It’s certainly more worrying now that the regime is talking openly about possible preemptive strikes. But has it increased the likelihood that North Korea might press the red button first? Probably not, so long as Kim Jong Un is in power.
Less surprising is North Korea’s rejection (again) of denuclearisation. Pyongyang has said many times in the last decade that nuclear weapons are its right and non-negotiable. They are routinely referred to in press statements and Kim’s annual address to the nation.
Their utility, both military and political, are very high.
Though it is the most militarised state in the world, North Korea’s armed forces are conventionally obsolete.
Nuclear weapons have a large, obvious value. They level what is otherwise a very unequal conventional playing field. And indeed, the North Koreans have begun to develop low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons for battlefield use to firm up their weakening conventional capabilities.
But nuclear weapons are more valuable politically to the regime. Without them, the world would ignore North Korea. The government would have little to show its people for all their sacrifice and privation, especially after a health crisis and economic hardship arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just days after the new law was announced, North Korea featured its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for the first time on new propaganda posters.