North Korea’s Nuclear Fail-Safe

With a new law, Kim Jong Un takes a page from the Soviet nuclear playbook to ensure payback.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown on a television screen at a train station in Seoul on Sept. 9.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown on a television screen at a train station in Seoul on Sept. 9.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown on a television screen at a train station in Seoul on Sept. 9. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, North Korea announced its most significant update to its nuclear weapons law in almost a decade, clarifying the nuclear chain of command in the event that Kim Jong Un kicks the bucket before he can press the button. 

The law offers little new for longtime North Korea watchers, but it does offer insight into how Pyongyang seeks to ensure deterrence if its supreme leader were to be killed by an adversary’s attack. “In case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces,” the new policy reads, “a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces including the starting point of provocation and the command according to the operation plan decided in advance.” 

This text is carefully worded in such a way that it doesn’t identify a successor to Kim or imply that anyone other than Kim has the authority to issue a nuclear order even upon his death. Rather, it suggests that orders will be executed “according to the operation plan decided in advance,” meaning someone else may press the proverbial nuclear button, but only as an extension of Kim’s living will. As such, the plan promises nuclear retaliation through what’s known as a “dead hand”—exemplified by the eponymous Soviet-Russian system meant to launch a nuclear strike if Western missiles take out Moscow’s military leadership.

Last week, North Korea announced its most significant update to its nuclear weapons law in almost a decade, clarifying the nuclear chain of command in the event that Kim Jong Un kicks the bucket before he can press the button. 

The law offers little new for longtime North Korea watchers, but it does offer insight into how Pyongyang seeks to ensure deterrence if its supreme leader were to be killed by an adversary’s attack. “In case the command and control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces,” the new policy reads, “a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces including the starting point of provocation and the command according to the operation plan decided in advance.” 

This text is carefully worded in such a way that it doesn’t identify a successor to Kim or imply that anyone other than Kim has the authority to issue a nuclear order even upon his death. Rather, it suggests that orders will be executed “according to the operation plan decided in advance,” meaning someone else may press the proverbial nuclear button, but only as an extension of Kim’s living will. As such, the plan promises nuclear retaliation through what’s known as a “dead hand”—exemplified by the eponymous Soviet-Russian system meant to launch a nuclear strike if Western missiles take out Moscow’s military leadership.

The timing here is no coincidence. South Korea’s newly elected Yoon Suk-yeol administration favors a hard-line approach for its North Korea policy, and it has recently doubled down on previous administrations’ plans that allow for retaliatory strikes against North Korean leadership targets. For North Korea, a state whose primary strategic aim is to preserve its family business and defend against attempts at forced regime change, this is an existential threat.

A decapitation strike makes sense, in adversaries’ eyes, because Kim is the one man in North Korea with his finger on the button. The new law is explicit in this sense, making it crystal clear that Kim has “monolithic command” of the state’s nuclear forces. Seoul and other potential adversaries surmised that without Kim, North Korea could be left scrambling without a clear way to designate nuclear authority, and thus incapable of carrying out a retaliatory response. 

North Korea, like all nuclear states, needs a plan B so adversaries know any incapacitation of leadership won’t necessarily compromise its nuclear deterrent. A new study lays out what those options could look like. Countries like the United States have a line of succession for nuclear authority, from the vice president to the speaker of the House, and so forth. Others delegate, granting discretion over when and how to employ nuclear weapons after making the decision that nuclear use is required. Or, leaders can delegate authority prior to conflict in anticipation that they may lose contact or become incapacitated in the course of war; British prime ministers famously dispatch “letters of last resort” to the commanders of nuclear submarines. Using an automatic approach, leaders make a pre-authorized order, which will be automatically executed should they become incapacitated—essentially, making the decision, but handing off the “nuclear button” to someone else, not unlike Russia’s “dead hand” fail-safe.

By putting things on autopilot, Kim avoids having to pick an heir, said Shane Smith, director of the U.S. Air Force Academy Institute for National Security Studies. No potential heir means no real-time rivals. Another question is whether North Korea can actually communicate launch orders if Kim is out of the picture. 

Still, putting another hand on the button makes sense from a deterrence standpoint, given North Korea’s limited strategic depth and acute sense of vulnerability, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program. “They took the right lessons away from Dr. Strangelove. If you’re going to have a doomsday device, don’t keep it a secret,” he said.

Pyongyang hopes the new plans will make Washington and Seoul think twice about striking leadership. But this strategy is not without risk; it could exacerbate the already worrisome potential for escalation or misperception in times of crisis. This risk is particularly concerning to the United States, which has long worried about being dragged into a conflict by an adventurous South Korea.

To smooth things over, the United States and its South Korean allies could publicly swear off decapitation strikes. But Kim’s been twice-burned by the spectacular diplomatic failures of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and the director of its 38 North program, said Kim suffered domestically for returning home empty-handed from the summits in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019. “We see the price of not getting what they wanted when they were willing to negotiate,” she said. “If we go back to negotiations now, we’re not starting from Hanoi. With a newly powerful North Korea, the price will be higher.” 

In the 2013 edition of the new law, North Korea, a threshold nuclear state with a minimally credible deterrent, went to great lengths to justify the existence of its nuclear weapons program. Almost a decade later, North Korea is a rapidly maturing nuclear power that has made qualitative and quantitative advancements. Beyond its accumulation of nuclear warheads, Pyongyang has built better, more precise missiles, some of which are capable of evading missile defenses, and some of which may be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets in Northeast Asia and potentially in the United States and Europe.

That makes it a fundamentally different threat from when the South first designed these plans under the Park Geun-hye administration. In 2022, the codification of North Korea’s new nuclear posture marks an important step forward in its evolution as a nuclear state. Pyongyang is no longer rattling scabbards, but sabers.

Megan DuBois is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @meganmdubois

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