The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has vowed to move faster in bolstering his nuclear forces and threatened to use them if provoked in a speech during a military parade that featured powerful weapons systems that could be used to target the country’s rivals.
His remarks suggest he will continue provocative weapons tests in a pressure campaign to wrest concessions from the US and its allies. The parade on Monday night was to mark the 90th anniversary of North Korea’s army – the backbone of the Kim family’s authoritarian rule – and was held as the country’s economy is battered by pandemic-related difficulties, punishing US-led sanctions and its own mismanagement.
State media photos showed Kim, dressed in a white military ceremonial coat, smiling and waving from a balcony along with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and other top deputies.
“[We] will continue to take measures for further developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed,” Kim told his troops and the crowd gathered for the parade at a Pyongyang plaza, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
He repeated an earlier message that North Korea could pre-emptively use its nuclear weapons when threatened by attacks and called for his nuclear forces to be fully prepared to go “in motion at any time”.
“The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent even at a time when a situation we are not desirous of at all is created on this land,” Kim said. “If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission”, which would leave any invading force “perished”, he said.
The parade featured thousands of goose-stepping troops shouting “hurrah!” and some of North Korea’s most powerful missiles. Some intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) could put the US homeland well within range, and a variety of shorter-range solid-fuel missiles pose a growing threat to South Korea and Japan.
One of the weapons showcased at the brightly illuminated Kim Il-sung Square, named after Kim’s late grandfather and state founder, was North Korea’s biggest and newest ICBM, the Hwasong-17.
North Korea claimed to have test-fired that missile successfully last month, but South Korea concluded the launch was of the smaller Hwasong-15 and that a launch of the Hwasong-17 had failed. Whichever weapon it was, the launch on 24 March was its first full-range ICBM flight test in more than four years and the missile flew longer and higher than any other missile North Korea has launched.
KCNA said spectators at the parade raised loud cheers when they saw the Hwasong-17, which it said showed “the absolute power of Juche [self-reliance], Korea and the strategic position of our republic to the world”.
North Korea often commemorates key state anniversaries by mobilising huge crowds to boost internal unity. Tuesday’s KCNA dispatch praised Kim for accomplishing “the historic great cause of completing the nuclear forces by making a long journey of patriotic devotion with a death-defying will” to make his people free of war.
Kim has been reviving nuclear brinkmanship aimed at forcing the US to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and to remove crippling economic sanctions, exploiting a favourable environment to push forward its weapons programme as the UN security council remains divided over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over the potential easing of US-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps. Kim has stuck to his goals of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the country’s dismal economy in the face of international pressure and has shown no willingness to fully surrender a nuclear arsenal he sees as his biggest guarantee of survival.
North Korea has conducted 13 rounds of weapons tests this year. There are also signs North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground that was last active in 2017, possibly in preparation for exploding a nuclear device.
In 2017, North Korea claimed to have acquired an ability to launch nuclear strikes on the US mainland after a torrid run of nuclear and missile tests. North Korea had halted such high-profile tests before it entered the now-dormant diplomacy with the US.
Kim’s aggressive military push could be motivated by domestic politics since he does not otherwise have significant accomplishments to show to his people as he marks a decade in power. He failed to win badly needed sanctions relief from his diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump, and the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed further shocks to the country’s broken economy, forcing him to acknowledge last year that North Korea was facing its “worst-ever situation”.