SEOUL – North Korea discussed assigning additional duties to front-line army units at a key military meeting, state media said Thursday, a move that analysts said indicates it plans to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting South Korea along the rivals’ tense border.
While much international attention has focused on North Korea’s testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, it is also developing a variety of nuclear-capable short-range missiles that can target South Korea.
South Korean officials recently said that North Korea has completed preparations for its first test of a nuclear explosive device in five years, part of a possible effort to build warheads capable of being mounted on short-range missiles.
During an ongoing meeting of the Central Military Commission of North Korea's ruling Workers’ Party, leader Kim Jong Un and other top military officers discussed on Wednesday “the work of additionally confirming the operation duties of the front-line units of the Korean People’s Army and modifying the operation plans,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim also ordered steps to “enhance the operational capabilities of the front-line units,” KCNA said. A KCNA photo showed what appeared to be a large map of the Korean Peninsula’s eastern coast, including border sites, standing near the conference table.
Although there was no public mention of tactical nuclear weapons, "I can assess that the issues of forward-deploying tactical nuclear weapons and the modification of related operational plans and military organization reshuffles have been discussed in an in-depth manner" at the meeting, said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute.
Cheong said North Korea's push to deploy nuclear weapons at front-line units was expected since it said in April that its new tactical weapons would significantly boost the units' attack capacity and the efficient operation of tactical nuclear weapons.
A KCNA report on April 17 on the test-launch of what it called a new type of tactical guided weapon said it has “great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the front-line long-range artillery units, enhancing the efficiency in the operation of (North Korea’s) tactical nukes and diversification of their firepower missions.”
Later in April, Kim said North Korea could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened, saying they would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent” in situations in which the country faces external threats to its “fundamental interests.” The possibility of North Korea having an escalatory nuclear doctrine could pose greater concern for South Korea, Japan and the United States.
North Korea has described some of its other short-range nuclear-capable missiles tested in recent years as tactical weapons, which experts say communicates a threat to proactively use them during conventional warfare to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that it is closely monitoring North Korean activities but didn’t elaborate. South Korea's Unification Ministry, which overseas relations with North Korea, said the North will likely increase its military threats against South Korea, but did not elaborate.
Kim convened the Central Military Commission meeting earlier this week to confirm “crucial and urgent tasks” to expand the country's military capabilities and implement key defense policies, state media said.
Cheong, the analyst, said North Korea is expected to conduct its seventh nuclear test after the meeting, noting that its third nuclear test in 2013 also came days after another Central Military Commission meeting.
This year, North Korea has test-launched about 30 missiles in what some experts call an attempt to expand its arsenal and increase its leverage in future negotiations with the United States to win sanctions relief and other concessions. The weapons tested include an ICBM. Analysts say North Korea needs to master missile reentry capabilities and other technologies to make a functioning long-range weapon.
There have been signs of an impending North Korean nuclear test for weeks. South Korean officials said the test has been delayed by North Korea’s continuing COVID-19 outbreak and opposition from China, its last major ally and biggest aid provider.
Won In-Choul, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a video conference on Thursday with his American counterpart, Gen. Mark Milley, and said a North Korean ICBM test or nuclear test explosion could occur at any time, his office said in a statement. It said Milley responded that the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea remains “iron-clad.”
South Korean and U.S. officials have warned North Korea that it will face consequences if it goes ahead with a nuclear test. But divisions between the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council make prospects for additional international sanctions on North Korea unclear. Earlier this year, Russia and China vetoed U.S.-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting that Washington should focus on reviving dialogue.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.