N Korea’s Kim eyes naval readiness as US, Japan, S Korea hold sea exercises

Kim accuses the US, South Korea and Japan of increasing threat of nuclear war over naval exercises off Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has accused the United States and its allies of creating instability in waters off the Korean Peninsula that could lead to nuclear war, a warning that coincided with the US, South Korea and Japan staging joint naval missile defence exercises.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Tuesday that the country’s leader Kim Jong Un marked his country’s Navy Day stating that US-led hostilities in seas off the peninsula had increased the “danger of a nuclear war” and he promised to strengthen naval capabilities in response.

“Owing to the reckless confrontational moves of the US and other hostile forces, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have been reduced into the world’s biggest war hardware concentration spot, the most unstable waters with the danger of a nuclear war,” Kim was quoted by KCNA as saying.

Kim cited the US naval drills with its two allies, the deployment of powerful US weapons to South Korea, and a recent US-South Korean-Japanese summit where an agreement to intensify defence cooperation was reached with the aim of checking North Korea’s nuclear programme.

He also described US President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as “the gang bosses” of their respective countries.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Naval Command of the Korean People’s Army on the occasion of the Navy Day in this picture released on August 29, 2023 [KCNA via Reuters]

In the first standalone meeting between the three leaders at Camp David, in the US state of Maryland, on August 18, the three agreed to deepen military and economic cooperation as a means to project unity in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region and North Korea’s nuclear threats and missile-test belligerence.

On Tuesday, the three allies conducted drills in international waters off South Korea’s southern Jeju island. The training was aimed at rehearsing procedures for detecting, tracking and sharing information about incoming North Korean missiles, South Korea’s navy said in a statement. The US and South Korean militaries are also engaged in bilateral military drills that started last week.

‘Tactical nuclear weapons operation’

In his Navy Day speech, Kim said military units of each service would be given new weaponry in line with the government’s decision to expand the operation of tactical nuclear weapons.

He also acknowledged that the navy “had not been armed with up-to-date weapons and combat equipment” but said that even so, it had managed “great achievements of more weighty significance” than the country’s better-funded army.

Kim promised that the navy would be given new weapons as part of North Korea’s policy of “expanding the tactical nuclear weapons operation”. The navy will become a “component of the state nuclear deterrence”, he said.

His comments appear to suggest that North Korea plans to deploy new nuclear-capable missiles to its navy and other military services.

Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea, said with the US, South Korea and Japan conducting naval drills, “North Korea may feel an urgent need to strengthen its naval power”.

Some intelligence reports suggest that Russia and North Korea are considering holding joint naval training, Cheong told France’s AFP news agency.

“For that, North Korea would need a naval vessel but the country’s navy is very weak, so I think Kim Jong Un is showing off his will to strengthen the naval forces,” Cheong added.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency quoted a government official as saying that Kim may be experiencing a “sense of crisis” as Washington, Seoul and Tokyo begin to coordinate their military cooperation.

“It appears that Chairman Kim Jong-un has displayed a sense of crisis in the face of a groundbreaking evolution of cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan following their summit,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters, according to Yonhap.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Naval Command of the Korean People's Army (KPA) on the occasion of the Navy Day, in North Korea, in this picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and obtained by Reuters on August 29, 2023. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
Kim visits the Naval Command of the Korean People’s Army in this picture released by KCNA on August 29, 2023 [KCNA via Reuters]

Photos carried by North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim, accompanied by his young daughter, Ju Ae, inspecting the navy command and taking photos with hundreds of naval officers. It was Ju Ae’s first public appearance with her father since mid-May.

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