CNA Explains: North Korea’s new law allows it to launch nuclear strikes to protect itself, but what are the chances of that happening?

When asked if Pyongyang’s latest move will push Seoul to seek its own nuclear deterrent, both Dr Nah and Mr Oh said it was unlikely.

Dr Nah observed that the South was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and stood to “retain the global moral high ground” by refusing to initiate a “tit-for-tat” nuclear arms programme.

“Seoul will not jeopardise US support by seeking an independent nuclear deterrent”, he added. 

Mr Oh added that it would be possible only if the “current stalemate continues for too long a time without a breakthrough”.


North Korea’s law legitimises its use of nuclear weapons as a form of self-defence and a “last means” to deal with external attack and aggression. 

It is the “main force of the state defence which safeguards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the lives and safety of the people from outside military threat, aggression and attack”. 

It elaborates that its use of nuclear forces will make clear to hostile opponents that “military confrontation with (North Korea) brings about ruin” so that enemies would give up attempts at aggression. 

Dr Nah, noted however, that the North’s law is not definitive.

He pointed out that while Kim re-affirmed its commitment to denuclearisation during the first Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore in 2018, the new law essentially rendered all promises “null and void”. 

In the event that the “command and control system over the state nuclear forces” – referring to Kim and the members he appoints to govern the nuclear forces – are in danger from a hostile force, a nuclear strike can be “launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces including the starting point of provocation and the command according to the operation plan decided in advance”.

However Pyongyang maintains that it will not threaten non-nuclear weapons states or use nuclear power against them, unless these states collude with aggressors carrying nuclear weapons. 

“Essentially, nothing that the Kim regime says can be trusted. The only things that matter are what Pyongyang does, not what it says,” Dr Nah added.

Mr Oh said that when it comes to the possibility of a real nuclear strike, he thinks North Korea’s new law is “more of a bluff than a well-prepared military plan”.

But he added that North Korea might go for military provocations against South Korea or the US more easily, assuming that the new law has given the North “greater leeway in an escalation of tension, which could lead to a dangerous development”. 

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