Kim Jong Un Orders Preparations for Possible War, Vows to Build More Weapons
At a key year-end meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his military to expand its nuclear weapons stockpile and launch several new spy satellites in 2024, while warning he would take the “most powerful” action if provoked by enemies.
State media reported that Kim told ruling party leaders Pyongyang aims to launch three new reconnaissance satellites in the coming year to monitor military activity in neighboring countries. This would follow the recent success of two satellites it says are providing real-time information.
He also discussed plans to mass-produce tactical nuclear weapons and new missiles to give North Korea a more formidable deterrent. Kim accused the United States and South Korea of pushing tensions to an “extreme red line” with recent military drills, which he argued prove long-held suspicions that the allies’ talk of diplomacy masks hostile policies.
“The prevailing situation calls for making redoubled efforts to overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle,” Kim was quoted as saying during the meeting in Pyongyang.
North Vows to “Annihilate” South Korea, U.S. Forces If Attacked
Kim Jong Un further declared that North Korea’s military would “thoroughly annihilate” South Korean and U.S. forces if they launch a preemptive strike.
He said he did not believe South Korea would use its military independently, saying Seoul effectively left operational command to Washington some time ago. Any South Korean operation against the North would naturally enable the U.S. to mobilize its military assets, Kim said.
“In case the U.S. and South Korea ignite an armed conflict by mobilizing their armed forces … we will resolutely react to and win,” Kim told the plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim also indicated he no longer holds out hope for progress toward Korean reunification or strengthened cooperation, and now sees inter-Korean relations in military and confrontational terms. He said North Korea “does not have any intention to threaten” South Korea but is prepared to counter Washington if necessary.
The bellicose rhetoric underscores simmering animosities over the allies’ practice bombing runs in December, which likely mobilized North Korean troops and weapons. Some experts say the flights may have further undermined Kim’s fragile diplomatic efforts with the West to lift crippling sanctions and salvage broken ties with rival South Korea.
Kim Attends Lavish New Year’s Celebration After Nuclear Threats
Shortly after issuing the war threats, Kim and other North Korean elites attended a lavish New Year’s celebration with foreign envoys in the capital of Pyongyang.
The autocratic ruler smiled broadly as he watched thousands perform in celebration and fireworks explode over a crowd packed into a brightly lit plaza. Kim wore a shiny black Western-style suit and appeared beside his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and his daughter Kim Ju Ae.
Video footage showed the nation’s most influential officials — members of the North’s state media, Politburo, Party Central Committee, Cabinet and other senior functionaries — sharply dressed in black or gray suits and fur hats or fedoras, enthusiastically applauding the announcement of Kim’s appearance.
The juxtaposition of the North Korean ruler mingling comfortably with diplomats while discussing plans to bolster his nuclear stockpiles encapsulates his strategic approach — aggressively expanding prohibited weapons programs while simultaneously trying to rebuild Pyongyang’s broken-down economy through diplomacy. His ultimate goal is to leverage his expanding arsenal to wrest outside concessions and sanctions relief.
Several North Korea experts offered their analysis of Kim’s latest threats and what is driving North Korea’s renewed hostility.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Kim’s public use of such combative language toward South Korea is “unprecedented” but ultimately aimed at his eventual goal of dividing Seoul from Washington to “facilitate sanctions relief.”
Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said Kim is identifying the South and US as enemies to justify his fresh nuclear weapons push.
“The bellicose mood and aggressive tone of his latest speech seems meant to shore up a united, anti-American spirit at home ahead of what’s expected to be an eventful year as he pushes an ambitious nuclear buildup plan further placing himself on a confrontational course with Washington,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor with the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Kim may also be reacting to last month’s talks between rival powers — China, Russia, the United States and others — which likely aimed to raise pressure on North Korea over its weapons ambitions with a joint statement that strongly condemned further missile activity. Choi said Kim doesn’t want to appear weak as he faces diplomatic strife and pandemic-related economic trouble.
Diplomacy between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang has been stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of U.S.-led sanctions against the North and steps the North would take to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
Kim has recently come out to tout his continued push to develop new missiles and nuclear technologies amid long-running negotiations with Washington over sanctions relief that have paused for several years. His ambiguous pledge to expand his nuclear arsenal came as experts say the North likely succeeded in developing nuclear warheads small enough to fit on tactical missiles capable of hitting targets in South Korea.
Some analysts say Kim’s military likely used the South’s drills as a chance to advance her budding military capabilities. North Korea hates such displays of American-South Korean military might, though it typically reacts strongly to these twice-yearly drills. The allies have changed the name of the trainings several times to deflect criticism.
The question hanging over North Korea is how substantive its threat is.
North Korea has a history of incendiary rhetoric, threatening to turn rivals South Korea and the United States into a “sea of fire” or “ashes and darkness.” It is also record-breaking in terms of missile and nuclear tests. The more intense tests become, the stronger Kim’s messaging to the West, said Duyeon Kim of the U.S.-based Center for a New American Security.
“We should take their threats literally because their repeated references to all-out war means they are more than just threats,” he said recently.
Pyongyang’s rhetoric has also intensified as its strategic space decreases. North Korea is one of the most cloistered countries in the world, largely sealed by sanitation and security controls designed to keep COVID-19 at bay.
Such isolation has kept North Korea’s 26 million people clear of the virus that reached nearly everywhere. But the blockade also worsens North Korea’s already broken economy. Trade volume has plummeted about 90% compared to early 2019, the Bank of Korea has said.
Kim may see aggression toward Washington and Seoul as his best chance to win sanctions relief – allowing his country to restart trade and investment with China, the North’s economic lifeline.
“Their backs are against the wall,” said Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. “The cornered totalitarian states can’t help but to resort to greater aggressiveness.”
Even if North Korea’s harsh rhetoric is just posturing, Park said, animosity levels are unnecessarily high – increasing chances for provocative missile tests and other acts as Kim tries to bolster the unity he sees as equating to national strength.
North Korea has hinted at an eventual resumption of long-range missile testing. Such a move could put the U.S. mainland and Europe back within range. An ICBM test, seen as an ultimate red-line for many in Washington, could be followed by reactionary punishment from the allies and a restart of the tensions experienced during 2017’s “fire and fury” threats.
Short of such a provocation, experts say North Korea has signaled it will further develop its growing nuclear and missile programs. Of immediate concern is the possibility of new submarine-launched missile testing. North Korea has been speeding efforts to build an arsenal of short- and long-range missiles that can be trained on South Korea and Japan, where about 80,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
To counter North Korea’s increasing threats, South Korea and Japan are also strengthening their own preemptive and retaliatory strike capabilities.
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