2024 looks set to be an even more perilous year than 2023 on the Korean Peninsula as nuclear threat and counter threat have escalated even further since the beginning of January. On New Year’s Day, South Korea’s defence ministry repeated previous threats to destroy the North Korean “regime” if it uses nuclear weapons. This was a response to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un’s speech the day before in which he told his military to prepare for possible war.
Since then, Kim has said he has given up on the idea of peaceful reunification with South Korea designating it a hostile state and again warned of possible war. In the past week alone, Kim has called for a change in the constitution to designate Seoul as Pyongyang’s “primary foe” and a confidence building military agreement with the South agreed in 2018 has started to fall apart as the South Korean armed forces resumed frontline aerial surveillance in the wake of North Korean artillery exercises near a South Korean island on the maritime border between the two states.
The expected change in the constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) follows an amendment last year that enshrined nuclear weapons in it.
This week has also seen the North testing what it says is a solid-fueled hypersonic missile and an underwater nuclear drone in response to what some observers say is the largest ever joint naval exercise between South Korea, the United States and Japan.
Analysts believe Pyongyang is developing both so-called strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in order to deter the US which is committed to use nuclear weapons in South Korea’s defence.
North Korea has been testing more and more advanced ballistic missiles and warheads, some with the range to reach the US and has also said it is developing ship-launched cruise missiles, while the Americans have been mounting repeated shows of force including military exercises using nuclear-capable aircraft and the visit of a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea.
Last year, the US and South Korea agreed to increase their cooperation on the planning for the use of nuclear weapons following earlier statements by South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, that suggested Seoul might develop its own nuclear weapons. Yoon has since cooled talk of acquiring nuclear weapons,but the debate continues in policy circles.
Another escalatory move has been increasing military cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan, which also endorses the use of American nuclear weapons in its defence.
In the light of this, some analysts see the Korean Peninsula as the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in a world that currently has no shortage of conflict involving nuclear-armed states in Ukraine and Gaza.
Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s Policy and Research Coordinator, called for restraint on all sides: “Inflammatory nuclear rhetoric and threats, accompanied by military exercises and weapons tests, ramp up tensions and bring us closer to the brink of catastrophe. All nuclear-armed states, including North Korea and the US, as well as those allied on nuclear policies, such as Japan and South Korea, need to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and to break free from the dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a crucial step to delegitimise nuclear deterrence and eliminate nuclear weapons.”
North Korea uses the same justification for its actions as the US, and the other declared nuclear-armed states. Just like Washington, Pyongyang says it is committed to disarmament, but argues the security threats it faces mean it needs nuclear weapons to deter its enemies.
The doctrine of deterrence is based on the threat to use nuclear weapons with all the catastrophic consequences that would entail for the whole world. As the states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) declared at their recent meeting in New York: “the renewed advocacy, insistence on and attempts to justify nuclear deterrence as a legitimate security doctrine gives false credence to the value of nuclear weapons for national security and dangerously increases the risk of horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation.”
The TPNW is growing in strength and has just welcomed its 70th state party while a further 27 countries are signatories. These states recognise that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a global imperative and they are showing responsible leadership by championing the treaty as the best way to end the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.