North Korea watchers have long had to decode Pyongyang’s missives to weed out the bluster from actual signs of policy change, given that its eccentric, dynastic leaders – now in their third generation with Kim Jong-un – have been known for their over-the-top threats.
Analysts parsing Kim’s speech at a nighttime parade this week say that – beyond the hyperbole – there are serious implications for Asia’s security, as the hermit state’s supreme leader signalled he would use the North’s nuclear force not just for defence, but to assert control.
While vowing to develop the country’s arsenal at the “fastest possible speed”, Kim in his speech on Monday threatened to use the North’s nuclear arsenal “against anyone who violates Pyongyang’s interests”.
He spoke of “rapidly-changing political and military situations and all the possible crises of the future” as North Korea’s most advanced weapons – including its largest intercontinental ballistic missile – were paraded before him.
Those weapons “can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent”, Kim said – even if that is their “fundamental mission”.
Cha Du- hyeogn, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said the speech “sent a message” that Kim would consider using nuclear weapons “preemptively, depending on the situation, and more freely pose nuclear threats if necessary going forward”.
Kim proposing the offensive use of nuclear arms to prevent “the violation of national interests” was “remarkable”, said Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies, adding that the remarks were likely meant as a warning to South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol.
Yoon, a conservative who repeatedly slammed outgoing President Moon Jae-in for appeasing Pyongyang, is widely seen as being more hawkish on the North than his liberal predecessor.
In a written statement to Reuters, Yoon – who takes office on May 10 – responded to Kim’s speech by calling the North’s nuclear policy “delusional”, adding that Pyongyang was “failing to realise that there is nothing it can get” with its weapons.
“It’s become clear now that North Korea’s claim thus far that its nuclear development was for defence purposes was a lie,” said a spokeswoman for Yoon.
Moon Seong mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said Pyongyang had made progress in miniaturising nuclear warheads to fit atop tactical guided weapons.
But Monday’s parade was mostly for show, he said, as Kim had “failed to deliver on his promise that people will eat well and live well”. References to “hardships” in the dictator’s speeches last year stoked fears among observers that the North was again teetering on the brink of famine.
Other weapons on a “wish list” Kim revealed in January last year during a speech to the eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea included intercontinental, hypersonic and short-range ballistic missiles; nuclear-capable, submarine-launched variants; and ones with multiple warheads. He also mentioned a military reconnaissance satellite, which North Korea claimed to have tested earlier this year.
Monday night’s parade in Pyongyang, held to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the North’s armed forces, was the 12th presided over by Kim, who took power around a decade ago.
Among the weapons showcased was the Hwasong-17 ICBM, which Pyongyang claims to have test-fired last month, alongside a range of other missiles and conventional weapons.
Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said pictures of Monday’s parade showed what appeared to be three untested missiles.
“We’ve now seen three different large solid-fuel missiles paraded that have yet to be flight tested,” Panda wrote on Twitter, adding “I wouldn’t be shocked if one of these [is] flight-tested in due time”.
Kim’s bellicose speech on Monday may have been designed to attract Washington’s attention at a time when more provocative actions – such as a seventh nuclear test – were made riskier by Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“The rhetoric is stronger than before, but that’s not surprising because his statement was made at an event related to the military,” he said. “This does not herald an imminent provocative action.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.