By Connor Murray
As I begin my work at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, I am reminded of the source of my passion for nuclear disarmament: the mistaken idea many others in my generation have that nuclear weapons no longer represented an existential threat after the Cold War.
I am a certified millennial and therefore did not grow up with the same immediate threat of nuclear-armed conflict as my Boomer parents. However, recent developments involving nuclear-armed states have heightened that threat and reignited discussions worldwide.
The focus for many in the nuclear policy community has been on fighting in Ukraine and military drills around Taiwan this summer, with good reason. However, North Korea has also been busy updating its nuclear posture. Recently reported links between North Korea and Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and Kim Jong-Un’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric certainly raise concerns. All the while, the DPRK has tested more than 30 missiles this year in an increasingly desperate bid for attention. It may go further and test a nuclear weapon for the first time since 2017.
In addition to this news, North Korea recently made significant comments regarding its nuclear posture. Kim Jong-Un declared his country would never give up their nuclear weapons, meaning that if they had theoretically been on the negotiating table before, they no longer are. The country’s parliament also passed legislation authorizing a first nuclear strike if the United States or South Korea attempt to remove Kim and updated unspecified operational duties for front-line troops. Although easy to dismiss as a dictator’s paranoia, this is a significant escalation and raises the potential of a nuclear-armed conflict as North Korea’s ability to attain accurate intelligence that would inform such a first strike is in question.
Policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have previously chalked North Korean missile tests up to cries for attention and aid. The number of tests this year, coupled with the new policy announcements, suggest that Kim Jong-Un may be ready to raise the stakes. For example, new North Korean propaganda posters feature two nuclear-tipped missiles for the first time in five years. The North Korean leader may also be taking advantage of global attention being focused elsewhere.
The hardened rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang is a bad sign for those of us who want to see the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the idea that the DPRK government is devolving launch authority could make accidental or mistaken use of a nuclear weapon more likely. All this underlines the importance of spreading the word that nuclear threats still exist 40 years after the end of the Cold War and of maintaining diplomatic dialogue on the Korean peninsula to make the world’s most dangerous real estate a little less so.