North Korea agrees to new frontline military missions amid tensions

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SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un redoubled efforts to boost his nuclear weapons to defeat “enemy forces” at a key meeting where military leaders agreed on new, unspecified operational duties for front-line army units.

State media reported Friday that members of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party decided to complete an “important military action plan” on the duties of front-line forces and strengthen the country’s nuclear war deterrent force.

North Korea has not specified new operational tasks for front-line army units, but analysts say the country may plan 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 reach the US mainland garners a lot of international attention, it is also developing a variety of short-range, nuclear-capable missiles that can target South Korea. Experts say her rhetoric about the missiles conveys a threat to use them preemptively in the war to placate the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States. About 28,500 US troops are stationed in the south to deter aggression from the north.

During the three-day military committee meeting that ended on Thursday, Kim called on his entire army to “make every effort” in implementing plans to strengthen the country’s military strength and bolster “strong self-defense capabilities to crush any hostile forces and thus reliably protect the dignity of the great country.”

Committee members discussed ways to strengthen the party’s leadership over the entire armed forces and approved plans for unspecified changes to “military organizational formations,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Some analysts say North Korea’s potential plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in front-line 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 force.

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

The meeting came amid indications that North Korea is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it allegedly detonated a thermonuclear weapon that could be flipped on its ICBMs.

Experts say North Korea may use its next nuclear test to claim that it has gained 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 long-range cruise missile. . Smaller warheads will also be necessary for North Korea’s stated pursuit of a multi-headed ICBM.

While North Korean reports of the meeting did not mention plans to conduct a nuclear test, a South Korean government spokesman said Seoul is closely monitoring related developments.

“Just as North Korea has said it has discussed and approved important plans to expand and strengthen its deterrent to war, our government will prepare for all eventualities while carefully monitoring relevant trends,” said Cha Duk-chul of Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs. .

North Korea already set a record annual ballistic test record during the first half of 2022, firing about 30 missiles, including its first ICBM tests nearly five years ago.

Kim’s recent tests have been peppered with frequent comments that North Korea will preemptively use its nuclear weapons when threatened or provoked, which experts say portends an escalatory nuclear doctrine that could raise even greater concerns for neighbors.

South Korea has been spending heavily to expand its conventional weapons in recent years, but some analysts say the country has no clear way to counter the threat posed by Kim’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles.

While the Biden administration has reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to defending its allies South Korea and Japan with its full range of military capabilities, including nuclear capabilities, there are concerns in Seoul that Kim’s ICBMs could make the United States hesitant in the event of another war on the subcontinent. Korean island. .

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

North Korea’s apparent motivation to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons to front-line units has been anticipated since April, when Kim oversaw a test of a new short-range missile that state media said would “significantly” improve the firepower of front-line artillery units and “enhance efficiency in Operation of tactical nuclear bombs.”

Experts say North Korea’s unusual speed in testing activity this year underscores Kim’s dual intent to bolster his arsenal and put pressure on Washington over long-stalled nuclear diplomacy. Talks have been bogged down since early 2019 over disagreements over the mutual release of tough US-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.

Kim has shown no intention of giving up an arsenal that he sees as the strongest guarantee of survival. Experts say his pressure campaign is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

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