North Korea discussed assigning additional duties to its frontline army units at a key military meeting, state media said yesterday, suggesting that the country might deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting South Korea along the rivals’ tense border.
The discussion comes as South Korean officials said North Korea has finished preparations for its first nuclear test in five years, as part of possible efforts to build a warhead to be mounted on short-range weapons capable of hitting targets in South Korea.
During an ongoing meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top military officers discussed “the work of additionally confirming the operation duties of the frontline units of the Korean People’s Army and modifying the operation plans,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Kim also ordered steps to be taken to “enhance the operational capabilities of the frontline units,” the agency said, showing a photo of what appeared to be a map of the Korean Peninsula’s eastern coast, including border sites, near the conference table.
“I can assess the issue of forward-deploying tactical nuclear weapons [was] discussed at the meeting in an in-depth manner,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute.
When North Korea in April test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon, South Korea said the weapon has “great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the front line, long-range artillery units, enhancing the efficiency in the operation of [North Korea’s] tactical nukes and diversification of their firepower missions.”
Its use of the words “tactical nukes” suggested that the weapon is likely short-range and armed with a nuclear warhead. Some experts said that North Korea intends to deploy such weapons to threaten key facilitates in South Korea, including US military bases.
Later in April, Kim said North Korea might pre-emptively use its nuclear weapons if threatened.
The possibility of North Korea having an escalatory nuclear doctrine could pose a greater concern for South Korea, Japan and the US.
Kim convened the military commission meeting earlier this week to confirm “crucial and urgent tasks” to expand military capabilities and implement key defense policies, state media said.
Cheong said that North Korea is expected to perform its seventh nuclear test after the meeting, adding that its third test in 2013 also came days after another commission meeting.
Kim has convened 17 meetings of the military commission since he took power in late 2011, but this is the first to last two days or longer, Cheong said.
Wednesday was the second-day session, with indications showing that the meeting continued yesterday.
Earlier this year, North Korea test-launched a spate of missiles with potential ranges placing the US mainland and Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan within striking distances.
North Korea has intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of reaching the US, but experts have said that the country still needs to master re-entry capability and other technologies to make them functioning weapons.
Some experts have said that North Korea’s weapons launches were meant to modernize its weapons systems and boost its leverage in future negotiations with the US to win sanctions relief and other concessions.
South Korean and US officials have warned North Korea that it would face consequences if it goes ahead with a nuclear test.
However, divisions between permanent members of the UN Security Council make the prospects for fresh punitive international sanctions unclear. Russia and China this year vetoed US-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting that Washington should focus on reviving dialogue.
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