SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened nuclear retaliation if provoked and promised to strengthen the country’s nuclear weapons in a speech at a military parade where intercontinental ballistic missiles and other weapons were displayed, a state media outlet said Tuesday.
The parade follows an unprecedented flurry of weapons tests by North Korea this year that dialed up tensions in the region. North Korea last month resumed testing intercontinental ballistic missiles that can potentially reach the U.S. mainland, after a nearly five-year hiatus.
“The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent even at a time when a situation we are not desirous of at all is created on this land,” Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying by the KCNA. “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interest of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission,” he said, without elaborating on what the secondary mission would be.
With his comments about the “mission” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the North Korean leader is “threatening that his nuclear weapons can be used for offensive purposes and not just for defense or retaliation,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based North Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security. “The most notable and concerning point in his comment is that the threshold for nuclear use seems extremely low.”
She said Kim’s remarks on violation of “fundamental interest of our state” appears to imply a wide and ambiguous range of circumstances under which Pyongyang would use a nuclear weapon first.
The North Korean leader also said he would “further strengthen our country’s nuclear forces at a maximum speed,” according to the Korean Central News Agency. Analysts in South Korea and the United States recently said there are also signs that North Korea is restoring a nuclear test site that it dismantled in 2018.
The nighttime military parade showcased North Korea’s latest weapons, including its largest known intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-17, according to the KCNA.
U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea appears to have failed in its initial test of the Hwasong-17 on March 16 and then launched an older version of the ICBM eight days later, claiming it as a successful test of the Hwasong-17.
Photos of the parade in state news reports showed the Hwasong-17 and what appeared to be hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and other conventional weapons. The parade, which took place at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, named after North Korea’s founding father, also featured thousands of marching troops.
Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s conservative president-elect who promised a tougher stance against North Korea’s military provocations, is set to take office next month. In response to Monday’s parade, his team said in a statement that South Korea should reinforce its alliance with the United States to deter growing North Korean military threats.
“Now that the North Korean nuclear and missile threats have become a severe threat in reality, our most urgent task is to build a deterrence capability against it,” the statement said.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise since a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in 2019 collapsed over sanctions relief. Since then, Pyongyang has been rejecting Washington’s offers to resume talks, as the Biden administration has not shown signs of offering the sanctions relief that North Korea seeks.
The crippling international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons development, combined with the pandemic shocks of the past two years, have driven the regime’s economy to what it called the “worst-ever situation.”
During a visit to Seoul last week, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, Sung Kim, underlined Washington’s willingness to engage with Pyongyang “anywhere without conditions.” He also said the United States and South Korea will respond “responsibly and decisively” to North Korea’s “provocative behavior.”
Analysts said that with Washington preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea may see an opportunity to advance its weapons program, which is restricted by U.S.-led international sanctions.
“Russia’s invasion might reinforce Kim [Jong Un] and his predecessors’ belief that only nuclear weapons can protect his country from being invaded and cause nuclear enemies to hesitate,” said Duyeon Kim, the North Korea expert.