North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reiterated a vow to bolster his country’s “nuclear war deterrent” and build more powerful military capabilities, state-run media said Wednesday, as the country closed out a rare ruling party congress intended to set the stage for the regime’s near-term policies.
The congress, just the second in four decades, saw Kim lay out his plans for the country’s economic, military and diplomatic initiatives over the next five years. It also concluded just over a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
Denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington have remained deadlocked since negotiations collapsed over disagreements on what North Korea was willing to give up in exchange for relief from crushing U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Kim has largely stuck to a familiar playbook at the party congress, vowing to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles — including those capable of evading missile defense systems in Japan — and lambasting the United States as its “principal enemy.”
His latest speech to wrap up the congress on Tuesday again noted the importance of nuclear weapons and a strong military in the face of what it calls a “hostile policy” by the U.S.
“While further strengthening our nuclear war deterrent, we need to do everything to build the strongest military capabilities,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying. “By accelerating the push to make our military more elite and strong, we need to have them thoroughly prepared to play their role against any form of threats or unexpected situations.”
This came just days after Kim unveiled a wishlist of advanced new weaponry, including smaller and lower-yield nuclear weapons and longer-range solid-fuel missiles, some of which he said was already in development or bound for testing.
While some experts believe that the hefty price tag for producing such advanced weaponry would limit any success Kim has in accomplishing these goals, others warned not to bet against the regime.
“Underestimating Pyongyang’s will and capability to advance its nuclear and missile programs is a mistake, as 2016 and 2017 showed,” Markus Garlauskas, who served as the U.S. Intelligence Community’s top expert on North Korea, wrote on Twitter.
Those two years saw the North conduct an unprecedented number of missile and atomic tests that culminated in the November 2017 declaration by Kim that his country had perfected its “state nuclear force” after a successful launch of a long-range missile that analysts say is capable of striking much, if not all of, the continental United States.
The North has not tested a nuclear bomb or launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since then.
Still, the country has continued to build up and refine its arsenal, even after Kim’s three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.
In an example of the North’s growing nuclear capabilities, Kim oversaw a massive military parade in October that unveiled a monster new missile that some analysts believe could carry enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.
Separately Wednesday, Kim’s powerful sister ripped into South Korea’s military for monitoring a parade held in Pyongyang during the congress, KCNA reported. Kim Yo Jong, a trusted confidante of her brother, called the move indicative of Seoul’s “hostile approach” toward Pyongyang.
“We are only holding a military parade in the capital city, not military exercises targeting anybody nor launch of anything. Why do they take trouble craning their neck to follow what’s happening in the north,” Kim Yo Jong was quoted as saying.
“The southerners are a truly weird group hard to understand.”
The South Korean military said in a statement Monday that it had observed signs the North had conducted a nighttime military parade Sunday to mark the congress. It was not clear what, if any, weaponry was displayed during the event.
Kim Jong Un has used the congress to further cement his grip on power, including through an election that saw him bestowed with the title previously reserved for his late father of ruling party general secretary.
Although the party congress is now over, more details of Kim’s plans could emerge at a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), its rubber-stamp parliament, which KCNA said is scheduled on Sunday.
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