Kim Jong Un to Ring in New Year With Missiles and Nuclear Threats

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(Bloomberg) — Kim Jong Un in 2022 fired off missiles at a record pace, lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons and thumbed his nose at global sanctions. He’s likely to turn up the heat even more in the coming year.

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Kim is expected to outline his plans for 2023 this week as his ruling Workers’ Party wraps up a major year-end policy-setting meeting. The North Korean leader said during the gathering that he would strengthen the military, but details won’t be known until state media publishes a report of the meeting around New Year’s day. Last year’s dispatch amounted to nearly 8,000 words.

With little threat of new sanctions and plans already afoot to further develop weapons including drones, submarines and missiles, Kim will likely look to continue honing his ability to deliver a credible nuclear strike against the US and its allies.

Kim’s actions in recent months indicate a broader shift away from the country’s long-term goal of normalizing ties with Washington as a buffer against China and Russia, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades. That means more policies designed to cope with a prolonged period of hardship, rather than exploring diplomatic overtures, she added.

“Based on North Korea’s official pronouncements and media rhetoric since the beginning of the year, as well as its military actions in recent months, it seems unlikely the country will return to the negotiating table in the near term,” Lee said.

Kim told the meeting of his firm belief in “the direction of the Korean revolution and the confidence in its invincibility,” state media reported Thursday.

Kim’s regime has defied United Nations resolutions by firing off about 70 ballistic missiles so far in 2022, nearly three times more than any other year since he took power a decade ago.

That has helped build a modern missile arsenal with solid-fuel rockets that are easier to hide, quicker to deploy and designed to evade US defenses in the region. He’s betting that will help deter another confrontation with the US like in 2017, when former President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” in response to North Korea’s weapons tests and American officials talked of a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea.

Nuclear Test

Kim also appears ready to conduct his first nuclear test since 2017 as he seeks to miniaturize warheads for tactical weapons to strike South Korea and Japan, which host bulk of US troops in Asia. An atomic detonation could also help increase the strength of a warhead he could attach to an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the American mainland.

“Disarmament talks don’t fit into the development trends we are seeing,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

The US, South Korea and Japan have pledged a stern, coordinated punishment if Kim tests a nuclear weapon. But years of sanctions and isolation have failed to get Kim to change course. Now there’s almost no chance Russia or China, which have veto power at the United Nations Security Council, would support any new measures against North Korea as they did back in 2017.

“Pyongyang doesn’t see any chance or need of improvement in relations with the US or South Korea at this point, so they are ratcheting up tensions to create a pretext to conduct their seventh nuclear test,” said Lee Sang-keun, director of strategic research at Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy.

Russia, North Korea Restore Rail Trade Halted Since Early 2020

Russia may even be aiding North Korea financially by purchasing weapons it could use in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, the US has said. Pyongyang has dismissed the allegation as a baseless rumor, but it has also reestablished its sole train link with Russia that was halted almost three years ago due to Covid-19.

Kim has rebuffed US attempts to return to nuclear disarmament talks and brought along his daughter for her state media debut to attend the November launch of an ICBM — signaling there’s another generation ready to take over the Cold War’s last continuous family dynasty and it will depend on nuclear weapons for its survival.

‘Slap on the Wrist’

Kim’s propaganda machine, meanwhile has gone into overdrive to show the North Korean leader as caring for his people, issuing about two dozen reports on its official Korean Central News Agency this year about progress made in housing construction, which it said is an expression of the “loving care” of Kim’s ruling party.

While Kim may not have met a US president this year, “he was still able to get away with a record number of weapons tests without more than a slap on the wrist,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst with the Rand Corp. who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Since Kim has had a pretty productive year, he’ll want to carry this momentum into 2023 to make further progress in his country’s weapons development,” she said. “To his benefit, the Russia-Ukraine war and rising tensions with China have, in some ways, diverted our attention away from the North Korean weapons threat.”

(Updates with state media report.)

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