On 8 September, the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK adopted a new law on the country’s nuclear force policy, “Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated” (“핵무력 정책에 대하여”). The law specifies principles for the use of nuclear weapons, operation policies, and nuclear force construction, essentially making it a DPRK nuclear posture review.
The nuclear force policy law replaces an earlier law on DPRK’s nuclear status that was adopted on 1 April 2013 (On further consolidating the position of the self-defense nuclear weapons state, 자위적 핵보유국의 지위를 더욱 공고히 할 데 대하여) as a part of the “Byungjin Route for Economic and Nuclear Force Construction” announced the same year. Therefore, the repeal of this law means that the DPRK’s nuclear policy has evolved from a nuclear development level to a nuclear operation level.
Among the contents of the new law, the section on the DPRK’s nuclear command and control deserves careful attention. Article 3 of the new law stipulates the final authority on the use of nuclear weapons, the establishment of a national nuclear use decision-making body, and describes an automated nuclear retaliation system.
The previous law stated that the Supreme Commander has the final authority for nuclear use. However, according to the new law, the President of the State Affairs of the DPRK now has monolithic command authority. Although both the Supreme Commander and the President of State Affairs are in fact the same person—Kim Jong Un—the nuclear use decision-making system has now changed from the military to the national level. This switch of the decision-making system from the military to the national level, like most nuclear-weapon countries, means that DPRK nuclear decision-making now comprehensively considers not only military effects, but also political factors.
The second clause establishes the State Nuclear Forces Command Organization (SNFCO) to assist Kim Jung Un in the decision to use nuclear forces. The SNFCO might consider strategic calculations of political, economic, military, diplomatic, historical, and environmental consequences through a decision-making conference, and the number of members will be determined according to the scope of strategic calculation. The SNFCO might consist of core members of the State Affairs Commission, the Party Central Committee, the Party Central Military Commission, and military commanders, as well as members of the Songun Revolutionary Team (선군혁명소조).
The United States makes decisions on the use of nuclear weapons at the National Military Command Center (NMCC). Similarly, Russia also conducts such decisions at the National Defense Command and Control Center (NDCCC). An early warning system, a communication system, and a strike system assist the decision-making process. Pakistan has a weak early warning system, which may limit its ability to have a nuclear command and control center. Pakistan has adopted a system in which nuclear use decisions are made by the National Command Organization (NCA). Since the DPRK also has a weak early warning system, decisions are likely taken by its national organization (SNFCO).
Kim Jung Un and the SNFCO will make decisions on all nuclear matters such as the use of nuclear weapons, establishment of nuclear forces and strategy, training, and research and development. To support that effort, it is possible that the secretariat of the SNFCO will be divided into nuclear operations and nuclear development planning departments. The nuclear operation planning department might serve as a secretariat to assist in the use of nuclear forces and will likely be composed mainly of military commanders. The operations planning department will plan the use, deployment, operation, and training of nuclear forces, transmit the permissive code, and coordinate information directly to the launch unit. The nuclear development planning department might be in charge of policies for nuclear program development, diplomacy, and energy utilization in the civil sector. It might also be responsible for the safety management of nuclear material storage and production facilities.
The third clause of the article mentioned the “automated nuclear strike system.” It was stipulated that, if Kim Jung Un and the SNFCO are in danger, a nuclear strike against the hostile forces, including the origin of the provocation and the command center, would be carried out automatically and immediately according to a pre-determined operational plan. This is presumed that the “automated nuclear strike system” is a measure to deter the implementation of South Korea’s “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” (KMPR) plan since the KMPR targets DPRK leadership and main military facilities.
The “automated nuclear strike system” operates automatically according to a planned method in a situation where command and control are neutralized. However, assuming the delegation or pre-delegation of nuclear use authority might be an excessive interpretation of this article. Rather, the “automated nuclear strike system” is likely similar to Russia’s “Perimeter” system, which automatically implements nuclear retaliation when the leadership is attacked. If the Russian nuclear command and control system is neutralized by a US preemptive strike, Perimeter automatically launches the command ballistic missile 15A11 (a variant of the single-warhead UR-100 ICBM) and sends a firing order to all surviving ICBMs and SLBMs. Of course, it will depend on the level of technology of the DPRK’s nuclear command and control system, however, they will likely try to build such a Perimeter system in the long term.
Through the announcement of the Nuclear Forces Policy Law, the DPRK may be trying to maximize deterrence by formalizing comprehensive nuclear use conditions and lowering the nuclear use threshold. It may be a stepping stone for the implementation of “nuclear brinkmanship” as an offensive nuclear strategy. In addition, it is similar to Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy, which aims to deter the other side and stabilize the conflict by actively utilizing the threat of nuclear weapons in various situations.
The fact that the DPRK has essentially no restrictions on the conditions for using nuclear weapons is a great threat to the ROK. All military responses, such as the implementation of the ROK’s conventional triad system (KAMD, Kill Chain, KMPR), are under the DPRK’s nuclear shadow, which inevitably limits the military options of the ROK and the US. Therefore, it is necessary to revise and elaborate the Tailored Deterrence Strategy of the ROK and the United States to deter North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. To support this, South Korea’s efforts to build conventional forces and the US’s efforts to enhance alliance guarantees will be needed.
 Nuclear matters handbook 2020, The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, 23-26p
 Feroz Hassan Khan, “NUCLEAR COMMAND, CONTROL AND COMMUNICATIONS (NC3): THE CASE OF PAKISTAN”, NAPSNet Special Reports, September 26, 2019, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/nuclear-command-control-and-communications-nc3-the-case-of-pakistan/
 2016 Defense White Paper, ROK Ministry of National Defense, 71p
 Russia’s ‘Dead Hand’ Is a Soviet-Built Nuclear Doomsday Device, https://www.military.com/history/russias-dead-hand-soviet-built-nuclear-doomsday-device.html
About the Author
Lee Sangkyu is a Research Fellow at the Center for Security and Strategy, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
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Image: Military aircraft from the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea fly together south of the Korean Peninsula Demilitarized Zone in a show of force following North Korean ballistic missile launches, 31 August 2017. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Fox Echols III.