North Korea's Kim threatens to use nukes amid tensions with U.S, South Korea

·4 min read
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, speaks in Pyongyang during a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the signing of the ceasefire armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/The Associated Press - image credit)
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, speaks in Pyongyang during a ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the signing of the ceasefire armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/The Associated Press - image credit)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned he's 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 hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War was apparently meant to boost internal unity in the impoverished country amid pandemic-related economic difficulties. While Kim has increasingly threatened his rivals with nuclear weapons, it's unlikely that he would use them first against the superior militaries of the U.S. and its allies, 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.

'Double standards'

He accused the United States of "demonizing" North Korea to justify its hostile policies. Kim said regular U.S.-South Korea military drills that he claimed target the North highlight U.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 alleged the new South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol is led by "confrontation maniacs" and "gangsters" who have gone further than previous South Korean conservative governments. Since taking office in May, the Yoon government has moved to strengthen Seoul's military alliance with the United States and bolster its own capacity to neutralize North Korean nuclear threats including a pre-emptive 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."

South Korea expressed "deep regret" over Kim's threat and said it maintains a readiness to cope with any provocation by North Korea in "a powerful, effective manner."

In a statement read by spokesperson Kang In-sun, Yoon's presidential national security office said South Korea will safeguard its national security and citizens' safety based on a solid alliance with the United States. It urged North Korea to return to talks to take steps toward denuclearization.

Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press
Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

Earlier Thursday, South Korea's Defence Ministry repeated its earlier position that it's been boosting its military capacity and joint defence posture with the United States to cope with escalating North Korean nuclear threats.

In April, Kim said North Korea could pre-emptively 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. U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly said in the past few months that North Korea is ready to conduct its first nuclear test in five years.

Seeking support

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. In May, North Korea also admitted to its first COVID-19 outbreak, 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," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. "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-defence."

Experts say North Korea will likely intensify its threats against the U.S. and South Korea as the allies prepare to expand summertime exercises. In recent years, the South Korean and U.S. militaries have cancelled or downsized some of their regular exercises due to concerns about COVID-19 and to support now-stalled U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits.

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