North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signalled a looser policy toward his possible use of atomic weapons at a military parade in Pyongyang aired on state television late Tuesday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have lowered his threshold for a nuclear strike, raising the risks of a miscalculation as he rolls out new weapons whose uses range from nearby tactical strikes to threatening the U.S. homeland from afar.
Kim signalled a looser policy toward his possible use of atomic weapons at a military parade in Pyongyang aired on state television late Tuesday. While North Korea’s nuclear force was primarily meant to “deter wars,” it had a “second mission,” and “cannot be bound to only one mission if there’s an outbreak of an unwanted situation on this land,” he told tens of thousands of adoring citizens Monday night.
The North Korean leader has backed his words with tests of weapons designed to evade American missile defences in Asia and deliver warheads to the U.S. mainland. Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing a key site for the country’s first nuclear test since 2017, after pledging to develop new miniaturized warheads for tactical weapons and more powerful bombs that would be carried by long-range rockets.
The parade indicates Kim’s “nuclear doctrine was expanding and becoming more aggressive,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as a security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The North Korean leader’s actions indicated his policy had “reached a different phase,” where he could seek to leverage the threat of atomic strikes to achieve diplomatic goals, said Cha, who’s now a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute.
“It’s not the first time Kim Jong Un hinted at North Korea’s first-use option, but he usually emphasized that he’d use the weapons as a deterring tool,” Cha said.
The shift raises the risk of nuclear miscalculation in the Asia-Pacific region, even as Russia repeatedly raises the spectre of a similar confrontation over Ukraine in Europe. Kim has so far rejected U.S. President Joe Biden’s overtures to resume nuclear talks that sputtered out after his predecessor, Donald Trump, rejected Kim’s demands for sweeping relief from international sanctions in return for closing a key nuclear complex.
Kim has been steadily ratcheting up tensions with the U.S. and South Korea since talks broke down in 2019, including record volleys of ballistic missile tests banned by United Nations resolutions. Last month, North Korea fired off its first intercontinental ballistic missile in more than four years, after rolling out several new weapons such as hypersonic glide vehicles designed to use high speeds and manoeuvrability to evade interceptors.
This week’s parade featured the expanding array of nuclear-capable systems, including new tactical weapons that could hit many U.S. bases in South Korea in three minutes or less. The event featured eight ICBMs, among them four Hwasong-17s, which are believed to be intended to carry multiple warheads across the Pacific.
“Kim’s speech identified his continued threat to use nuclear weapons early in a conflict,” said Melissa Hanham, a non-proliferation expert and an affiliate with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. “This type of thinking creates an unstable dynamic prone to accidents or misunderstanding.”