North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a major political conference this week to review national goals from 2022 and set an agenda for 2023. Speaking to thousands of delegates of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim outlined plans to rapidly expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and accelerate preparations for war.
Kim Declares “Shining Victory” in 2022, Despite Economic Hardship
In his opening speech to the plenary meeting on Monday, Kim claimed great successes over the past year in areas like defense, science, and economic construction. He boasted that North Korea had achieved a “shining victory” and “left a great trace in history” through activities like missile testing and the passage of new laws aimed at solidifying Kim’s authority.
However, there are signs that North Korea continues to struggle under the weight of United Nations sanctions and self-imposed border lockdowns. The economy appears stagnant, and living conditions for ordinary citizens remain bleak. Prices for staple goods have reportedly skyrocketed, and hunger and malnutrition are still widespread.
Still, Kim was defiant in the face of what he termed “unprecedented military pressure and threats” from hostile forces like the United States and its allies. He pledged to safeguard national security through boosting defense capabilities.
Accelerating Nuclear and Missile Programs
A top priority outlined by Kim was to accelerate North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He directed the entire ruling party and military to focus on the “mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons” and developing new missiles of various ranges that can carry nuclear payloads.
This likely means North Korea will conduct even more weapons tests in 2023. Last year saw a record number of missile launches, which elicited condemnation abroad but were hailed at home as proof of the country’s strengthening defenses. Experts warn that each launch allows North Korea to refine and perfect its arsenal.
Kim also called for boosting the “exponential growth” of North Korea’s nuclear forces. He gave no specifics, but this suggests expanding existing facilities for producing weapons-grade nuclear material while adding new ones. Satellite imagery over the past year has shown construction work underway at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Preparing for Potential Military Conflict
Alongside growing its nuclear stockpile, Kim ordered the entire military to go into “full combat posture” to prepare for war. He cited an increasingly hostile American policy aimed at isolating and stifling North Korea.
Recent large-scale military drills between the US, South Korea, and Japan have provoked the ire of Pyongyang. North Korean state media warns that any military action against it, even limited attacks, could trigger full-scale nuclear retaliation.
While most experts believe the possibility of outright war remains low, there are growing concerns over miscalculation leading to uncontrolled escalation. North Korea’s accelerating missile program combined with fiery rhetoric increases risks dramatically.
The plenary meeting also decided to amend the National Defense Law, presumably to give Kim broader powers over wartime policy. This may indicate more assertive military posturing ahead. However, North Korea’s antiquated conventional forces are still no match for modern American and South Korean armies.
Bracing for a Prolonged Standoff
In his closing speech on Wednesday, Kim made clear that North Korea has no intentions of negotiating over its nuclear weapons, which it sees as essential for regime survival. He instead told citizens to prepare for a long “arduous struggle” against foreign enemies.
Kim exhorted North Koreans to build a “self-reliant national economy” that can withstand external shocks like sanctions. But with most trade and investment blocked by UN restrictions, realistic prospects for meaningful growth appear limited.
Meanwhile, repeated missile launches and belligerent threats from Pyongyang continue to deepen its international isolation. China and Russia still provide some economic lifelines for North Korea, but their tolerance is being tested.
With tensions rising and diplomatic efforts stalled, both Washington and Pyongyang seem to be settling in for what could be an extended period of heightened uncertainty and danger on the Korean peninsula.
|Summary of North Korea’s Key Policy Priorities for 2023
|Mass production of tactical nuclear weapons
|Developing new missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads
|Expanding facilities to produce weapons-grade nuclear material
|Preparing conventional military forces for potential conflict
|Reforming laws to give Kim Jong Un greater wartime authority
|Building a more self-reliant national economy
|Withstanding foreign sanctions and external shocks
|Bracing for prolonged tensions with US and allies
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