SEOUL — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, vowed to expand his country’s nuclear capabilities against rival South Korea “exponentially,” indicating that he would escalate his military brinkmanship in the new year despite sanctions from abroad and economic woes at home.
During a five-day meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party that ended in Pyongyang on Saturday, Mr. Kim called for mass-producing short-range nuclear missiles that can be used against South Korea, as well as building a new intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the United States, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Sunday.
Mr. Kim lost little time in demonstrating his intentions. North Korea started the new year by firing a short-range ballistic missile on Sunday, after launching three similar missiles on New Year’s Eve. Mr. Kim said the missiles were capable of delivering nuclear warheads anywhere in South Korea, which he said has become the North’s “undoubted enemy” under its new conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol.
During the party meeting, Mr. Kim said Mr. Yoon’s government compelled North Korea to switch to “a mass-production of tactical nuclear weapons” and “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal” as a “main orientation” of its nuclear policy for 2023.
Since Mr. Yoon took office in May, South Korea has followed a harder line on the North, calling North Korea its “principal enemy.” When North Korea sent drones across the inter-Korean border last week, Mr. Yoon vowed “retaliation” and called for “preparations for war,” ordering the South’s military to send its own drones into North Korean airspace. His attitude was a sharp departure from his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who had made reducing tensions and “preventing war” on the Korean Peninsula a hallmark of his foreign policy.
North Korea will “respond with nuke for nuke, and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation, in order to deal with the enemy’s rash acts and reckless moves,” Mr. Kim said on Saturday.
North Korea’s Missile Tests
The South’s Defense Ministry warned on Sunday that Mr. Kim’s regime “will meet its end” if it tries to use its nuclear weapons. “It must realize that the only way to improve the lives of its people is through denuclearization,” the ministry said in a statement.
Mr. Kim’s threats come at a difficult time for the North Korean economy, which has been ravaged by the pandemic and years of international sanctions. Mr. Kim has warned of food shortages after extensive floods cut into agricultural output in the past few years. The market value of the North Korean currency against the U.S. dollar nearly halved last year, while the prices of rice and fuel rose sharply, according to news outlets in Seoul that monitor the North Korean economy.
Mr. Kim seems to see the nuclear arsenal as the best tool he has to elevate his leadership credentials among his people, constantly warning them that the North faces threats from the United States and its allies, analysts say. By expanding the arsenal, Mr. Kim also hoped to convince Washington and its allies that because sanctions were not working to stop his nuclear weapons ambitions, they should return to the negotiating table with concessions, they said.
“Kim Jong-un had little to show to his people on the economic front,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “So he was highlighting his achievements in the military front during the party meeting.”
North Korea launched more missiles in 2022 than any previous year. Mr. Kim’s threat to increase his nuclear arsenal in the new year, though not unexpected, has raised the prospect of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, as Mr. Yoon would not shy away from confronting the North, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
“It pays Yoon politically to get tough on the North because it could help his party consolidate conservative votes ahead of the parliamentary elections” in early 2024, Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Kim became more determined to expand his nuclear arsenal after his negotiations with then-President Trump failed to lift sanctions. That determination increased after Mr. Yoon took office in South Korea last year.
Mr. Kim’s failed diplomacy with Mr. Trump left him convinced that “regardless of which party took power in Washington, the United States had no intention to bargain with North Korea” and that “securing a strong nuclear force was the only way for the North to counter its pressure and threat,” Chung Sung-Yoon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said in a paper last month.
After the collapse of Mr. Kim’s negotiations with Mr. Trump in 2019, North Korean diplomats who advocated dialogue with Washington have been sidelined and replaced by hard-liners who championed a “power-for-power” confrontation, analysts said.
Last year, North Korea ended its self-imposed moratorium on ICBM tests, launching the Hwasong-17, its newest and most powerful ICBM, in November. During the party meeting last week, Mr. Kim ordered his government to “develop another ICBM system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike,” the North said. Last month, the county conducted the ground test of a new rocket engine that outside analysts said would be used to develop a new generation of solid-fuel ICBMs, which will be faster to launch than the current liquid-fuel ICBMs.
North Korea first conducted ICBM tests in 2017. But after Mr. Kim’s talks with Mr. Trump failed, North Korea has escalated pressure on the South, testing a series of short-range ballistic missiles that it said could deliver nuclear warheads at South Korean targets. In recent months, it has also raised tensions by flying a fleet of war planes, as well as by firing artillery and rockets, near the inter-Korea land and maritime borders.
“In the past, the North had tended to focus its pressure on the United States, dismissing Seoul and favoring direct dialogue with Washington,” said Mr. Yang, the analyst at the University of North Korean Studies. “But this time, Kim Jong-un appears to focus on pressuring South Korea and raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as an indirect way of forcing Washington’s hand.”
For months, the United States and South Korea have warned that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test, its seventh, anytime.
There were few signs of de-escalation, with the United States and its allies vowing to strengthen their joint military drills around Korea to deter the North.
Preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration has shown little eagerness to start a new round of negotiations with the North. Nor has Mr. Yoon’s government in Seoul.
Days after the North’s test of a new solid-fuel rocket engine last month, South Korea tested its own solid-fuel rocket engine. Washington’s growing tensions with Beijing and Moscow have allowed more room for Mr. Kim to test more weapons with impunity.
“With Kim disavowing diplomacy and threatening to mass-produce nuclear weapons, the Yoon administration is likely to further increase South Korea’s defense capabilities and readiness,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “If China doesn’t want the regional instability of an inter-Korean arms race on its doorstep, it will have to do more to restrain Pyongyang in 2023.”