North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to launch three additional military spy satellites, produce more nuclear materials and introduce modern attack drones in 2024, as he called for “overwhelming” war readiness to cope with US-led confrontational moves, state media reported on Sunday.
Mr Kim’s comments, made during a key ruling Workers’ Party meeting to set state goals for next year, suggest he will intensify a run of weapons tests ahead of the US presidential elections in November.
Observers say he believes a boosted nuclear capability would give him another chance to launch high-stakes summit diplomacy with the US to win sanctions relief if former president Donald Trump returns to the White House.
During the five-day meeting that ended on Saturday, Mr Kim said anti-North Korea moves by the US and its followers have been unprecedented this year, pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
He cited the expansion of US-South Korean military exercises and the temporary deployment of powerful US military assets such as bombers and a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea – steps the allies have taken in response to the North’s weapons testing spree since last year.
“The grave situation requires us to accelerate works to acquire overwhelming war response capabilities and thorough and perfect military readiness to suppress any types of provocations by the enemies at a stroke,” Mr Kim said, according to KCNA.
Mr Kim set out plans to launch three more military spy satellites next year in addition to the country’s first reconnaissance satellite launched in November.
He underlined the need to establish “a reliable foundation” to build more nuclear weapons, an apparent reference to facilities to produce fissile materials like weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
He also ordered authorities to enhance submarine capabilities and develop various types of modern unmanned combat equipment such as armed drones, according to KCNA.
“Pyongyang might be waiting out the US presidential election to see what its provocations can buy it with the next administration,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime has closed the political door on denuclearisation negotiations but could offer rhetorical restraint and a testing freeze in exchange for sanctions relief,” Prof Easley said.
“Although North Korea has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, it might try to extract payment for acting like a so-called responsible nuclear power.”
Mr Kim has been focusing on modernising his nuclear arsenal since his diplomacy with then-US president Mr Trump broke down in 2019 due to wrangling over how much sanctions relief the North could be given for a partial surrender of its nuclear programme.
Experts say Mr Kim is likely to believe that Mr Trump, if elected for a second term, could make concessions because the US is preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas fighting.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, said if President Joe Biden is re-elected, North Korea will not get what it wants. But he predicted that a Trump win could revive summit diplomacy between the two countries, saying Mr Trump is likely to say during his campaign that he can convince North Korea to suspend intimidating weapons tests.
He said Mr Kim’s vow to ramp up production of plutonium and uranium is meant to add to his negotiating cards in potential diplomacy with the Americans.
He said North Korea will also test-launch more intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental US this year.
“North Korea will act to the fullest extent under its timetable for provocation until the US election day,” Prof Nam said.
During his speech at the party meeting, Mr Kim used bellicose, derisive rhetoric against South Korea, calling it “a half-paralysed, deformed US colony” with “Yankee culture”.
He said South Korea must not be considered as a partner for reconciliation or unification, and
ordered the military to use all available capabilities including nuclear to conquer South Korea in the event of a potential conflict.
Some analysts have speculated that limited armed clashes between the Koreas along their tense land and sea border could happen in the coming year.
South Korea’s spy agency said last week that North Korea is likely to launch military provocations and cyber attacks ahead of South Korean parliamentary elections in April and the US presidential election in November.
Mr Kim also maintained that North Korea must solidify co-operation with “anti-imperialist, independent” countries that he said oppose US-led Western hegemony.
He did not mention those countries by name, but North Korea has been seeking to beef up its co-operation with Russia and China, which have repeatedly blocked the US and others’ attempts to toughen UN sanctions on the North over its banned missile tests.
The US and South Korea accuse North Korea of supplying conventional arms like artillery and ammunition to Russia in return for high-tech Russian technologies to boost its own military programs.
US permanent representative to Nato Julianne Smith said earlier this month that America assessed the suspected Russian technologies North Korea seeks are related to fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment or materials of that kind.
Ms Smith said US intelligence indicates that North Korea has provided Russia with more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions.
South Korean officials said Russian support is likely to have enabled North Korea to put its spy satellite into orbit for the first time on November 21.
Many foreign experts are sceptical about the satellite’s ability to take militarily meaningful high-resolution images. But South Korean Defence Minister Shin Wonsik said in November that Russia could help North Korea produce higher-resolution satellite photos.
Mr Kim has said North Korea needs a space-based surveillance system to better monitor its rivals and enhance his missiles’ precision-attack capabilities.
Yang Uk, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, assessed that North Korea has not yet obtained functioning ICBMs that can launch nuclear strikes on the continental US, but he said North Korea’s shorter-range, nuclear-armed missiles can reach South Korea and Japan, where a total of 80,000 American troops are stationed.
Estimates on the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal vary, ranging from 20-30 bombs to more than 100.
The UN atomic agency and foreign experts recently said North Korea appears to have started operating a light-water reactor at its main nuclear complex in a possible attempt to secure a new source for weapons-grade plutonium.
Meanwhile, Mr Kim said during the meeting that North Korea made “eye-opening” achievements on economic projects this year by fulfilling or exceeding set quotas in major areas such as farming, housing construction and fisheries.
The claim cannot be independently confirmed, and Prof Nam said the self-praise appears aimed at burnishing Mr Kim’s image as a leader who cares about public livelihoods as well as military issues.