SEOUL, South Korea—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed his regime will never abandon the nuclear weapons it needs to counter the United States, which he accused of pushing to weaken the North’s defenses and eventually collapse his regime, state media said Friday.
Kim made the comments during a speech Thursday at North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature, where members passed legislation governing the use of nuclear weapons, which Kim described as a step to cement the country’s nuclear status and make clear such weapons will not be bargained.
The law spells out conditions where the North would be inclined to use its nuclear weapons, including when it determines that its leadership is facing an imminent “nuclear or non-nuclear attack by hostile forces.” The law requires North Korea’s military to “automatically” execute nuclear strikes against enemy forces, including their “starting point of provocation and the command,” if Pyongyang’s leadership comes under attack.
The law also says North Korea could use nukes to prevent an unspecified “catastrophic crisis” to its regime and people, a loose definition that experts say reflect an escalatory nuclear doctrine that could create greater concerns for neighbors.
Kim also criticized South Korea over its plans to expand its conventional strike capabilities and revive large-scale military exercises with the United States to counter the North’s growing threats, describing them as a “dangerous” military action that raises tensions.
Kim has made increasingly provocative threats of nuclear conflict toward the United States and its allies in Asia, also warning that the North would proactively use its nuclear weapons when threatened. His latest comments underscored the growing animosity in the region as he accelerates the expansion of his nuclear weapons and missiles program.
Kim also addressed domestic issues, saying North Korea would begin its long-delayed rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in November. He didn’t specify how many doses it would have, where they would come from, or how they would be administered across his population of 26 million people.
GAVI, the nonprofit that runs the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, said in June it understood North Korea had accepted an offer of vaccines from China. GAVI said at the time the specifics of the offer were unclear.
North Korea rejected previous offers by COVAX, likely because of international monitoring requirements, and has also ignored U.S. and South Korean offers of vaccines and other COVID-19 aid.
Kim last month declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures eased just three months after his government for the first time acknowledged an outbreak. Experts believe the North’s disclosures on its outbreak are manipulated to help Kim maintain absolute control.
The North Korean report about Kim’s speech came a day after South Korea extended its latest olive branch, proposing a meeting with North Korea to resume temporary reunions of aging relatives separated by the 1950–1953 Korean War, which were last held in 2018.
Experts say it’s highly unlikely North Korea would accept the South’s offer considering the stark deterioration in inter-Korean ties amid the stalemate in larger nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The U.S.–North Korean diplomacy derailed in 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling sanctions against the North and the North’s denuclearization steps.
Kim was combative toward South Korea in Thursday’s speech and urged his regime to expand the operational roles of its tactical nuclear weapons and accelerate their deployment to strengthen the country’s war deterrent. Those comments appeared to align with a ruling party decision in June to approve unspecified new operational duties for front-line troops, which analysts say likely include plans to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting rival South Korea along their tense border.
Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said Kim’s comments and the new North Korean law amount to a warning that it would launch immediate nuclear strikes on the United States and South Korea if they ever attempt to decapacitate Pyongyang’s leadership.
The North is also communicating a threat that it could use its nuclear weapons during conflicts with South Korea’s conventional forces, which would raise the risk of accidental clashes escalating into a nuclear crisis, Cheong said.
North Korea has been speeding its development of nuclear-capable, short-range missiles that can target South Korea since 2019. Experts say its rhetoric around those missiles communicates a threat to proactively use them in warfare to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in the South to deter aggression from the North.
The U.S.-led diplomatic push to defuse the nuclear standoff has been further complicated by an intensifying U.S.–China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine, which deepened the divide in the U.N. Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow have blocked U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang over its revived long-range missile tests this year.
Kim has dialed up weapons tests to a record pace in 2022, launching more than 30 ballistic weapons, including the first demonstrations of his intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
U.S. and South Korean officials say Kim may up the ante soon by ordering the North’s first nuclear test in five years as he pushes brinksmanship aimed at forcing Washington to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating concessions from a position of strength.
Experts say Kim is also trying to strengthen his leverage by strengthening his cooperation with China and Russia in an emerging partnership aimed at undercutting U.S. influence.
North Korea has repeatedly blamed the United States for the crisis in Ukraine. U.S. officials said this week the Russians are in the process of purchasing North Korean ammunition, including artillery shells and rockets, to ease their supply shortages in the war against Ukraine.
North Korea also has joined Russia and Syria as the only nations to recognize the independence of two pro-Russia breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine and has discussed sending its construction workers to those regions to work on rebuilding.