N. Korea rattles nuclear saber amid high tensions over joint SK-US drills

Posted on : 2022-11-03 15:36 KST Modified on : 2022-11-03 15:36 KST
Some observers are predicting the possibility of additional military actions by the North continuing until Friday, when the Vigilant Storm drill is scheduled to end
A monitor in Seoul Station shows news reports of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch on Nov. 2. (Yonhap)
A monitor in Seoul Station shows news reports of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch on Nov. 2. (Yonhap)

In addition to North Korea’s launches of ballistic missiles toward international waters south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the East Sea in response to joint military exercises by South Korea and the US, a member of its top military leadership has issued a statement threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

In a situation where South Korea finds itself obliged to respond to the North’s show of force, the possibility of a seventh nuclear test and other strategic provocations by Pyongyang is further ratcheting up military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

As a direct reason for its missile launch activities, North Korea pointed to Vigilant Storm, the largest-ever joint air drills held by South Korea and the US. Running from Monday through Friday, the drills include around 240 military aircraft on both sides.

Following an Oct. 7 statement by its Defense Ministry spokesperson on South Korea-US joint maritime maneuvering exercises, North Korea issued three Korean People’s Army General Staff Department spokesperson’s statements on Oct. 14, 15, and 24. Meanwhile, it has ramped up its shows of military force in what it has described as a “response” to the South Korea-US exercises.

Now the military leadership has joined the fray, taking the North’s outcry to a new level of intensity.

In a press statement published Tuesday evening by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pak Jong-chon, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), said, “The hostile forces' inordinate moves for military confrontation have created a grave situation on the Korean peninsula.”

Pak also said he considered Vigilant Storm to be “an aggressive and provocative military drill targeting the DPRK to the letter.”

Previously artillery bureau director and chief of the KPA General Staff Department, Pak is now in charge of military affairs for the WPK Central Committee. As a member of the political bureau’s presidium — which organizes and directs all WPK projects — and vice chairperson of the WPK Central Military Commission, Pak is seen as the top-ranked figure in the North Korean military hierarchy.

In his statement, Pak said, “The US Department of Defense adopted the ‘end’ of the DPRK's regime as a major target of its nuclear strategy, and the south Korean military warmongers [. . .] spouted such rubbish that if the DPRK uses nuke, its regime should be totally destroyed.”

“If the US and south Korea attempt to use armed forces against the DPRK without any fear, the special means of the DPRK's armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” he warned.

The “special means” is a reference to nuclear weapons. Indeed, Article 6-1 of a policy on nuclear forces adopted by the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly on Sept. 8 allows for the use of nuclear weapons in cases where “an attack by nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction was launched or drew near is judged.”

Article 5-2 also allows for the use of nuclear weapons when non-nuclear weapons states “join aggression or attack against the DPRK in collusion with other nuclear weapons states.” This is effectively a reference to joint military exercises by South Korea and the US.

“If a statement was issued in Pak Jong-chon’s name, this means that he is the one in charge of management and operation of the North’s nuclear weapons,” said University of North Korean Studies professor Koo Kab-woo.

“You can see this as the North applying the highest level of political pressure it can in the military realm,” he suggested.

With North Korea increasing the number and intensity of its military shows of force since the beginning of the year — as its “war of words” becomes even harsher — the crisis surrounding the Korean Peninsula has been steadily ramping up.

“The level of North Korea’s response to South Korea-US joint exercises has become much sterner than before,” said Kim Jung-sup, a vice president of research and education at the Sejong Institute who previously headed the Ministry of National Defense’s planning and coordination office.

“We could find ourselves in a so-called ‘stability-instability paradox’ scenario where North Korea becomes more aggressive in conventional military terms now that it feels confident in its nuclear deterrence capabilities,” he added.

Some observers are predicting the possibility of additional military actions by the North continuing until Friday, when Vigilant Storm is scheduled to end.

“It looks as though North Korea is going to continue intensifying its shows of force while it observes trends in the response from South Korea and the US,” said Kim Chang-su, a former Blue House secretary for unification.

“While it may not go as far as an all-out provocation, they’re going to try to show their military capabilities at the most threatening level that does not actually harm South Korean people or property,” he predicted.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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