North Korea has enshrined its status as a nuclear power in its constitution, with leader Kim Jong-un calling for more modern atomic weapons to counter the threat from the United States.
Despite international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea has conducted a record number of missile tests this year, ignoring warnings from the United States, South Korea and their allies.
Diplomatic efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its atomic arsenal failed, and the constitutional change came after Kim’s declaration that North Korea was an “irreversible” nuclear weapons state.
North Korea’s “nuclear force-building policy has been made permanent as the basic law of the state, which no one is allowed to flout”, Kim said at a meeting of the State People’s Assembly, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The rubber-stamp parliament met on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Kim said North Korea needed nuclear weapons to counter an existential threat from the United States and its allies.
The United States has “maximised its nuclear war threats to our Republic by resuming the large-scale nuclear war joint drills with clear aggressive nature and putting the deployment of its strategic nuclear assets near the Korean peninsula on a permanent basis”, he said.
It came shortly after Russia and North Korean leaders accelerated diplomacy between the two nations — with Kim Jong-un taking rare trip abroad to discuss potential military co-operation.
Dr Matthew Sussex, Associate Professor of the Griffith Asia Institute, says the alliance between North Korea and Russia is part of a “coming out party” for nations opposed to the West.
“The meeting between Putin and Kim Jong-un, this is basically showing that Putin is willing to go to any length to get his hands on artillery ammunition,” Dr Sussex told news.com.au.
Kim described the recently enhanced security co-operation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo as the “worst actual threat”.
As a result, he added, “it is very important for the DPRK to accelerate the modernisation of nuclear weapons in order to hold the definite edge of strategic deterrence”.
Kim also “stressed the need to push ahead with the work for exponentially boosting the production of nuclear weapons and diversifying the nuclear strike means”, according to KCNA.
Neighbouring Japan, however, said North Korea’s atomic weapons programme was “absolutely unacceptable”.
“North Korea’s nuclear and missile development threatens the peace and security of our country and the international community,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday in response to the constitutional change.
And South Korea said its special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs spoke to his US and Japanese counterparts, and that the three “strongly condemned” the constitutional amendment.
They agreed to work towards creating “an environment where North Korea has no choice but to denuclearise”, the foreign ministry in Seoul said in a statement.
With the nuclear status enshrined in the constitution, however, prospects of convincing North Korea to give up atomic weapons have dimmed, experts said.
“Kim’s speech… signifies the permanence of his nuclear force,” Yang Moon-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
“This pushes the prospect of North Korea’s denuclearisation even further away.”
North Korea’s weapons tests this year included intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its military this month conducted what it described as simulations of a “tactical nuclear attack”.
Pyongyang has also tried and failed twice this year to put a military spy satellite in orbit.
South Korea and the United States have ramped up their security co-operation in response, with large-scale joint drills and trilateral naval exercises with Japan.
The last known North Korean weapons test, involving two short-range ballistic missiles, took place while Kim was on his way to meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia.
Kim’s visit to Russia — his first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic — fanned Western fears that Moscow and Pyongyang will defy sanctions and strike an arms deal.
Russia is believed to be interested in buying North Korean ammunition for its war in Ukraine, while Pyongyang wants Russian help with its missile and space programmes.
Kim’s Russia visit “and the potential strengthening of military co-operation (with Moscow) indicate an increased dedication towards branding itself into a formidable nuclear power”, said Yang at the University of North Korean Studies.