North Korea's 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 Pyongyang's first spy satellite.
In a report at the end of a key party meeting, Mr Kim said the country must "overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle" this year in response to what it called US and South Korean hostility, North Korean state media reported on Sunday.
Claiming that Washington and Seoul were set on "isolating and stifling" the North, Mr Kim said his country would focus on the "mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons" and develop "another ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike".
Such goals form the "main orientation" of the 2023 nuclear and defence strategy, the report said.
Mr Kim’s moves are in line with the broad direction of his nuclear weapons development programme as he has repeatedly vowed to boost both the quality and quantity of his arsenal. Some experts say Mr Kim's push to produce more nuclear arms and new weapons systems reflect his hopes to solidify his future negotiating power as he heads into prolonged tensions with the US and its allies.
Mr Kim accused Seoul of being “hell-bent on imprudent and dangerous arms build-up” and openly trumpeting its preparations for war with North Korea. That, he said, highlights the need to mass-produce battlefield tactical nuclear weapons and push for “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal”, North Korea's state news agency KCNA reported.
Spy satellites and new ICBM system
Mr Kim also set forth a task to develop another ICBM system “whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike,” KCNA said. It said Mr Kim accused the US of frequently deploying nuclear strike means in South Korea and pushing to establish a Nato-like regional military bloc.
North Korea will also launch its first military reconnaissance satellite “at the earliest date possible”, with preparations in their final stages, Mr Kim said.
Tactical nuclear weapons and a military reconnaissance satellite are among Mr Kim’s long wishlist of new weaponry. Other weapons he wants include a multi-warhead missile, a more agile solid-fuelled 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 RAND Corporation in California. “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, which is likely to be a reference to a solid-fueled ICBM, and a spy satellite.
Mr Kim’s identification of South Korea as an enemy and the mentioning of hostile US and South Korean policies is “a reliable pretext for the regime to produce more missiles and weapons to solidify Kim’s negotiating position and concretise North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons power,” Ms Kim said.
Some observers say North Korea wants to become a legitimate nuclear power state as a way to win the lifting of UN and other international sanctions and force the end of the regular US-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.
Outside worries about North Korea’s nuclear programme have grown since the North last year approved a new law that authorised the pre-emptive 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, Mr 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 defence,” KCNA said.
The North’s increasing nuclear threats have prompted the US and South Korea to expand their military exercises and strengthen a trilateral security co-operation involving Japan. The US military has given a warning that any nuclear attack by North Korea against the US or its allies and partners “will result in the end of that regime”.
Earlier on Sunday, South Korea’s military detected the missile launch from the North’s capital region. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile travelled about 400km 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 US Indo-Pacific Command said that American commitments to defend South Korea and Japan “remain ironclad”.
North Korea test-fired more than 70 missiles last year.