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N.Korea seeks ‘powerful physical means’ to overpower US

Pyongyang simultaneously aims to rally public support for military and nuclear buildup

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a politburo meeting of the Workers‘ Party of Korea at the headquarters of the Party Central Committee in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a politburo meeting of the Workers‘ Party of Korea at the headquarters of the Party Central Committee in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

North Korea said Thursday it would seek to immediately develop more “powerful physical means” to overpower the US in preparation for “long-term confrontation,” expressing its potential intent to abandon the self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang made the decision at a Politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday, with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in attendance, the state-run media reported the following day.

Politburo members assessed the “US hostile policy and military threat have reached a line of danger that can no longer be ignored,” accusing the US of “unreasonably making an issue out of the country’s legitimate exercise of sovereignty.”

The Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee “unanimously recognized” that North Korea should “make more thorough preparations for a long-term confrontation with the US imperialists.”

“(The Politburo) concluded it would take practical action to more reliably and certainly strengthen our physical strength to defend the state’s dignity, sovereign rights, and national interest,” the party organ Rodong Sinmun said in a Korean-language report.

Pyongyang pointedly announced its plans to promptly enhance military strength in line with the country’s five-year defense development plan.

“The Politburo meeting reassigned the tasks of national defense policy to strengthen and develop more powerful physical means without delay, which can firmly suppress the US hostile acts against the DPRK,” the Rodong Sinmun said.

More importantly, North Korea implied that it could lift the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, which Kim Jong-un announced at a party plenary in April 2018 prior to the first Trump-Kim summit.

“Instructions were given to a relevant sector to completely reconsider trust-building measures that we took proactively and on our own initiative and to swiftly examine the issue of resuming the entire activities that have been temporarily suspended,” the Rodong Sinmun reported, without further details. 

But this is not the first time that Pyongyang made a menace. In July 2019, North Korea warned that it could break the nuclear and ICBM testing moratorium, denouncing South Korea and the US for conducting the scaled-back military exercise. 

Kim Jong-un’s strategic patience coming to an end
Experts say the decision at the Politburo meeting shows adjustment in North Korea’s approach to the US and its little remaining patience with the Biden administration.

“What some analysts have described as the North Korean version of ‘strategic patience’ appears to be coming to an end,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center, told The Korea Herald. 

“North Korea seems to have shifted to a hard line in response to what it views as the Biden administration’s increasing pressure on North Korea.”

But Lee pointed out that North Korea still left room for maneuver, given that the Politburo itself “did not reach a decision at the meeting to reconsider the ‘trust-building measures’ or examine the resumption of ‘suspended activities.’”

“That seems to suggest that North Korea is leaving some flexibility for its next course of action depending on Washington’s response and key international developments,” Lee said, noting the media report.

The state media notably revealed Politburo members discussed plans on countermeasures to the US “hostile policy” after being debriefed of the analysis on the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula and a series of international affairs.

38 North’s Lee said North Korea appeared to capitalize on external situations, including South Korea’s transition period in the runup to the March 9 presidential election and the US attention to Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine.

“Pyongyang seems to be taking advantage of the fluid international situation to step up weapons tests as part of its five-year defense development plan.”

Serve multiple purposes
Experts also point out the Kim Jong-un regime aims to accomplish manifold domestic and foreign policy purposes by pronouncing the decision to bolster its military strength against the US. Multifaceted internal and external factors would have affected Pyongyang’s calculations.

Jean Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, noted that the announcement came at a critical juncture when Politburo members discussed the issue of “splendidly celebrating” the 80th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth in February and the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung as one of the two major topics for the meeting.

“I believe Kim Jong-un is on a mission to add new weapons to his arsenal, perhaps in time for upcoming 2022 celebrations aimed at glorifying the Kim family’s rule and his 10th year in power,” Lee said. “And of course, he believes an expanded arsenal will strengthen his position and leverage in any future nuclear negotiations.”

The Politburo’s decision reflects Pyongyang’s strategic calculation and shows its recalibrated approach to the US. What is the Kim Jong-un regime’s message to the US?

“Don’t expect us to change. If you want to see our relationship make progress – a la Kim regime – surrender and let us go our way,” Soo Kim, a policy analyst at Rand Corp., said. 

“Plus, the recent string of missile tests were probably geared towards priming the circumstances for this announcement today. Essentially, preparing his external audience for what’s to come.” 

Domestic unity and support
The Kim Jong-un regime also appears to use tried-and-true techniques to divert the public attention from economic difficulties aggravated by the country’s stringent COVID-19 lockdown measures and to boost the people’s morale by demonstrating the country’s military strength.

“For the purposes of domestic unity, it may be in the Kim regime’s interest to escalate tensions,” 38 North’s Lee said, pointing to Pyongyang’s three-week anti-South Korean campaign in June 2020 as an analogous precedent.

North Korea still seems to seek to reinforce the people’s threat perception of the US. The state media on Thursday notably underscored that the US “hostile policy” would continue “as long as the hostile entity, which is US imperialism, exists.”

North Korea underscored the US “hostile acts against the DPRK have been getting more severe day by day.” 

As examples, Pyongyang cited the US unilateral economic sanctions, South-Korea joint military exercises, the US acts of conducting “strategic weapons tests,” bringing “high-tech military attack means” into South Korea, and deploying “nuclear strategic weapons” on and near the Korean peninsula. 

“(Last time I checked), the US has not had a Carrier Strike Group, a Strategic Bomber, or 5th Gen fighter in ROK waters or air space since May 2018,” former USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams said on Twitter, in response to the media report.

At the same time, the Kim Jong-un regime appears to be seeking a rationale for continuing military and nuclear buildup.

“To the internal audience, it’s a call to rally continued support for the country’s military and weapons development. So the DPRK will never cease to stray from its time-honored position of nuclear and missile development and testing,” Soo Kim said. 

The pronouncement is noteworthy, as Kim Jong-un publicly said that nuclear and ICBM tests were no longer needed in April 2018. Kim also declared the victory of the Byungjin line and proposed a “new strategic line” of focusing on economic development at the identical party plenary.

“Right now, Kim is seeking to raise tensions, create a warlike scenario and deepen his people’s fear of attack from the United States in order to justify further testing. It’s a vicious cycle,” Jean Lee said. 

“I expect to see North Korea use every opportunity to turn the Biden Administration’s words and actions into confrontation in the coming weeks.”

By Ji Da-gyum (dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)

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