North Korea is ready to mobilise its nuclear war deterrent, its leader Kim Jong-un has claimed.
Speaking at a Korean War anniversary event, Kim added that the country was “fully ready for any military confrontation” with the US, state news agency KCNA reported.
The comments come amid concern that North Korea could be preparing a seventh nuclear test.
The US warned last month that Pyongyang could conduct such a test at any time.
North Korea’s most recent nuclear test was in 2017. However, tensions have been rising on the Korean peninsula.
The US special representative to North Korea Sung Kim says it has tested an unprecedented number of missiles this year – 31 compared to 25 during the whole of its last record-breaking year, 2019.
In June South Korea responded by launching eight missiles of its own.
Although the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, North Korea claims it as a victory against the US. The annual “Victory Day” celebrations are marked by military parades, fireworks and dancing.
In his speech to mark the event, Kim said nuclear threats from the US required North Korea to achieve the “urgent historical task” of beefing up its self-defence.
The US had misrepresented North Korea’s regular military exercises as provocations, he added.
Kim also appeared to address reports that South Korea is moving to revive a plan to counter the North Korean nuclear threat by mounting precautionary strikes in the event of an imminent attack.
The so-called “Kill Chain” strategy, first elaborated a decade ago, calls for pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang’s missiles and possibly its senior leadership.
Some analysts have warned it carries its own risks and could fuel an arms race.
At the Victory Day celebration Kim said that South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol’s government and military would be “obliterated” if he carried out pre-emptive strikes.
Kim Jong-Un’s warning that the Korean peninsula is “on the brink of war” sounds extremely scary. But North Korean rhetoric is often fiery, especially on significant anniversaries.
What it indicates is just how angry the North Korean regime is about South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol.
Since taking office in May, President Yoon has laid out a new, more aggressive defence policy. It would allow South Korean forces to pre-emptively strike the North, if Seoul believes it is under imminent threat of a nuclear attack from Pyongyang.
This so-called “Kill Chain” strategy would allow South Korea to launch ballistic missiles and air strikes on North Korean targets, including taking out the North Korean command and control structures. In other words, attempting to kill Kim Jong-Un himself.
Pyongyang is also quite unhappy with the lack of engagement from Washington since President Biden replaced Donald Trump.
All of this could suggest we are headed towards some sort of deliberate escalation by the North.
Everyone now expects that Pyongyang will carry out a seventh underground nuclear test. Preparations have been underway at the Punggye-ri test site since March.
So, what does Kim Jong-un want?
Speak to military analysts and they’ll tell you these latest launches show North Korea is moving rapidly down the road to a full and effective nuclear deterrent.
“From my perspective it was predictable,” says Professor Kim Dong Yup, a former South Korean naval commander.
“We get surprised because we underestimate North Korean technology and assume it is suffering at the moment. In fact, North Korea is definitely advancing its military capability faster than we assumed.”
After the tests on 5 and 10 January, Pyongyang claimed it has successfully tested something called a “hypersonic glide vehicle” (HGV) and a “manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle” (MARV).
Why does that matter?
Because it means North Korea is developing technology that can defeat the costly and complex missile defence systems that America and Japan have been deploying across this region.
“It seems pretty clear that their aim is to develop weapons that can evade and complicate missile defences that are highly manoeuvrable and harder for the United States to pre-empt, let alone to detect,” says Duyeon Kim at the Centre for a New American Century.
Professor Kim Dong Yup agrees: “Ultimately what the North is aiming to achieve is to debilitate the enemy’s missile defence system.
“They want to have a deterrence system that is like a scorpion’s tail.”
A scorpion does use the sting in its tail to defend itself, but also to attack and kill its prey. So, which is it for North Korea?
“North Korea’s main purpose is not to attack but to defend themselves,” says Professor Kim, adding that the country is trying “to secure a diversified deterrent capability”.
This is a widely held view among the North Korea watching community.
And yet Pyongyang is very far beyond the point at which its conventional and nuclear capability has become an effective deterrent against attack from the South or from the US – both of which have repeatedly said that they harbour no ambitions to attack or destroy the North Korean regime.
So why does the ruler of this small, impoverished state continue to spend between a fifth and a quarter of its GDP on the military?
Ankit Panda at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace feels that one reason might be that contrary to what outsiders may feel, North Korea doesn’t believe it has sufficient weapons to defend itself properly.
“So Kim Jong-un feels chronically insecure. I think he doesn’t trust anybody, including China and Russia, and so might feel the need to build up his capability beyond what we might consider sufficient.”
By Melissa Zhu