North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned again that the North could preemptively use its nuclear weapons if threatened, as he praised his top army officials for a massive military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, this week.
Mr. Kim expressed “firm will” to continue developing his nuclear-armed military so that it could “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces, if necessary,” the North's official Korean Central News Agency said Saturday.
KCNA said Mr. Kim called his military officials to praise their work during Monday's parade, where the North showcased the biggest weapons in its nuclear arsenal, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the U.S. homeland. The North also rolled out a variety of shorter-range solid-fuel missiles designed to be fired from land vehicles or submarines, which pose a growing threat to South Korea and Japan.
KCNA didn't say when Mr. Kim's meeting with military brass took place.
The parade marking the 90th anniversary of North Korea's army came as Mr. Kim revives nuclear brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of his country as a nuclear power and remove crippling economic sanctions.
Speaking to thousands of troops and spectators mobilised for the parade, Mr. Kim vowed to develop his nuclear forces at the “fastest possible speed” and threatened to use them if provoked. He said his nuclear weapons would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent” in situations where the North faces external threats to its “fundamental interests”.
Mr. Kim's comments suggested he would continue a provocative run in weapons testing to dial up the pressure on Washington and Seoul. South Korea will inaugurate a new conservative government in May that could take a harder line on Pyongyang following the engagement polices of outgoing liberal President Moon Jae-in that produced few results.
Mr. Kim's threat to use his nuclear forces to protect his country's ambiguously defined “fundamental interests” possibly portends an escalatory nuclear doctrine that could pose greater concern for South Korea, Japan and the U.S., experts say.
North Korea has conducted 13 rounds of weapons launches so far this year, including its first full-range test of an ICBM since 2017, while Mr. Kim exploits a favorable environment to push forward its weapons program as the UN Security Council remains divided and effectively paralysed over Russia's war in Ukraine.
There are also signs that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017. Some experts say the North may try to conduct a new test sometime between the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol on May 10 and his planned summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21 to maximise its political effect.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said the United States was aware of reports that North Korea could be preparing to conduct a nuclear test, which she said would be deeply destabilising for the region and undermine the global non-proliferation regime, “We urge the DPRK to refrain from further destabilizing activity and instead engage in serious and sustained dialogue,” she said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Mr. Kim's recent remarks followed a fiery statement released by his powerful sister earlier this month in which she blasted South Korea's defense minister for touting preemptive strike capabilities against the North. She said her country's nuclear forces would annihilate the South's conventional forces if provoked.
Mr. Yoon, during his campaign, also talked about enhancing the South's preemptive strike capabilities and missile defenses. He also vowed to strengthen South Korea's defense in conjunction with its alliance with the United States.
While Mr. Kim's collection of ICBMs has grabbed much international attention, North Korea since 2019 has also been expanding its arsenal of short-range solid-fuel missiles threatening South Korea.
The North describes some of those missiles as “tactical” weapons, which experts say communicates a threat to arm them with smaller battlefield nuclear bombs and proactively use them during conventional warfare to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in the South.
North Korea may use its next nuclear test to claim that it has acquired the ability to build a small nuclear warhead to fit on those missiles or other weapons it recently tested, including a purported hypersonic missile and a long-range cruise missile, analysts say. Smaller warheads would also be necessary for the North's pursuit of a multi-warhead ICBM.
“Solid-fuelled missiles are easier to hide, move and launch quickly, making them less vulnerable to a preemptive strike,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul's Ewha Womans University.
“Taken together with ambitions for tactical nuclear warheads, submarine-based launch capabilities, and more sophisticated ICBMs, Pyongyang is not simply looking to deter an attack. Its goals extend to outrunning South Korea in an arms race and coercing the United States to reduce sanctions enforcement and security cooperation with Seoul,” Mr. Easley added.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over a potential easing of U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps.
Mr. Kim has stuck to his goals of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the country's dismal economy in the face of international pressure and has shown no willingness to fully surrender a nuclear arsenal he sees as his biggest guarantee of survival.