North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has warned he is ready to use his nuclear weapons in potential military conflicts with the United States and South Korea.
Mr Kim’s speech to war veterans on the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War were apparently meant to boost internal unity in the impoverished country suffering pandemic-related economic difficulties.
North Korea will likely intensify its threats against the United States and South Korea as the allies prepare to expand summertime exercises the North views as an invasion rehearsal, some observers say.
“Our armed forces are completely prepared to respond to any crisis, and our country’s nuclear war deterrent is also ready to mobilise its absolute power dutifully, exactly and swiftly in accordance with its mission,” Mr Kim said in Wednesday’s speech, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
He accused the United States of “demonising” North Korea to justify its hostile policies. He said US-South Korea military drills show the US’s “double standards” and “gangster-like” aspects because it brands North Korea’s routine military activities — an apparent reference to its missile tests — as provocations or threats.
Mr Kim also called new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol “a confrontation maniac” who has gone further than past South Korean leaders and said Mr Yoon’s conservative government was led by “gangsters”.
Since taking office in May, the Yoon government has moved to strengthen Seoul’s military alliance with the United States and bolster its capacity to neutralise North Korean nuclear threats including a pre-emptive strike capability.
“Talking about military action against our nation, which possess absolute weapons that they fear the most, is preposterous and is very dangerous suicidal action,” Mr Kim said.
“Such a dangerous attempt will be immediately punished by our powerful strength and the Yoon Suk Yeol government and his military will be annihilated.”
South Korea expressed “deep regret” over Mr Kim’s threat and said it maintains a readiness to cope with any provocation by North Korea in “a powerful, effective manner”.
In a statement read by spokesperson Kang In-sun, Mr Yoon’s presidential national security office said South Korea will safeguard its national security and citizens’ safety based on a solid alliance with the United States. It urged North Korea to return to talks to take steps toward denuclearisation.
This year, Mr Kim has been increasingly threatening its rivals with his advancing nuclear programme in what some foreign experts say is an attempt to wrest outside concessions and achieve greater domestic unity.
In April, Mr Kim said North Korea could pre-emptively use nuclear weapons if threatened, saying they would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent”.
Mr Kim’s military has also test-launched nuclear-capable missiles that place both the US mainland and South Korea within striking distance.
The North Korean leader is seeking greater public support as his country’s economy has been battered by pandemic-related border shutdowns, US-led sanctions and his own mismanagement.
North Korea also admitted to its first Covid-19 outbreak in May, though the scale of illness and death is widely disputed in a country that lacks the modern medical capacity to handle it.