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North Korea’s Kim holds meeting of military elite as year-end deadline looms

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (COURTESY OF KCNA)
December 26, 2019

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over an enlarged meeting of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission to decide on “important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster” the country’s armed forces, state-run media reported Sunday.

The meeting came amid rising tensions and ahead of the looming year-end deadline set by Kim for the United States to lift crushing sanctions or make other concessions in the deadlocked denuclearization negotiations.

Kim discussed “the complicated internal and external situation” and said that “important organizational and political measures and military steps to bolster up the overall armed forces of the country” would be decided at the meeting, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.

“Also discussed were important issues for decisive improvement of the overall national defense and core matters for the sustained and accelerated development of military capability for self-defense,” the report said.

It did not provide further details, or say when the meeting took place, but the report suggested that Pyongyang could soon hold a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s powerful Central Committee. KCNA reported earlier this month that the North would hold a plenary session of the body sometime this month. It said the meeting would be held “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues … and the changed situation at home and abroad.”

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Analysts said the statement could signal the North may change tack after failing to squeeze concessions on crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions out of the U.S. over its nuclear weapons program. One possible shift could be Kim scrapping the North’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Earlier this month, a senior North Korean official threatened to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States, a remark that stirred concerns that Pyongyang planned to escalate its confrontation with Washington. Some analysts believe this escalation could come in the form of a satellite launch or test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), possibly over Japan.

In a sign that the North could resume ICBM testing, NBC News reported Sunday that Pyongyang has expanded a factory linked to the production of long-range nuclear missiles.

Citing a new analysis of satellite photos, the report said a temporary structure had been erected at the site to accommodate the raising of a launcher arm. Researchers believe this is done when the facility is involved in producing or modifying ICBM launchers.

Last week, a top U.S. Air Force general said he expects North Korea’s “Christmas gift” to be a long-range missile test.

“It’s just a matter of does it come on Christmas Eve, does it come on Christmas Day, does it come after the New Year,” said Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces.

Brown said the U.S. military is preparing to respond to any North Korean provocation by reviewing the options it examined in 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to unleash “fire and fury” on the North if it threatened the United States or its allies.

North Korea announced earlier this month that it had conducted “another crucial test” at its Sohae long-range rocket site — the second test at the site in a week — claiming that the move would bolster its “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”

Kim warned in April that Pyongyang could take a “new path” if Washington does not respond sufficiently to its entreaties by the year-end. Top U.S. officials, however, have brushed off the North’s deadline as “artificial.”

It’s unclear how Trump would react to a return to ICBM launches. The U.S. president has effectively ignored a spate of short-range weapons tests by the North that have stoked concern in allied South Korea and Japan.

But any test of a long-range missile, one that experts say is capable of striking the continental United States, could send U.S.-North Korea ties back to where they were in 2017, when tensions surged and analysts fretted over the possibility of military conflict. It would also undermine what Trump considers to be one of his key foreign policy achievements as he faces impeachment proceedings and his re-election campaign heats up.

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© 2019 the Japan Times