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N. Korea repeats nuclear threat as S. Korea steps up joint drills

April 2, 2023 - 14:58 By Choi Si-young
North Korea simulates nuclear attacks on South Korea and the US, using short-range ballistic missiles in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday. (KCNA-Yonhap).

North Korea reiterated Sunday that it was serious about its warning that it would use nuclear weapons against South Korea if its annual military exercises with the US continued, calling them “provocations” warranting countermeasures.

In a dispatch by the North’s official Rodong Sinmun, North Korea blamed higher inter-Korean tension on an “obsession with war” that is now close to a climax as the two allies stage their largest amphibious landing drills in years.

The drills, the second half of the annual March drills involving computer simulations, were resumed following a five-year hiatus that had yielded scant progress on the North’s denuclearization. The exercises -- a “rehearsal for invasion” to Pyongyang but a “test for readiness” to Seoul and Washington -- end Monday, followed by three-way anti-submarine drills involving Japan, the other partner in a US-led coalition working on the North’s disarmament.

Sunday’s threat was not different from previous warnings, as the isolated country facing international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs has long tried to put the blame on the allies for repeating missile launches.

For the first time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un revealed the North’s nuclear warhead in person Tuesday, instructing the military to build an “exponentially bigger” nuclear arsenal, despite monthslong outreach for talks from South Korea and the US. Kim has said sanctions relief is a precondition for dialogue.

Analysts expect Pyongyang to double down on weapons tests for some time.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Department of Reunification Strategy Studies at Sejong Institute, said, “North Koreans will ramp up tension through mid-April at least,” referring to April 15, the “Day of the Sun,” when the country celebrates the birth of its late founder Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea has already announced that it would launch a spy satellite by April, which would be a breach of sanctions and could be used to test missile technology. A nuclear test, which Pyongyang last conducted in 2017, is also a possibility.

But experts including Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, argue that a nuclear test should not be as alarming to South Korea and the US as North Korea’s claims to the “capability to mount multiple nuclear warheads on missiles” and the “new way to deliver such warheads.”

Calling such advance an immediate concern, Kim said South Korean authorities should reevaluate North Korea’s undersea drones, which it says are capable of carrying out nuclear attacks on the allies. The Defense Ministry in Seoul has openly dismissed the latest weapon revealed this month, describing its effectiveness as “overblown.”