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N. Korean Leader Calls for Stronger Nuclear Deterrence



After a 22-day absence from public view, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has reappeared at a key military meeting. On May 24, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that the leader presided over the seventh meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party. It did not reveal the exact date of the meeting, but it is assumed to have taken place on May 23, as North Korea typically reports on events the day after they are held. 

At the meeting, Kim looked healthy and stable, again dismissing rampant speculation about his failing health both in South Korea and abroad. Here is political commentator Kim Hong-guk to explain what the North Korean leader discussed at the recent meeting. 

According to the North Korean state media, Kim discussed new policies for further bolstering the nuclear war deterrence and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation. The media also said that the leader stressed revolutionary military policies and detailed tasks in each area. The military meeting focused on ways to remedy various flaws in military organizations. It also touched on the issue of increasing the self-reliant defense capabilities quickly. In addition, it carried out personnel reshuffles in the Central Military Commission. 

On the whole, the meeting shows once again that Kim fully controls the military and other organizations. In his first public appearance in weeks, he highlighted his leadership successfully.

Attention was drawn to the expression, “boosting nuclear deterrence.” Kim Jong-un’s disappearance from the public eye last month sparked intense speculation about his health before he re-emerged at a fertilizer factory. After that, he wasn’t seen for weeks before making his reappearance at the military meeting to underline defense capabilities. 

This is in line with the term, “strategic nuclear war deterrence,” used by North Korea’s Academy of Defense Science at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground last December. It’s also in line with another statement, “a new strategic weapon,” mentioned at the key party meeting in the same month. Analysts say that North Korea has declared its resumption of nuclear-related activities. 

Increasing nuclear deterrence here means that North Korea will enhance it against the U.S.’ nuclear threats and guarantee its own security. By boosting the nuclear war deterrence, North Korea stresses that it will continue to deal with its relations with the U.S. in a proactive way. Judging from North Korea’s attitude, I guess it will launch an armed provocation yet again. Some predict that the North may develop a new submarine-launched ballistic missile or SLBM or an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. 

However, many experts say that North Korea is unlikely to develop SLBMs or ICBMs for now, as the move will possibly provoke the international community. Moreover, the process is expensive. They assume that North Korea has mentioned, “nuclear deterrence,” in a strategic move to pressure the U.S., while not crossing the line. 

North Korea’s provocations related to SLBMs or ICBMs will draw even stronger sanctions and pressure from the international community. For the development of such weapons, Pyongyang has to shoulder a heavy financial burden. It will make the already struggling North Korean economy even more difficult. It is all the more so as its trade with China has been suspended for months. So, Pyongyang is adjusting its tone to demonstrate its presence, but not to provoke other countries. North Korea will likely take a breather and resort to low-intensity provocations simply to show its presence. 

Regarding North Korea’s latest push for nuclear capabilities, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has urged Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program if it wants to have a great economy. It is Washington’s renewed calls for North Korea to return to nuclear negotiations and seek a solution through dialogue. At the same time, it is seen as a warning that the North should not provoke the U.S. or make provocations that may derail the negotiations. 

O’Brien added that the U.S. would keep talking to the North Koreans and monitor what’s happening with Kim Jong-un. Noting that the U.S. continues to keep an eye on developments in the North through both public sources and intelligence operations, he said the U.S. will calibrate its response accordingly. What the U.S. is trying to say is that it will take various measures to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons development to help the nation join the international community. It shows Washington’s carrot-and-stick strategy. 

For now, the U.S. continues to try to elicit a change from North Korea and manage the situation well until the presidential election, rather than providing the North with something remarkable. North Korea, on the other hand, is attempting to maximize its own interest and further develop its strategic nuclear arsenal by taking advantage of the situation. As the two sides have differing views, their fierce tug-of-war is likely to continue. After the presidential election in the U.S., the two countries may resume their negotiations or engage in fresh dialogue. 

Many are paying attention to the possible step North Korea may take. Some analysts forecast that Pyongyang may conduct additional tests of its new SLBM, the Pukguksong-3, following the first test-firing last year. 

It is difficult to resume North Korea-U.S. dialogue until the U.S. presidential election. Also, the international community is too busy handling the COVID-19 pandemic to show interest in the North Korean nuclear issue. Therefore, North Korea will likely try to draw attention by taking military actions frequently. 

In the present situation, North Korea believes it has few benefits to gain. So it believes it is necessary to take some action. Kim Jong-un mentioned, “new policies for putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation.” 

The strategic armed forces here mean weapons that are intimidating enough to turn the tables in war. They include ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear-capable strategic bombers. North Korea seeks to prepare for a potential war, ready to deploy the weapons at any time. 

Lately, North Korea has tested what it calls strategic weapons. They include the KN-23, which is known to be a North Korean version of the Soviet-made Iskander missile system, a new tactical surface-to-surface missile, a large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system and a new super-large multiple rocket launcher. North Korea may show off its military capabilities through these weapons. It is necessary to deal with the North by taking various strategies, using both pressure and dialogue. 

The South Korean government has said that Seoul’s economic sanctions against North Korea, known as May 24 measures, have mostly lost their effect, underlining its commitment again to inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. However, North Korea has only expressed its determination to develop weapons. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the historic June 15 inter-Korean joint declaration. The South Korean government is growing anxious about whether the two Koreas may resume cross-border cooperation or only deepen bilateral confrontation. 

I think the Seoul government made remarks about May 24 measures in the belief that it should play various roles in improving inter-Korean ties and in North Korea-U.S. relations. Of course, the process will take time. Inter-Korean summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 and the North Korea-U.S. summits came after Moon made consistent efforts to induce North Korea to change for nearly a year following his inauguration. Currently inter-Korean relations, as well as North Korea-U.S. negotiations, are deadlocked, while the U.S. has been drawn into the presidential election mode. So, it is hard to expect any real change in the situation right now. 

But considering the difficult situation of the North Korean economy, Pyongyang may respond to Seoul’s dialogue proposal sooner or later. South Korea may attempt to conduct private exchanges as well as exchanges in cultural and sports areas. It should wait until the time is right and create favorable conditions. The government should adjust the pace of handling its relations with North Korea to eventually improve bilateral relations. 

At the recent military meeting, North Korea did not announce any message toward South Korea. Pyongyang seems to be more interested in its relations with the U.S. than in inter-Korean ties. Under these circumstances, the South Korean government is likely to focus on pushing for North Korea-U.S. dialogue to find a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

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