Kim Jong Un Orders North Korean Nukes Placed On ‘Standby’

More saber rattling from Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

North Korea appears to be entering another period of saber rattling with the announcement that Kim Jong Un has ordered that the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal be placed on ‘standby’:

SEOUL, South Korea — The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has urged his military to have its nuclear warheads deployed and ready to be fired at any moment, the country’s state-run news agency reported Friday.

Mr. Kim’s comments were reported a day after the United Nations Security Council approved tougher sanctions aimed at curtailing his country’s ability to secure funds and technology for its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency called the resolution unanimously adopted by the Council “unprecedented and gangster-like,” and it quoted Mr. Kim as repeating his exhortation to his military to further advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

“The only way for defending the sovereignty of our nation and its right to existence under the present extreme situation is to bolster up nuclear force, both in quality and quantity, and keep balance of forces,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.

He then stressed “the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired any moment,” the agency said.

Later Friday, the North issued a statement calling the Security Council resolution a “heinous provocation” and promising unspecified “strong and ruthless physical responses.”

In Seoul, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea warned that Pyongyang could attempt more provocations and said the South’s military should be prepared. “This time, we must make North Korea realize that its regime cannot survive without giving up its nuclear weapons,” she said in a speech at a commissioning ceremony for military officers.

North Korea has often threatened nuclear war with the United States and has claimed to have built nuclear weapons small enough to be carried by missiles. Yet questions remain about its capabilities, including how close it has come to mastering technologies to build a small warhead and deliver it on a long-range missile.

In Seoul on Friday, representatives of the South Korean and American armed forces on a joint task force met to discuss the possible deployment of an advanced missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad.

South Korea agreed to consider the deployment after the North’s launch of a long-range rocket on Feb. 7. President Park’s government says that Thaad would bolster its defense against North Korean missiles, but China has strongly opposed the deployment, saying that its presence on the Korean Peninsula would undermine its own nuclear deterrent capabilities.

In the past, North Korea has escalated its bellicose threats whenever the United States and South Korea start their annual joint military exercises, which it says are aimed at overthrowing its government.

Some of the annual drills are scheduled to begin this month. On Friday, the North Korean news agency charged that the exercises included drills for a “beheading operation” and the “collapse of social system” in the North.

“Now is the time for us to convert our mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into an pre-emptive attack one in every aspect,” it quoted Mr. Kim as saying in response.

K.C.N.A. said that Mr. Kim had made his remarks while inspecting tests of new weapons, including fragmentation-mine shells and underground penetration shells for the North’s newly developed large-caliber multiple-rocket launcher that it said had entered serial production.

It did not clarify when the tests had taken place. But the South Korean Defense Ministry said that North Korea had launched six projectiles off its east coast on Thursday, hours after the Security Council resolution was adopted unanimously.

From the outside, it looks like this is mostly yet another example of the North saber rattling in response to the actions of others as it has so many times in the past rather than a sign that things are about to take a far more serious turn on the Korean Peninsula. As noted, it was just yesterday that the U.N. Security Council gave final approval to the latest round of sanctions against Pyongyang that had been agreed upon by the United States, China, and the other interested parties in the region. Additionally, the U.S. and South Korea are about to begin another round of joint military exercises and it has become something of a tradition that the North ends up doing something in response to those exercises. This announcement fits within the range of actions we’ve seen from the Kim regime in the past whenever they are displeased with something happening in the neighborhood.

That isn’t to say that the content of Kim’s directive shouldn’t be concerning, though. The idea that the nuclear arsenal of a nation like North Korea is or could potentially could be placed on a hair trigger is something that ought to worry the entire region. The possibility in such a situation that a misunderstanding, or an irrational delusion, could lead to the launch of highly destructive weapons toward South Korea, Japan, Australia, or even the United States is probably higher than most people are willing to admit. Additionally, the odds that Kim would be more likely to use nuclear weapons in a situation where he feels there is an existential threat to his regime are likely much higher in a situation where those weapons readily available to use. In the end, of course, this is yet another argument in favor of the proposition that, in the end, something will have to be done about the Kim regime before it becomes a real threat and before it sets off an arms race in the region that could lead to a whole host of other conflicts, such as between China and Japan or China and South Korea. Obviously, there’s only one entity capable of “doing something” about Kim, but for now the leaders in Beijing seem to continue to think that doing nothing is the best option.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Wait. Does North Korea have a nuclear arsenal?

    We can calculate the amount of fissile material they MIGHT have: most experts feel that’s about enough for 5-10 bombs. The fact that is is so often expressed that way gives rise to the sense that maybe they have bombs.

    North Korea has set off four underground nuclear explosions. Not all seem to have been fully successful, judged by the expectations of those who know something about how nuclear testing is done. You can set up something underground that will produce a nuclear explosion, but it may not be translatable to a deliverable weapon. In fact, that translation requires a fair bit of additional engineering.

    The United Nations imposed serious sanctions on North Korea this week. It is customary for Kim Jong Un to respond to such things with threats and rocket launchings. That may or may not imply anything about whether North Korea has nukes or what condition they are in.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I wonder what he means by “standby”.

    Since at this point it’s unlikely that the North Koreans have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons let alone an arsenal of nuclear weapons to deliver, it’s all very puzzling.

  3. @Dave Schuler:

    Yes the delivery question had occurred to me as well. I suppose they could rely on bombers, but that would limit the range of the weapons and subject them to being stopped by air defense systems before reaching a target.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    The Chinese don’t want to tip over the basket because they’re worried they’re going to get invaded by a horde of starving North Koreans.

    I wonder if there is anything that Kim Jong Un could say or do that would push them into action?

    It’s at times like this that one really wishes for controllable asteroids.

  5. John says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Probably not. KJU has done a pretty good of wiping out anybody whose loyalty might be to Beijing rather than him and is also trying to make a limited effort of diversifying his FP connections. Beijing’s got a better relationship with Seoul these days than Pyongyang, but the brutal truth is that there are even a sizable portion of South Koreans, especially when we get to the people born after 1960, who don’t particularly don’t want the DPRK to collapse. Or at least not in a way that ends up with them footing the price for it.

    The DPRK is one of those shining examples of our Best and Brightest refusing to understand what the North Koreans actually believe and thus are capable of, even though they are far from shy about stating it, mainly because it simply doesn’t resonate with the world of the Beltway and Davos, all this “purest race” stuff.

    The worst part about them is, shockingly enough, not that they hold Seoul hostage. It’s that one of the few ways they can make money is selling various weapons to any takers. The Pakistani and Iranian nuclear programs both have North Korean connections, and that’s before we get the potential of certain networks. And it’s not just nuclear weapons.

  6. dazedandconfused says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Puzzle it as a message intended for their own people, not for us.

  7. DrDaveT says:

    @grumpy realist:

    It’s at times like this that one really wishes for controllable asteroids.

    Not really. That’s Ted Cruz thinking, in which megadeaths don’t matter if they’re people I don’t personally care about.

    I have nothing against the unfortunate people of North Korea, who deserve better than they are currently getting. The great majority of them had nothing to do with creating the monster that rules them, nor any real power to prevent the current situation.