North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, vowed to increase the country’s nuclear arsenal in the coming year, according to Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country’s state-controlled media.
“Now that the South Korean puppet forces who designated the DPRK as their ‘principal enemy’ and openly trumpet about ‘preparations for war’ have assumed our undoubted enemy, it highlights the importance and necessity of a mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons and calls for an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying on January 1. (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
Kim made reports on five different agendas involving “the state policies in 2022 and the work plan for 2023,” which were discussed during the sixth plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee from December 26 to December 31. According to the KCNA report, North Korea demonstrated its firm willingness to keep its “power for power” stance against its so-called adversaries: the United States and South Korea.
“Stressing the importance of bolstering the nuclear force, the report made clear that our nuclear force considers it as the first mission to deter war and safeguard peace and stability and, however, if it fails to deter, it will carry out the second mission, which will not be for defense,” KCNA said. It also added that developing another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is one of the tasks Pyongyang will carry out to acquire a “quick nuclear counterstrike” capability.
Following up on its reconnaissance satellite test in December, North Korea reaffirmed that the first military satellite will be launched “at the earliest date possible” by the National Aerospace Development Administration – which analysts predict to be around March or April. KCNA also reported that more detailed steps have been taken to devise concrete countermeasures against the United States and South Korea.
“Notably, the report put forward the detailed orientations of responding to the U.S. and other enemies on switching to the actual action of more reliably and surely cementing our physical force on the principle of power for power and head-on contest and it sounded a note of warning against those countries which started joining the U.S. with its partnership strategy to deprive the DPRK of its sacred dignity and sovereignty,” KCNA said.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), North Korea launched short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) toward its eastern waters successively on December 31 and January 1.
Despite Pyongyang’s spate of missile launches last year, it is unusual for North Korea to conduct a missile launch on the first day of the new year. The missile on Sunday was launched from the Yongsong area of Pyongyang, the capital, and flew about 400 km. KCNA reported that “a long-range artillery sub-unit in the western area of the Korean People’s Army fired one shell towards the East Sea of Korea with a delivered super-large multiple rocket launcher.”
On the last day of 2022, North Korea launched three SRBMs toward its east coast. The missiles were launched from the Chunghwa area of North Hwanghae province around 8:01 a.m. KST. According to the South’s military, they were launched from the transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) and flew about 350 km toward its eastern waters. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said that the missile launch did not pose an immediate threat to the United States and its allies in the region. North Korea confirmed on Saturday that it test-fired “super-large multiple rocket launchers” and “precisely hit a target island” in its eastern waters.
Friday’s missile test came eight days after the North launched two short-range ballistic missiles, not long after Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong Un and the North’s main voice on inter-Korean relations, warned of launching an ICBM at a realistic angle.
South Korea’s military successfully tested a solid-fuel space rocket on December 30, part of its own effort to develop a solid-fuel long-range missile and a military reconnaissance satellite. The North’s ballistic missile launches over the next two days appeared to be its response to the South’s unexpected solid-fuel space rocket test.
Following the removal of restrictions on South Korea’s missile program during the summit between then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden in May 2021, South Korea is now able to develop solid-fuel missiles – which would increase its defense and deterrence capabilities against North Korea.
Kim Jong Un did not deliver a formal new message, but he clearly warned Seoul that more and more new type or advanced nuclear programs will be showcased.
“That military hardware, which the working class in the munitions industry have donated to the Party and revolution today, has a high capability of overcoming complicated terrain conditions, great maneuverability and an ability to conduct a surprise and precision launch of multiple rockets in terms of military technology; and as it has South Korea as a whole within the range of strike and is capable of carrying tactical nuclear warhead, it will discharge in the future the combat mission of overpowering the enemy as a core, offensive weapon of our armed forces,” Kim said during a speech at a ceremony marking the donation of a super-large multiple launch rocket system on December 31.
After North Korea codified a new law to support its nuclear forces and authorize the preemptive use of nuclear weapons under certain conditions in September, it indicated it would deploy tactical nuclear weapons with frontline units near the inter-Korean border, raising the degree of its provocations against South Korea.
Considering Kim Jong Un’s promise to develop more nuclear weapons and the North’s successive missile launches on December 31 and January 1, North Korea seems to be leaning into the arms race against South Korea and the United States.
In addition, North Korea sent five drones across the inter-Korean border for the first time since 2017. The drones flew for at least five hours in South Korea’s airspace. In response, South Korea’s military will take more steps to further strengthen its surveillance and defense capabilities to respond to the North’s future provocations appropriately.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol did not mention North Korea in his New Year message. However, in an exclusive interview with Chosun Ilbo, one of the South’s main newspapers, on December 30, Yoon said there is no reason to refuse meeting with the North Korean leader, even while showing a pessimistic view that a potential meeting would not be helpful for the peace of the Korean Peninsula.
In the interview, Yoon also mentioned that South Korea is in talks with the United States over joint planning and joint exercises involving U.S. nuclear assets. He also mentioned that the United States is very optimistic and supportive on the initiative.
However, U.S. President Joe Biden denied the talks on Monday. When a reporter asked if the White House was “discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea right now,” Biden responded with just one word: “No.”
Hours after Biden’s remarks were quoted by media, Kim Eun-hye, a senior press secretary for Yoon’s office, explained that Biden’s “no” does not contradict Yoon’s remarks, as he was asked whether South Korea and the United States are in talks on a joint nuclear exercise. While reaffirming that the talks are occurring between the two countries, she also added that the specific phrase “joint nuclear exercise” applies only for countries equipped with nuclear weapons.
Washington’s follow-up explained that because South Korea is a non-nuclear weapons state, materializing U.S. extended deterrence through close coordination between the two countries is possible but giving authorization to Seoul to use or access the U.S. nuclear weapons is off the table.
In the 54th Security Consultative Meeting on November 3, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin agreed to further strengthen the capabilities of the South Korea-U.S. alliance involving “information sharing, and consultation process, as well as joint planning and execution, to deter and respond to DPRK’s advancing nuclear and missile threats.” In this context, Washington implied that the talks Yoon mentioned during the interview are related to this agreement.
Amid the North’s ambition to enlarge its nuclear arsenal, the South Korean military clearly stated that Kim’s regime will not survive if Pyongyang preemptively uses nuclear weapons against the South. The United States also showed a firm stance over the North’s possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons through the 2022 National Defense Strategy issued in October.
In an effort to enhance its defense capabilities against the North’s nuclear threats, South Korea’s JCS announced the creation of the Directorate of Countering Nuclear and WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) on Monday.