North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the “exponential” expansion of his country's nuclear arsenal, the development of a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile and the launch of its first spy satellite, state media reported Sunday, after he entered 2023 with another weapons firing following a record number of testing activities last year.
Kim’s moves are in line with the broad direction of his nuclear weapons development program as he has repeatedly vowed to boost both the quality and quantity of his arsenal to cope with what he calls U.S. hostility. Some experts say Kim’s push to produce more nukes and new weapons systems reflects his hopes to solidify his future negotiating power as he heads into prolonged tensions with the U.S. and its allies.
“They are now keen on isolating and stifling (North Korea), unprecedented in human history,” Kim said at a recently ended ruling party meeting, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. “The prevailing situation calls for making redoubled efforts to overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle."
Kim accused South Korea of being “hell-bent on imprudent and dangerous arms build-up” and openly trumpeting its preparations for war with North Korea. That, Kim said, highlights the need to mass-produce battlefield tactical nuclear weapons and push for “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal,” KCNA said.
Kim also set forth a task to develop another ICBM system “whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike," KCNA said. It said Kim accused the United States of frequently deploying nuclear strike means in South Korea and pushing to establish a NATO-like regional military bloc.
Kim said North Korea will also launch its first military reconnaissance satellite “at the earliest date possible,” saying related preparations are in their final stages.
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Tactical nuclear weapons and a military reconnaissance satellite are among Kim's long wish list of new weaponry. Other weapons he wants include a multi-warhead missile, a more agile solid-fueled ICBM, an underwater-launched nuclear missile and a hypersonic weapon.
“Kim’s comments from the party meeting reads like an ambitious — but perhaps achievable — new year’s resolution list,” said Soo Kim, a security analyst at the California-based RAND Corporation. “It’s ambitious in that Kim consciously chose to spell out what he hopes to accomplish as we head into 2023, but it also suggests a dose of confidence on Kim’s part.”
Last month, North Korea claimed to have performed key tests needed for the development of a new strategic weapon, a likely reference to a solid-fueled ICBM, and a spy satellite.
Kim’s identification of South Korea as an enemy and the mentioning of hostile U.S. and South Korean policies is “a reliable pretext for the regime to produce more missiles and weapons to solidify Kim’s negotiating position and concretize North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons power,” Soo Kim said.
Some observers say North Korea wants to become a legitimate nuclear power state as a way to win the lifting of U.N. and other international sanctions and force the end of the regular U.S.-South Korean military drills that the North views as an invasion rehearsal.
“It was during his 2018 New Year’s speech that (Kim) first ordered the mass production of warheads and ballistic missiles, and he’s doubling down on that quantitative expansion goal in the coming year,” said Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Panda said the reference to a new ICBM appears to concern a solid-propellant system, saying that “We should expect to see larger, solid propellant missiles tested soon."
Panda said the satellite launch should take place in April. North Korea typically marks April 15, the birth anniversary of Kim's late father and state founder, Kim Il Sung, with great fanfare and state-organized celebrations.
Outside worries about North Korea’s nuclear program have grown since the North last year approved a new law that authorized the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations and openly threatened to use its nuclear weapons first.
During his speech at the party meeting, Kim reiterated that threat.
“(Kim's report) made clear that our nuclear force considers it as the first mission to deter war and safeguard peace and stability. However, if it fails to deter, it will carry out the second mission, which will not be for defense,” KCNA said.
The North’s increasing nuclear threats have prompted the United States and South Korea to expand their military exercises and strengthen a trilateral security cooperation involving Japan. The U.S. military has warned any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners “will result in the end of that regime."
Earlier Sunday, South Korea’s military detected the missile launch from the North’s capital region. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement the missile traveled about 400 kilometers (250 miles) before falling into the water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff called the launch “a grave provocation” that hurts peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and around the world. It said South Korea maintains a readiness to overwhelmingly deal with any provocations.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the U.S. commitments to defend South Korea and Japan “remain ironclad.”
North Korea test-fired more than 70 missiles last year, including the three short-range ballistic missiles detected by South Korea on Saturday. The North’s testing spree indicates the country is likely emboldened by its advancing nuclear program, though whether the country has functioning nuclear missiles remains a source of outside debate.
North Korea’s state media confirmed Sunday that the country conducted the test-firings of its super-large multiple rocket launcher to test the weapon’s capability. KCNA said three shells fired from the launcher on Saturday accurately hit an island target off the country's eastern coast. It said North Korea fired another shell from the launcher toward its eastern waters Sunday.
Kim Jong Un said the rocket launcher puts all of South Korea within striking distance and is capable of carrying a tactical nuclear warhead, according to KCNA.
Outside experts categorize weapons fired from the launcher as ballistic missiles because of their trajectories, ranges and other characteristics.
“Its recent missile launches were not technically impressive. Instead, the high volume of tests at unusual times and from various locations demonstrate that North Korea could launch different types of attack, anytime, and from many directions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Animosities between the rival Koreas have further deepened since early last week, when South Korea accused North Korea of flying drones across the countries’ heavily fortified border for the first time in five years and responded by sending its own drones toward the North.