Kim Jong-un’s military parade points to nuclear challenges for Joe Biden
US and South Korean intelligence officials are closely tracking the movements in Pyongyang
Seoul/Tokyo — North Korea appeared to stage a military parade as part of a grand party congress that laid out the scale of the challenge US President-elect Joe Biden faces to rein in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear programme.
There were signs that North Korea held a parade late on Sunday evening, the South Korean joint chiefs of staff said on Monday, in what would be the second such event in since October. US and Seoul Korean intelligence officials were closely tracking the movements in Pyongyang, the joint chiefs said, including the possibility that the event may have been a rehearsal.
The event came amid a Workers’ Party Congress, in which Kim renewed his hostile rhetoric towards the US and outlined plans for a broad upgrade of his nuclear forces to improve his capacity to strike the US. In a chilling warning to the incoming Biden administration, he declared the US a “war monster” and the country’s “biggest main enemy”.
Kim “laid down a fresh struggle line, and strategic and tactical policies”, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. The comments made at Kim’s biggest political meeting in five years signal a contentious approach towards the new administration after three largely fruitless meetings with President Donald Trump.
The plans include making smaller and lighter nuclear weapons, proceeding with the development of large warheads and improving the ability to strike targets within 15,000km — or all of the continental US. Kim is seeking to develop solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines while strengthening intelligence-gathering capabilities with satellites, according to KCNA.
The report suggests a sweeping plan for the modernisation of the country’s nuclear and conventional forces, and a reference to tactical nuclear weapons will raise global concerns, said Ankit Panda, a Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It lights a fire under the Biden administration,” Panda said. “Kim is making clear that if Biden decides not to prioritise North Korea policy, Pyongyang will resume testing and qualitatively advancing its nuclear capabilities in ways that would be seriously detrimental for Washington and Seoul.”
Kim’s message is aimed at pressuring Biden to officially accept North Korea as a nuclear state, said Cheon Seong-whun, a former president of the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification think-tank in Seoul. Kim is likely to go ahead with a series of provocations when Biden takes office, Cheon said.
North Korea has a history of sabre-rattling when a new US president takes over, testing President Barack Obama with the launch of a long-range rocket and a nuclear device in 2009. Trump was welcomed with a series of ballistic missile tests that culminated with the November 2017 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts said could deliver a nuclear warhead to the entire US.
After a breakdown at a summit with Trump in Hanoi in 2019, Kim responded with tests of new solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to hide, deploy and use in a quick strike. Experts believe he has been working on a solid-fuel ICBM, which could be readied for launch quicker than his current liquid-fuelled arsenal.
North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy was dealt further blows last year by natural disasters and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus. GDP likely shrank 8.5% in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people’s living standards.
Kim issued a dire warning in opening remarks to the congress of 5,000 delegates, saying the previous five-year plan fell far short of goals and the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward”. He was dubbed the party’s “general secretary”, a title previously held by his father.
Despite Kim’s bonhomie with Trump, he repeatedly rejected the administration’s call for “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation. The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease sanctions in exchange for steps by Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his atomic arsenal.
“The plan poses a direct security threat to Washington as it may target the US mainland,” said Koh Yu-hwan, president of Kinu. “North Korea is sending a clear message that it would continue to modernise its nuclear weaponry and delivery systems if sanctions are not lifted.”
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