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Seoul, South Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is calling for an “exponential increase” in his country’s nuclear weapons arsenal in response to what he says are threats from South Korea and the United States, Pyongyang’s state media reported on Sunday.
Kim’s comments come as North Korea twice over the weekend tested what it claimed was a large, multiple-launch missile system capable of carrying nuclear weapons which could put all of South Korea within its reach, according to a report by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Speaking on New Year’s Eve on the final day of a six-day plenary session that reviewed 2022, Kim said South Korea had become an “undisputed enemy” and its main ally, the United States, had increased pressure on the North to ” maximum’ level in the past year, frequently deploying its military assets on the Korean Peninsula.
In response, Kim said next year that Pyongyang should mass-produce tactical nuclear weapons while developing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would give the North a “rapid counterstrike capability,” according to the KCNA report.
Kim’s comments come at the end of a year in office for his regime are testing more missiles than at any time in North Korea’s historyincluding an intercontinental ballistic missile that could, in theory, hit the US mainland.
On Saturday, on its 37th day of missile tests in 2022, North Korea fired at least three short-range ballistic missiles from a site south of Pyongyang, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Early Sunday followed with another test. North Korea said both Saturday’s and Sunday’s tests were of a 600mm multiple launch (MRL) missile system. Most multiple launch systems in service around the world are around 300mm in size.
The 600mm MRL was first unveiled three years ago and production has been ramped up from late October 2022 for deployment, Kim said in his plenary session speech on Saturday, according to KCNA. He later added that an additional 30 of the 600 mm MRLs would be deployed to the Army at the same time.
Kim said the weapon is capable of traversing high terrain, can deliver successive strikes with precision, has all of South Korea within its firing range and can be loaded with tactical nuclear warheads, according to the KCNA report.
“In the future, as a key offensive weapon of our military forces, it will perform its own combat mission to defeat the enemy,” Kim said.
Leif-Erik Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Pyongyang had used the past year to demonstrate its ability to carry out a series of military strikes.
“Recent rocket launches have not been technically impressive. Instead, the large volume of tests at unusual times and from different locations demonstrates that North Korea can launch different types of attacks at any time and from many directions,” Easley said.
Easley also noted that North Korea is not only using missiles to increase military pressure on the South. Last week, Pyongyang has sent five drones into South Korean airspaceforcing Seoul to launch fighter jets and helicopters to track them down and later send its own drones into North Korean airspace.
All this leads to an escalation of tensions, Easley believes.
“Such provocations, including drone incursions, appear excessive to deter and may be intended to scare South Korea into a softer policy.” But with Kim renouncing diplomacy and threatening to mass-produce nuclear weapons, the Yun administration is likely to further increase South Korea’s defense capabilities and readiness,” Easley said.
For its part, South Korea is also building up forces.
The Seoul Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced last month that it would spend more than $2.7 billion over 10 years to strengthen the mission capabilities and survivability of its fleet of F-15K fighter jets, aircraft that would play a key role in possible strikes on North Korea.
Washington is also not standing still. In addition to deploying assets such as F-22 fighter jets and B-1 bombers for exercises around the Korean Peninsula, the US military recently activates his first Space Force Command on foreign soil in South Korea, with the unit’s new commander saying he is ready to face any threat in the region.
The new unit “will be tasked with coordinating space operations and services such as missile warning, navigation and weather, and satellite communications in the region,” according to US Forces Korea.
Even before Kim’s latest remarks, experts noted the great strides Pyongyang has made in its missile forces over the past year.
Ankit Panda, nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN in mid-December that Pyongyang has become a missile power.
“The bigger picture is that North Korea is literally becoming a prominent operator of a large-scale missile force,” Panda said. “The word test is no longer appropriate to talk about most North Korean missile launches.”
“Most of the missiles that have been fired this year are part of military exercises. They are rehearsing for nuclear war. And that, I think, is the big picture this year,” Panda said.
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