The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Kim Jong Un Declares North Korea Will Advance Nuclear Capabilities

During the Eighth Party Congress, Kim vowed to enhance the country’s missile programs and nuclear power – a worrying sign for diplomacy with the U.S. and South Korea.

Mitch Shin
Kim Jong Un Declares North Korea Will Advance Nuclear Capabilities

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the ruling party congress in Pyongyang, North Korean, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021.

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File

North Korea’s state media reported on January 9 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to advance the country’s nuclear capabilities by making its nuclear missiles smaller and pursuing a more advanced type of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kim made the comments on January 8, during the Eighth Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party.

“We must develop tactical nuclear weapons that can be applied in different means in the modern war depending on the purpose of operational missions and targets, and continue to push ahead with the production of super-large nuclear warheads,” Kim said.

Kim’s main goals for strengthening his country’s defense power are to develop nuclear-powered submarines and increase the hit rate of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 15,000 kilometers. The miniaturization of nuclear weapons, creation of tactical nuclear weapons, and the production of super-large nuclear warheads were also included as goals.

“As Kim Jong Un directly declared that North Korea is a nuclear power and said he would upgrade its nuclear capabilities, I think it is only a matter of time before he achieves what he said,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, told The Diplomat.

Also in his remarks, Kim publicly made clear that he will not give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons unless Washington withdraws its hostile policy toward Pyongyang such as U.S.-led economic sanctions. He added that Washington’s choice of a different path to deal with the North could be the key to establishing a new U.S.-North Korea relationship.

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North Korea assessed relations with the U.S. by saying that “whoever takes power in the U.S. will never change the reality of the U.S. and its policy towards North Korea,” citing its distrust that Washington sincerely desires peace on the Korean Peninsula.

As for South Korea, Kim said that inter-Korean relations are “on the verge of disaster,” adding that ties have returned to the strained state they were in before the Panmunjom Declaration of 2018. Recently, South Korea has offered cooperation on issues such as pandemic management, humanitarian aid, and individual tourism in a bid to improve ties. However, the North has made its stance clear: Inter-Korean relations can only be improved if South Korean authorities fundamentally eliminate their supposedly abnormal and anti-unification behaviors toward the North.

North Korea claims that Seoul has ignored its repeated warnings to stop bringing in high-tech military equipment and conducting joint military exercises with the United States. Pyongyang argues that South Korea’s military build-up, including the introduction of the F-35A stealth fighter, and the continuation of U.S.-ROK joint drills are contrary to the September 19, 2018 inter-Korean Military Agreement. That agreement was signed during the third inter-Korean summit in September 2018, in Pyongyang.

Part of that agreement says that “South and North Korea have decided to stop all hostile acts against each other, which are the source of military tension and conflict, on the ground, at sea and in all spaces, including the air.” Pyongyang argues Seoul has been violating that section through joints drills with the United States.

The South Korean and U.S. Air Force conducted a two-week drill starting in April 2019 to replace the earlier large-scale air exercise called “Max Thunder.” South Korea and the U.S. had scaled back the drill in consideration of the 9/19 Military Agreement, but still the move sped up the glacial turn in inter-Korea relations.

“There is no need to show goodwill unilaterally to Seoul authorities as before, and we should deal with it only as much as we respond to our legitimate demands,” Kim said at the Party Congress. However, he did not completely rule out the possibility of better ties, saying that inter-Korean relations could improve depending on the attitude of the South.

North Korea’s state media also reported on January 11 that North Korea has dealt with the revision of the Workers’ Party convention on January 10, the fifth day of the Workers’ Party Congress.

Notably, the party revived the secretariat for the first time in five years. The Seventh Party Congress in 2016 had changed the secretariat into the Executive Policy Bureau.

Also through the revision of the party convention, Kim Jong Un has been nominated as the Workers’ Party’s general secretary, an upgrade from his previous title of chairman.

Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, known as the second most powerful person in the North, became a member of the party’s Central Committee but was excluded from the list of candidates for the Politburo – officially the top echelon of political power. She has not been renamed in the position she held last year, either. But given the fact that she has been heavily involved in overall state affairs recently, experts say that her position has not been weakened, even if she was not promoted to the Politburo.

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As Kim Yo Jong played the role of “bad cop in South Korea last year, experts predict she must have felt a lot of pressure. That may be why Kim Jong Un excluded her from an official promotion, to help shield her. However, it does not mean she has lost her power.

“The most basic condition to go to a high-ranking position is to become a member of the party’s Central Committee, and since Kim Yo Jong is already a member of the Central Committee, she is likely to be appointed to a high-ranking position at any time,” Yang said. “It is important to note that no secretary for South Korea is currently registered on the secretary list of the North’s Workers’ Party; she may take the post in the future.”

In the midst of the Congress, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected a North Korea military parade on the night of January 8 at Kim Il-sung Square. As Kim vowed to strengthen nuclear weapons at the Party Congress, chances are high that in the coming years he will use military parades to unveil new weapons.

The Congress has been in session since January 5 and it is likely to be adjourned early this week after releasing the full report to the party, according to experts.