North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests demonstrated its ability to carry out strikes with tactical nuclear weapons, its leader, Kim Jong-un, has said, adding that his forces were “completely ready to hit and destroy targets at any time from any location”.
Kim, who last month said the North’s transformation into a nuclear power was “irreversible,” said the drills were “an obvious warning and clear demonstration” to the country’s enemies.
The regime’s short-range tactical nuclear missiles would be unable to reach its nemesis – the US – but could theoretically be used against the South and Japan.
In a report carried on Monday, the state news agency KCNA said that Kim had ordered the test launches in response to large-scale navy drills by South Korean and US forces.
Tokyo and Washington recently resumed the exercises, including the deployment of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan to waters off the east coast of South Korea – a move that infuriated Pyongyang, where the drills are seen as a rehearsal for an invasion.
In response, North Korea “decided to organise military drills under the simulation of an actual war,” KCNA reported.
Army units involved in “the operation of tactical nukes, staged military drills from 25 September to 9 October in order to check and assess the war deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability of the country,” the report said, confirming that Kim had personally directed the exercises.
Official photographs showed Kim at all of the missile launches and exercises, giving orders and posing with smiling soldiers.
“They’re pursuing a tactical nuclear weapon for sure,” said US-based security analyst Ankit Panda. “I suspect they’ll gradually nuclearise many of their new short-range missiles, including the manoeuvring missiles.”
The fact that North Korea has described all seven of its recent missile launches as being linked to “tactical nuclear operations units” is significant, he added, since the inventory includes everything from short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, to a new short-range missile designed to be launched from a submarine.
Kim, who has presided over dramatic improvements in missile and nuclear development despite years of UN sanctions, has long wanted to acquire tactical nuclear weapons – smaller, lighter weapons designed for battlefield use – and made it a top priority at a key party congress in January 2021.
Last month, North Korea revised its nuclear laws to enable it to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes, including in response to conventional attacks.
Kim guided exercises by the country’s nuclear tactical operation units over the past two weeks, involving ballistic missiles with mock nuclear warheads, KCNA said, adding that they were meant to deliver a strong deterrent message.
“The effectiveness and practical combat capability of our nuclear combat force were fully demonstrated as it stands completely ready to hit and destroy targets at any time from any location,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying. “Even though the enemy continues to talk about dialogue and negotiations, we do not have anything to talk about nor do we feel the need to do so.”
The various tests simulated targeting military command facilities, striking main ports, and neutralising airports in the South.
Tactical nuclear weapons
South Korean and US officials say there are signs North Korea could soon detonate a new nuclear device in underground tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was officially closed in 2018.
Analysts say putting small warheads on short-range missiles could represent a dangerous change in the way North Korea deploys and plans to use nuclear weapons.
On 4 October, the North test-fired a ballistic missile farther than ever before, flying what it said was a new intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan for the first time since 2017.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said North Korea had “multiple motivations” for publicising the launches.
“Kim Jong-un’s public appearance after a month-long absence provides a patriotic headline to mark (Monday’s) founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ party,” Easley said.
“Pyongyang has been concerned about military exercises by the US, South Korea and Japan, so to strengthen its self-proclaimed deterrent, it is making explicit the nuclear threat behind its recent missile launches,” he added.
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