay on the topic). Outside of the cryptic Nuclear Weapons State Law, these statements typically emerge from diverse institutions during crises. For example, since the current surge of rhetoric, I count no less than seven statements (excluding the important speech at the ASEAN Regional Forum) from:
- The Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), effectively the missile command (two);
- The General Staff of the KPA;
- The Government of the DPRK;
- The Foreign Ministry (two);
- The Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army (KPA)
As far as I can tell from reading the coverage about imminent attacks on Guam and queries about war breaking out, no one in the media appears to have read them (again, an exception is the group at 38North, which has caught a number of nuances in the last week).
First a quick tutorial on the basics. Since North Korea professed not to have any interest in nuclear weapons until 2003, it did not have to outline a posture until then. Initially, the basic posture was assured retaliation. Kim Chull Sung interprets this to mean “no first use,” implying that nuclear weapons are only a deterrent against nuclear attack. I don’t think that is correct; as the Nuclear Weapons State Law states, “nuclear weapons serve the purpose of deterring and repelling aggression and retaliating against enemies,” which could mean that they would also be used in response to a conventional attack. Setting aside complex political usages, however, North Korea sees its nuclear weapons first and foremost as a deterrent and that rhetoric has been pretty constant during the current war of words.
There are, however, two important complications. The first has to do with Korea and Japan. The Nuclear Weapons State Law says that North Korea will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state, “unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion of the DPRK.” At least as stated, this is pretty conservative; the North Koreans would consider use against South Korea and Japan only in the case of outright invasion. But this formulation is clearly designed to limit the options of both the US and the South: a US attack could—at least in theory—trigger a nuclear response against the South, but simultaneously even conventional moves by the South undertaken with US support could face nuclear retaliation.
The second complication is the one that is worrying, and why instability has increased even if the mutual deterrent is basically stable. Following the 4th nuclear test in 2016, the National Defense Commission issued a very complicated statement on March 7 in response to joint exercises taking place at the time. It suggested that while North Korea would only use nuclear weapons if under threat, it may feel compelled to do so pre-emptively. The statement notes that since the exercises were “regarded as the most undisguised nuclear war drills aimed to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, its military counteraction will be more preemptive and offensive nuclear strike [sic] to cope with them.” Later in the statement, the NDC noted that “if the enemies dare kick off even the slightest military action while vociferating about ‘beheading operation’ aimed to remove the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and ‘bring down its social system,’ its army and people will not miss the opportunity but realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification.” The statement goes on to suggest that the retaliatory actions vis-à-vis the South would be conventional, but that nuclear weapons could be used against US bases in the Asia-Pacific and the homeland.
Which brings us to the current conjuncture. First, let’s dispense with the Guam nonsense (as Bob Carlin already has at 38North). The regime did not say it was going to attack Guam. Rather, the Strategic Force outlined a plan—expanding on it in a second statement—that it could fire some rockets in that direction if Kim Jong Un ordered it. Well, it could probably do a lot of other things too. But the operative condition is that Kim Jong Un decides that it is necessary and he didn’t. Moreover, a reading of the first Strategic Force statement clarifies that the reason for even considering such a strike in the first place is because Guam is the main base from which strategic bombers might strike North Korea (in their language, “the outpost and beachhead for invading the DPRK”). Even if they did launch such a test, it sounds like a deterrent signal to me: “any sign you are coming, and we can respond.”
The KPA statement is perhaps the most interesting to read, because it outlines all of the military signaling that the US has been doing—at least from the North Korean perspective—and outlines quite clearly the conditions under which the North would feel compelled to pre-empt. These are listed very clearly, and include if they see signs of: a “beheading” operation (listed first, of course; that is the leadership); “preventive war” (see McMaster); a “pre-emptive” attack; or “secret operations” designed to destabilize the regime. And even in these cases, the language does not state that nuclear weapons would be used in all of these eventualities. For example, parse the following, on the measures that the North would take if its nuclear and missile forces were targeted:
“The Korean-style earlier preemptive attack will burn up all the objects in the areas under the control of the first and third field armies of the puppet forces including Seoul the moment the U.S. reckless attempt at preemptive attack is spotted, and will lead to the all-out attack for neutralizing the launch bases of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces in the Pacific operational theatre together with the simultaneous strike at the depth of the whole of the southern half.”
This sounds like a standard second-strike option to me, despite the language on pre-emption.
The statement by the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army (KPA) is interesting in noting that the repositioning of US forces south of the Han has no effect on their ability to strike directly at US bases with long-range artillery (a claim that is not actually correct, although those forces would not be outside the range of short- and intermediate range missiles; note that this threat makes no mention of nuclear forces per se).
Finally, it is worth pulling back to the broader political level. The political statements from the Government and Foreign Ministry emphasize that the nuclear and missile programs are for deterrent purposes, and even quite explicitly that they are designed to deter nuclear not conventional attack (for example, “the DPRK's inter-continental ballistic rocket is an unquestionable nuclear war deterrent which is fundamentally different from the military equipment for aggressive war developed in strict confidence by the U.S. with the wild ambition to dominate the world by means of surprise attack on other nations.”) Nor is it the case that these statements permanently eschew negotiations, as the editors at 38North already explain in their careful analysis of Ri Yong Ho’s ARF speech. The recent statements analyzed here strike similar tones in at least two places, with the word “unless” once again playing a critical role (for example “as has been declared by respected Supreme Leader Comrade Kim Jong Un, the DPRK will neither put its nukes and ballistic missiles on the negotiating table in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering its nuclear force unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are thoroughly eradicated.”
The bottom line. North Korea’s shift toward talk of pre-emption is unsettling, full stop. But a careful reading of the statements suggests that such actions appear to stem in part from perception that the US might be considering pre-emption. Such attacks would be ordered by Kim Jong Un if and only if North Korea really thought we were coming. Which suggests one of two conclusions: that we should either tone down our own pre-emption rhetoric, or be fully committed to getting the job done and just doing it. That the first option is preferable seems self-evident to me. Let’s hope the president’s core advisors have convinced him of that fact and stay on script as well.