SEOUL — The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned Tuesday that Pyongyang could move to bolster its nuclear and conventional weapons program in response to a major joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea set for this month.
North Korea has complained for decades about the twice yearly joint exercises between South Korea and the United States, calling them a war rehearsal. The two democracies say their actions are defensive in nature.
Pyongyang’s latest warning, however, comes amid signs that relations between the two Koreas could be improving. Last month, both North and South Korea agreed to boost ties and restore a key communications line after a hiatus of 13 months.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked significant political capital on improving ties with the North, and Kim’s warning comes as some officials in Seoul argue that the drills should be postponed to rekindle relations between the rival Koreas.
In her statement, Kim accused South Korea of “perfidious behavior” — an apparent reference to Seoul’s decision to proceed with the drills weeks after moving to get closer to Pyongyang.
“We will put more spur to further increasing the deterrent of absolute capacity to cope with the ever-growing military threats from the U.S.,” she said.
Ankit Panda, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the phrase “deterrent of absolute capacity” probably referred to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, among other military capabilities.
“I would likely interpret it — in the broader context — to be the overall nuclear deterrent and posture,” said Vipin Narang, an MIT professor who specializes in nuclear strategy. Pyongyang last carried out a nuclear test in 2017, but it has tested ballistic missiles as recently as March.
“We will not jump to conclusions and keep an eye on North Korea’s attitude while preparing for all possible options,” the South’s Unification Ministry said in a Tuesday statement.
“Nothing’s changed about our need for readiness on the Korean peninsula and our desire to work in lock-step with our ROK allies on [a] training regimen that improves that readiness and keeps that readiness strong,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a Monday briefing, ahead of Kim’s statement.
At a congress of the ruling Workers’ Party earlier this year, Kim Jong Un called the country’s nuclear weapons program one of the nation’s greatest achievements and vowed to further strengthen it.
About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea, an important ally that is technically still at war with the North. But in recent years, the joint drills have been postponed or scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic and in an effort to support diplomacy with Pyongyang. This month’s exercises will primarily involve computer simulations rather than field drills because of virus concerns, South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap News Agency reported.
Talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been dormant since a 2019 nuclear summit broke down over a disagreement about how much sanction relief the United States would offer. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told North Korea that it needed to decide whether it wanted to persist with negotiations.