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North Korea codifies right to launch preemptive nuclear strikes

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang this week. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared his country would never relinquish its nuclear weapons, as the regime’s leadership codified in law its right to launch preemptive nuclear strikes, state media said Friday.

The North’s rubber-stamp parliament passed the law authorizing the military to use nuclear weapons “automatically and immediately” in case of an imminent attack against its leadership or “important strategic objects” in the country, the Korean Central News Agency said.

The law updates Pyongyang’s rules on when its nuclear arms can be used, including in response to an attack by weapons of mass destruction or in case of a “catastrophic crisis” that threatens the safety of the North Korean people. North Korea’s constitution already proclaims the country to be a nuclear weapons state.

“The utmost significance of legislating nuclear weapons policy is to draw an irretrievable line so that there can be no bargaining over our nuclear weapons,” Kim said in a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s titular parliament that passed the law Thursday.

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North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and since then has built up an arsenal of atomic weapons and missiles that can deliver warheads to the U.S. mainland. Officials in Seoul and Washington have warned that Pyongyang could soon resume nuclear tests for the first time since 2017, when the U.N. Security Council imposed economic sanctions on the regime in response to its weapons development.

In 2019, Kim had a second summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and called for the lifting of sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps. But the talks in Hanoi broke down due to disagreements over sanctions relief, and negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have made little headway since.

In recent months, North Korea has ramped up tensions by conducting additional weapons tests, including one of a long-range missile earlier this year. The regime has spurned the Biden administration’s repeated offer to sit down for nuclear talks “anywhere, anytime.”

“Pyongyang is basically saying the only basis for future talks would be ones that recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state,” said Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of the Korea Risk Group. The regime’s nuclear doctrine poses a question to the Biden administration on whether it can keep its policy of dialogue with North Korea, he said.

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Kim also addressed domestic issues in the parliamentary speech, saying that North Korea would roll out a vaccine program in November for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. He did not mention the coronavirus and referred only to battling a “malicious virus.” And he did not give details on the type of vaccine or how doses will be administered.

Pyongyang has been ignoring offers of coronavirus aid from the United States, South Korea and international organizations. Gavi, a vaccine distribution network for the United Nations-backed Covax program, said in June that it “understands” North Korea had accepted coronavirus vaccines from China.

While increasing pressure against Washington, North Korea has been strengthening ties with China and Russia, its ideological and political allies. U.S. intelligence said this week that Russia is buying rockets and artillery shells from North Korea as it wages war against Ukraine.

“North Korea likely sees a world that is bending towards its ideals rather than away from it, and that now is the time to make it official that its nuclear weapons are here to stay,” said Karl Friedhoff, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.