SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on his arms buildup amid what he described as an aggravating security environment as he wrapped up a major political conference that took place as US and South Korean officials say North Korea is continuing preparations for another nuclear test that could be imminent.
Kim’s comments published by North Korea’s state-run Central News Agency on Saturday did not include any direct criticism of the United States or rival South Korea amid a protracted stalemate in nuclear diplomacy during the three days of talks that ended on Friday.
Kim defended his acceleration of weapons development as a legitimate exercise of sovereign rights of self-defense and set out other “militant tasks” for his armed forces and military scientists to pursue, according to the agency. But the report did not mention any specific goals or plans for testing activities, including the detonation of a nuclear device.
The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee also discussed major state affairs, including efforts to slow a COVID-19 outbreak the North first acknowledged last month and progress toward the economic goals that Kim is desperate to keep alive despite tightening virus restrictions.
“(Kim) said that the right to self-defense is a matter of defending sovereignty, once again clarifying the party’s invariable fighting principle, power for power and frontal struggle,” KCNA said.
The meeting came amid a provocative streak of missile demonstrations that shakes up an old tightrope scheme aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and to negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.
North Korea has for years mastered the art of manufacturing diplomatic crises with weapons tests and threats before finally offering negotiations aimed at obtaining concessions.
In a move that could have future foreign policy implications, Kim promoted during the meeting a seasoned diplomat with extensive experience in handling US affairs as the new foreign secretary.
Choe Sun Hui, who is among the most powerful women in the North along with leader Kim Yo Jong’s sister, played a major role in preparing Kim Jong Un for his meetings with former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019 Talks between Pyongyang and Washington were derailed after Kim’s second meeting with Trump broke down in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for a major lifting of US sanctions against the North in exchange for limited disarmament measures.
Choe replaces Ri Son Gwon, a hardliner with a military background who, at the meeting, was announced as Kim’s new point of contact on his South Korean rival.
North Korea has a habit of increasing the pressure on Seoul when it doesn’t get what it wants from Washington. Although KCNA’s report on the meeting did not contain any comments specifically referring to South Korea, it said that the participants had clarified “the principles and the strategic and tactical guidelines to be maintained in the fight against the enemy and in the field of foreign affairs”.
North Korea has already set an annual ballistic launch record in the first half of 2022, firing 31 missiles in 18 different launch events, including its first intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrations in nearly five years.
Kim could raise the bar as soon as US and South Korean officials say North Korea has all but completed preparations to detonate a nuclear device at its testing ground in the northeast city of Punggye-ri. from the country. The site had been inactive since hosting the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it said it detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.
The North’s unusually rapid pace in testing activities underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over a long-stalled nuclear diplomacy, experts say.
While the United States has said it will push for additional sanctions if North Korea carries out another nuclear test, divisions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council cloud the prospects for punitive measures significant. Russia and China have this year vetoed US-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting Washington should focus on reviving dialogue.
Kim’s pressure campaign has not been slowed by a COVID-19 outbreak spreading through the largely unvaccinated autocracy of 26 million people.
During the meeting, North Korea maintained a dubious claim that its outbreak was abating, despite external concerns about huge death rates given the country’s failing health system.
North Korea restricted the movement of people and supplies between regions, but large groups of workers continued to congregate on farms and industrial sites, pressured to shore up an economy decimated by decades of mismanagement, sanctions and pandemic border closures.
At the meeting, Kim said the country’s “maximum emergency” anti-virus campaign last month had boosted the ability of the economic sector to deal with the virus.
Kim rejected U.S. and South Korean offers of vaccines and other aid. GAVI, the nonprofit that runs the UN-backed COVAX vaccine distribution program, believes North Korea has started administering doses donated by its ally China. But the number of doses and how they were distributed were not known.
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