North Korean leader vows ‘offensive’ nuclear expansion

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to enhance his nuclear arsenal in more “practical and offensive” ways as he met with senior military officials to discuss the country’s war preparations in the face of his rivals’ “frantic” military exercises, state media said Tuesday.

The meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission on Monday came amid heightened tensions as the pace of both the North Korean weapons demonstrations and the U.S.-South Korean joint military drills have intensified in recent weeks in a cycle of tit-for-tat.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the commission’s members discussed unspecified issues related to strengthening defense capacities and perfecting war preparations to counter the threat posed by the allies’ drills, which the North portrays as invasion rehearsals.

Kim reviewed the country’s frontline attack plans and various combat documents and stressed the need to bolster his nuclear deterrent with “increasing speed on a more practical and offensive” manner, KCNA said.

The report did not specify the directions the North intended to take. KCNA also published photos of Kim talking to officials while pointing to certain spots on a blurred map that appeared to be of South Korea.

KCNA said Kim and the military commission members analyzed the security situation on the Korean Peninsula “in which the U.S. imperialists and the (South) Korean puppet traitors are getting ever more undisguised in their moves for a war of aggression” and discussed preparation for proposed military actions that their enemy has no way of counteracting.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries conducted their biggest field exercises in years last month and separately held joint naval and air force drills involving a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and nuclear-capable U.S. bombers. KCNA claimed the drills simulated an all-out war against North Korea and communicated threats to occupy Pyongyang and decapitate its leadership.

The United States and South Korea have described their exercises as defensive in nature and said that the expansion of those drills are necessary to cope with the North’s evolving threats.

Tensions are likely to be prolonged as the allies continue their drills and North Korea uses them as a pretext to advance weapons development and intensify military training involving its nuclear-capable missiles.

The North Korean report came as South Korean officials said the North did not respond to South Korean calls placed over inter-Korean liaison and military hotlines for the fifth consecutive day. South Korean officials say North Korea cut off communications after the South last week urged the North to stop using without permission South Korean assets left at a now-shuttered joint factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.

The paused military hotlines are particularly concerning in a time of heightened tensions as they are intended to prevent accidental clashes along the rivals’ sea borders. Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Tuesday the South’s military wasn’t immediately detecting unusual activities by North Korea’s military after the hotlines were paused.

South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse, Seoul’s point man on the North, in a news conference expressed “strong regret” over North Korea’s “unilateral and irresponsible attitude “over the communication lines and also warned of unspecified legal action over its use of the Kaesong assets.

When asked about Kim’s comments during the military meeting, Kwon said it’s likely that North Korea currently sees the buildup of tensions as favorable to its interests and that Seoul is closely analyzing the North’s intent.

South Korea pulled its companies out of Kaesong in 2016 following a North Korean nuclear test, removing the last remaining major symbol of cooperation between the rivals. North Korean state media recently showed what appeared to be South Korean commuter buses running in the streets of Kaesong and Pyongyang.

North Korea in 2023 so far has fired around 30 missiles in 11 different launch events, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that demonstrated potential range to reach the U.S. mainland and several shorter-range weapons designed to deliver nuclear strikes on South Korean targets.

The North was already coming off a record year in weapons testing, after launching nearly 70 missiles in 2022.

Experts say Kim’s provocative run in weapons displays is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic concessions from a position of strength.

Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging crippling U.S.-led sanctions against the North and the North’s steps to wind down its nuclear weapons program.

South Korean officials say North Korea may soon up the ante by staging more provocative displays of its military might, including its first nuclear test detonation since 2017.

North Korea last month unveiled what appeared to be a new nuclear warhead designed to fit on various delivery systems as Kim called for his nuclear scientists to increase production of weapons-grade material to make bombs to put on his growing range of weapons.

North Korea has also issued veiled threats to test fire an ICBM on a normal ballistic trajectory toward the Pacific, which would be seen as a major provocation as its previous long-range tests were conducted on high angles to avoid the territories of neighbors.

The North also previously said it aims to finish preparations to launch a military spy satellite into space by April, an event its rivals would almost certainly see as a test of ICBM technology banned by international sanctions.

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