North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have lowered his threshold for a nuclear strike, raising the risks for a miscalculation as he rolls out new weapons whose uses range from nearby tactical strikes to threatening the U.S. homeland from afar.
Kim signaled a looser policy toward his possible use of atomic weapons at a military parade in Pyongyang aired on state television late Tuesday. While North Korea’s nuclear force was primarily meant to “deter wars,” it had a “second mission,” and “cannot be bound to only one mission, if there’s an outbreak of an unwanted situation on this land,” he told tens of thousands of adoring citizens Monday night.
The North Korean leader has backed his words with tests of weapons designed to evade American missile defenses in Asia and deliver warheads to the U.S. mainland. Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing a key site for the country’s first nuclear test since 2017, after pledging to develop new miniaturized warheads for tactical weapons and more powerful bombs that would be carried by long-range rockets.
The parade indicates Kim’s “nuclear doctrine was expanding and becoming more aggressive,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as a security adviser to former conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The North Korean leader’s actions indicated his policy had “reached a different phase,” where he could seek to leverage the threat of atomic strikes to achieve diplomatic goals, said Cha, who’s now a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute.
“It’s not the first time Kim Jong Un hinted North Korea’s first-use option, but he usually emphasized that he’d use the weapons as a deterring tool,” Cha said.
The shift raises the risk of nuclear miscalculation in the Asia-Pacific region, even as Russia repeatedly raises the specter of a similar confrontation over Ukraine in Europe. Kim has so far rejected U.S. President Joe Biden’s overtures to resume nuclear talks that sputtered out after his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, rejected Kim’s demands for sweeping relief from international sanctions in return for closing a key nuclear complex.
Kim has been steadily ratcheting up tensions with the U.S. and South Korea since talks broke down in 2019, including record volleys of ballistic missile tests banned by United Nations resolutions. Last month, North Korea fired off its first intercontinental ballistic missile in more than four years, after rolling out several new weapons such as hypersonic glide vehicles designed to use high speeds and maneuverability to evade interceptors.
This week’s parade featured the expanding array of nuclear-capable systems, including new tactical weapons that could hit many U.S. bases in South Korea in three minutes or less. The event featured eight ICBMs, among them four Hwasong-17s, which are believed to be intended to carry multiple warheads across the Pacific.
“Kim’s speech identified his continued threat to use nuclear weapons early in a conflict,” said Melissa Hanham, a non-proliferation expert and an affiliate with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. “This type of thinking creates an unstable dynamic prone to accidents or misunderstanding.”
The diplomatic freeze with the U.S. has given Kim little incentive to refrain from weapons tests, and rising tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow over Ukraine diminishes the threat of further sanctions by the UN Security Council. The has been little discussion about new penalties over North Korea’s March ICBM test.
Kim’s next major provocation could be nuclear bomb test, something North Korea is the only country known to have done since the start of this century. Although the most recent test was a powerful atomic bomb with an estimated yield of between 120-250 kilotons, analysts say he could seek to demonstrate his ability to produce smaller warheads with tactical — and more ambiguous — uses.
Tensions are set to increase on the peninsula when South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol takes office on May 10 with pledges to pursue a tough line on Pyongyang. Biden will visit South Korea and Japan from May 20-24 for talks with Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the White House said, as the U.S. president seeks to show that the Ukraine conflict hasn’t distracted the administration from Asia.
Kim alluded to rising geopolitical turmoil Monday while trying to justify the need to accelerate his nuclear buildup.
“In preparation for the turbulent political and military situation and all kinds of crises in the future, we will go forward faster and more steadfastly on the road of self-defense and modern force construction,” he said in his speech.
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