SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons and threatened to use them if provoked in a speech he delivered at a military parade that featured powerful missiles capable of targeting the country's rivals, state media reported Tuesday.
Kim's remarks suggest he will continue provocative weapons tests in a pressure campaign aimed at wresting concessions from the United States and its allies. The parade Monday night marked the 90th anniversary of North Korea’s army — the backbone of the Kim family’s authoritarian rule — and was held as the country's economy is battered by pandemic-related difficulties, punishing U.S.-led sanctions and its own mismanagement.
State television showed Kim, dressed in a white military ceremonial coat, smiling and waving from a balcony with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and top deputies, in response to roaring cheers from thousands of troops and spectators. Fireworks lit up the night sky and illuminated drones formed the country’s flag.
“(We) will continue to take measures for further developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed,” Kim told the troops and crowd gathered at a plaza in the capital, Pyongyang.
He said North Korea could proactively use its nuclear weapons when threatened by attacks and called for his nuclear forces to be fully prepared to go "in motion at any time.”
“The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent even at a time when a situation we are not desirous of at all is created on this land,” Kim said. “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission,” which would leave any invading force “perished,” he said.
The parade featured thousands of goose-stepping troops and several of North Korea's most powerful missiles. Some of the intercontinental ballistic missiles could put the U.S. homeland well within range, and a variety of shorter-range solid-fuel missiles pose a growing threat to South Korea and Japan.
North Korea has described some of the short-range missiles as “tactical” battlefield systems, which experts say suggests a threat to arm them with small nuclear devices and use them during conventional warfare to overcome the stronger conventional forces of its neighbors and the United States. The U.S. stations about 80,000 soldiers in South Korea and Japan.
One of the weapons showcased at the brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim’s late grandfather and state founder, was North Korea’s biggest and newest ICBM, the Hwasong-17.
North Korea claimed to have test-fired that missile successfully last month, but South Korea concluded the launch was of the smaller Hwasong-15 and that a launch of the Hwasong-17 had failed. Whichever weapon it was, the launch on March 24 was North Korea's first full-range ICBM flight test in more than four years and flew longer and higher than any other missile North Korea has previously launched.
The official Korean Central News Agency said spectators at the parade raised loud cheers when they saw the Hwasong-17, which it said showed “the absolute power of Juche (self-reliance), Korea and the strategic position of our republic to the world.”
Other weapons rolled out at the parade included what appeared to be a hypersonic missile North Korea first tested in 2021 and a new type of ballistic missile designed to be fired from submarines, an ability North Korea has been pursuing for years.
North Korea often commemorates key state anniversaries by mobilizing huge crowds to boost internal unity. Tuesday’s KCNA dispatch praised Kim for accomplishing “the historic great cause of completing the nuclear forces by making a long journey of patriotic devotion with a death-defying will” to make his people free of war.
Kim has been reviving nuclear brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and to remove crippling economic sanctions, exploiting a favorable environment to push forward its weapons program as the U.N. Security Council remains divided over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over a potential easing of U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps. Kim has stuck to his goals of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the country’s dismal economy in the face of international pressure and has shown no willingness to fully surrender a nuclear arsenal he sees as his biggest guarantee of survival.
Kim’s comments about the possible use of nuclear weapons and his decision to attend the parade in a military coat, rather than his regular suit and tie, signal a tough approach toward South Korea’s incoming conservative government, which may take a harder line toward Pyongyang than current liberal President Moon Jae-in, according to analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
Calls by Kim for his people to brace for long-term confrontation with “imperialists” show he has no immediate plan to re-engage in denuclearization talks with the United States as he monitors the geopolitical fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war and the rivalry between the U.S. and China, Cheong said.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office on May 10, has accused Moon of seeking engagement with North Korea while ignoring a gathering North Korean threat. He has vowed to strengthen South Korea’s defenses in conjunction with its alliance with the U.S., including enhancing preemptive strike capabilities.
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles have become a serious and realistic threat four our country and acquiring an ability to deter (the North’s threat) is an urgent task," Yoon's office said in a statement.
North Korea has conducted 13 rounds of weapons tests this year. There are also signs North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017, possibly in preparation for exploding a nuclear device.
In 2017, North Korea claimed to have acquired the ability to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S. mainland after a torrid run of nuclear and missile tests. It halted such high-profile tests before entering its now-dormant diplomacy with the United States.
Kim’s aggressive military push could also be motivated by domestic politics since he doesn’t otherwise have significant accomplishments to show to his people as he marks a decade in power. He failed to win badly needed sanctions relief from his talks with then-President Donald Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed further shocks to the country’s broken economy, forcing him to acknowledge last year that North Korea was facing its “ worst-ever situation.”