North Korea approves new army frontline duties amid tensions

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SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on his buildup of nuclear weapons to overwhelm “hostile forces” at a key meeting where military leaders approved new unspecified operational duties for frontline army units. front.

Members of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Military Commission decided to complement an “important military action plan” on the duties of frontline troops and further strengthen the country’s nuclear war deterrent, state media said on Friday. -fair.

North Korea did not specify new operational duties for frontline army units, but analysts say the country may be planning to deploy nuclear weapons on the battlefield targeting rival South Korea along its tense border.

While North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that can hit the US mainland receives much of the international attention, it is also developing a variety of nuclear-capable short-range missiles that can hit South Korea. Experts say its rhetoric around these missiles communicates a threat to proactively use them in warfare to neutralize stronger conventional forces in South Korea and the United States. Some 28,500 US troops are stationed in the South to thwart North aggression.

Kim, during the three-day military commission meeting that ended on Thursday, urged his entire army to “strive” in carrying out plans to bolster the country’s military force and consolidate “powerful self-defense capabilities to crush any forces.” hostile and therefore reliably protect the dignity of the great country”.

Commission members discussed ways to strengthen party leadership across the armed forces and ratified plans for unspecified changes to “military organizational formations,” the official Korean news agency North Korea said.

Some analysts say North Korea’s possible plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to frontline artillery units may require changes in command and control, as the country’s nuclear weapons have so far been handled by the military’s strategic strength.

State media reports of the meeting did not include any direct criticism of Washington or Seoul amid a protracted stalemate in the nuclear talks.

The meeting came amid signs that North Korea is preparing to carry out its first nuclear test blast since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon that could be launched on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Experts say North Korea could use its upcoming nuclear test to claim that it has acquired the ability to build a small nuclear warhead to fit its short-range missiles or other weapons it has recently tested, including an alleged hypersonic missile and a cruise missile. long range. . Smaller warheads would also be needed for the North’s declared search for a multi-warhead ICBM.

While North Korean reports from the meeting do not mention plans for a nuclear test, a South Korean government spokesman said Seoul is closely following related developments.

“As North Korea said it discussed and ratified important plans to expand and strengthen its war deterrent, (our) government will prepare for all possibilities while carefully monitoring related trends,” said Cha Duck Chul of the Ministry of Unification of North Korea. Seoul, which handles inter-Korean affairs. .

North Korea has already set an annual record for ballistic tests through the first half of 2022, firing around 30 missiles, including its first tests involving ICBMs in nearly five years.

Kim punctuated his recent tests with repeated comments that North Korea would proactively use its nuclear weapons when threatened or provoked, which experts say portends a growing nuclear doctrine that could create greater concerns for neighbors.

South Korea has been spending heavily to expand its conventional weapons in recent years, but some analysts say the country lacks a clear way to combat the threat posed by Kim’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles.

While the Biden administration has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defending allies South Korea and Japan with their full range of military capabilities, including nuclear, there are concerns in Seoul that Kim’s intercontinental ballistic missiles could make the United States hesitant to move forward. case of another war on the Korean Peninsula. .

Opinion polls show growing support among South Koreans for a redistribution of US tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the South in the 1990s or even the South’s pursuit of its own deterrence, which some experts say would increase pressure on Pyongyang and create conditions for mutual nuclear disarmament. .

North Korea’s apparent effort to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons to frontline units had been predicted since April, when Kim oversaw a test of a new short-range missile that state media said would “dramatically” improve the situation. firepower of front-line artillery units and “increase efficiency in the operation of tactical nuclear weapons.”

Experts say North Korea’s unusually rapid pace of testing activity this year underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance its arsenal and pressure Washington over long-stalked nuclear diplomacy. Negotiations have been stalled since early 2019 due to disagreements over the exchange of the release of crippling US-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament measures.

Kim has shown no intention of fully donating an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival. His lobbying campaign aims to force the United States to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength, experts say.

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