Pre-empting defeat: In search of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine

Press release

North Korea’s nuclear doctrine: Clear, coherent and credible

Pyongyang’s official statements show that it is focussed on defence and deterrence, but that it is prepared to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike against both military and civilian targets if it detects an imminent attack.

Unlike other states that have developed a nuclear arsenal, North Korea does not have an official document that sets out its nuclear doctrine to the outside world. The absence of a conclusive document leads many in the West to mistakenly believe that Pyongyang lacks a strategy for the conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons, or even that it is an irrational actor.

A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that this is a mistake. An analysis of material published by the country’s official news outlets in the five years since Kim Jong Un came to power reveals a clear and coherent strategy, based on a rational cost-benefit analysis.

Kim Jong Un has shown a clear intention to formalise and strengthen North Korea’s nuclear status, indicating that this is a non-negotiable national goal for North Korea. His pursuit of increased nuclear and missile tests and diversification of the nuclear arsenal gives great cause for concern.

But despite this aggressive approach to building North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, domestic sources indicate that the regime considers nuclear weapons to be primarily a defensive capability: there is no mention in the sources of the possibility of using nuclear weapons to coerce rivals or prevent enemies from developing certain military capacities.

Instead, the use of nuclear weapons is envisaged only in the case of an imminent attack against North Korea, especially a ‘decapitation strike’ aimed at taking out the leadership. In such cases, North Korea says it is prepared to launch a pre-emptive first strike.

While the existence of rational, strategic thinking, and the defensive posture of Pyongyang’s strategy may be somewhat reassuring, there are several worrying features of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine.

·         It makes no distinction between conventional and nuclear attacks on North Korea

·         It makes no distinction between military and civilian targets in enemy countries

·         It does not define a sequence of escalation from using conventional weapons against military targets to using nuclear weapons against civilian targets

·         It lacks any defined endgame to its use of nuclear weapons, or evaluation of the consequences of using them

In theory, any attack against the country could therefore result in a North Korean nuclear strike against civilian targets. This looks like an attempt to strengthen deterrence by leaving all options on the table.

But it also increases the chance of a catastrophic mistake. Lacking reliable intelligence, the Korean People’s Army could easily conclude that military operations by the US around the peninsula were the first step in an imminent attack, resulting in a pre-emptive nuclear strike by Pyongyang.

Report author Mathieu Duchâtel said: “Given Pyongyang’s focus on pre-emption, Europe should host talks between the US and regional states aimed at contingency planning to avoid incidents that might lead to a quick escalation to nuclear strikes.”

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