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Kim Jong Un says nuclear deterrent is ready amid tensions with U.S. and South Korea

The North Korean leader also criticized South Korea’s new president, who has moved to strengthen Seoul’s military alliance with the U.S.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he is ready to use his nuclear weapons in potential military conflicts with the United States and South Korea, state media said Thursday, as he unleashed fiery rhetoric against rivals he says are pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.

Kim’s speech to war veterans on the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War was apparently meant to strengthen internal unity in the impoverished country, which is suffering economic difficulties related to the coronavirus pandemic. North Korea is likely to intensify its threats against the United States and South Korea as the allies prepare to expand summertime exercises the North views as an invasion rehearsal, some observers say.

“Our armed forces are completely prepared to respond to any crisis, and our country’s nuclear war deterrent is also ready to mobilize its absolute power dutifully, exactly and swiftly in accordance with its mission,” Kim said in Wednesday’s speech, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

He accused the United States of “demonizing” North Korea to justify its hostile policies. He said U.S.-South Korea military drills show the U.S.’s “double standards” and “gangster-like” aspects because it brands North Korea’s routine military activities — an apparent reference to its missile tests — as provocations or threats.

Kim also called new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol “a confrontation maniac” who has gone further than past South Korean leaders and said Yoon’s conservative government was led by “gangsters.” Since taking office in May, the Yoon government has moved to strengthen Seoul’s military alliance with the United States and bolster its capacity to neutralize North Korean nuclear threats, including a preemptive strike capability.

“Talking about military action against our nation, which possesses absolute weapons that they fear the most, is preposterous and is very dangerous suicidal action,” Kim said. “Such a dangerous attempt will be immediately punished by our powerful strength and the Yoon Suk Yeol government and his military will be annihilated.”

This year, Kim has been increasingly threatening rivals with his advancing nuclear program in what some foreign experts say is an attempt to wrest outside concessions and achieve greater domestic unity.

In April, Kim said North Korea could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened, saying they would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent.” Kim’s military has also test-launched nuclear-capable missiles that place both the U.S. mainland and South Korea within striking distance.

Kim is seeking greater public support as his country’s economy has been battered by pandemic-related border shutdowns, U.S.-led sanctions and his own mismanagement. North Korea also admitted to its first coronavirus outbreak in May, though the scale of illness and death is widely disputed in a country that lacks the modern medical capacity to handle it.

“Kim’s rhetoric inflates external threats to justify his militarily focused and economically struggling regime,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. “North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are in violation of international law, but Kim tries to depict his destabilizing arms buildup as a righteous effort at self-defense.”

North Korea has rejected U.S. and South Korean offers to resume talks, saying its rivals must first abandon their hostile polices toward the North in an apparent reference to U.S.-led sanctions and U.S.-South Korean military drills.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said last week that this year’s summertime military drills with the United States would involve field training for the first time since 2018 along with the existing computer-simulated tabletop exercises.

In recent years, the South Korean and U.S. militaries have canceled or downsized some of their regular exercises because of concerns about the virus and to support now-stalled U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits.