North Korea Greets Biden With Plans to Boost Nuclear Arsenal
Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, reacts while watching an honor guard before his departure to North Korea at the railway station in Vladivostok, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

North Korea Greets Biden With Plans to Boost Nuclear Arsenal

Kim Jong Un will put North Korea on a path to develop more advanced nuclear technologies and missiles, sending a chilling warning to President-elect Joe Biden that the Asian leader is ready to ratchet up security tensions.

Kim called the U.S. a “war monster” and his “biggest main enemy,” at the first Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in five years, according to the state’s Korean Central News Agency on Saturday. He said he would focus on “subduing” the U.S. and continue to enhance nuclear capability to ensure North Korea’s “autonomic development.”

North Korea Greets Biden With Plans to Boost Nuclear Arsenal

Kim “laid down a fresh struggle line, and strategic and tactical policies,” KCNA said. The comments made at one of Kim’s most important political meetings in years offered the first significant signals of how he intends to approach a relationship with the new administration in the White House.

The plans included making smaller and lighter nuclear weapons, proceeding with the development of large warheads and improving the ability to strike strategic targets within 15,000 km (9,320 miles). Kim seeks to develop solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles to strengthen intelligence-gathering capabilities with satellites, according to KCNA.

The report suggests a sweeping plan for the modernization of the country’s nuclear and conventional forces, and a reference to tactical nuclear weapons will raise global concerns, according to Ankit Panda, a Stanton Senior Fellow in the in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It lights a fire under the Biden administration,” Panda said. “Kim is making clear that if Biden decides not to prioritize North Korea policy, Pyongyang will resume testing and qualitatively advancing its nuclear capabilities in ways that would be seriously detrimental for Washington and Seoul.”

Kim’s message is aimed at pressuring Biden to officially accept North Korea as a nuclear state, said Cheon Seong-whun, who was a former president of the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification think tank in Seoul. Kim is likely to go ahead with a series of provocations when Biden takes office, he said.

North Korea has a history of saber rattling when a new leader takes over the White House. It tested President Barack Obama with the launch of a long-range rocket and a nuclear device within months after he took power in 2009. President Donald Trump was welcomed with a series of ballistic missile tests that culminated with the launch in November 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts said could deliver a nuclear warhead to the entire U.S.

The North Korean leader, who turned 37 on Friday, hasn’t made substantive comments on his weapons program since unveiling a new intercontinental ballistic missile at an October military parade.

After a breakdown at a summit with Trump in Hanoi in 2019, Kim responded a few months later with tests of new solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to hide, deploy and use on in a quick strike. Experts believe he has been working on a solid-fuel ICBM, which could be readied for launch quicker than his current liquid-fueled arsenal.

North Korea Greets Biden With Plans to Boost Nuclear Arsenal

Kim entered 2018 saying his state had “completed” its nuclear deterrent against the U.S. He put a moratorium on tests of atomic weapons and long-range missiles as he started talks with Trump. Kim may have another display of weaponry soon, with satellite imagery indicating preparations underway for a major march through central Pyongyang, the 38 North website reported.

Kim issued a dire warning in opening remarks to the Party Congress of 5,000 delegates, saying the previous five-year plan fell far short of goals and the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward.”

North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy was dealt further blows last year by natural disasters and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus. Gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5% in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people’s living standards.

North Korea Greets Biden With Plans to Boost Nuclear Arsenal

Despite the bonhomie Kim showed in three meetings with Trump, the North Korean leader repeatedly rejected the Trump administration’s call for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” nuclear dismantlement before Pyongyang could receive any rewards. North Korea is likely seeking to calibrate its approach during the transition to preserve Kim’s chances of securing a deal to relieve the sanctions.

While nuclear talks have sputtered Kim has been busy stockpiling fissile material. Experts estimate that North Korea has assembled 30-40 nuclear warheads, the fewest among the nine nations with nuclear weapons.

The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease sanctions in exchange for steps by Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his atomic arsenal. Biden has said he wants to “jump start” a campaign with U.S. allies and others for denuclearization.

Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a 2017 opinion piece in the New York Times, backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea “that first freezes and then rolls back North Korea’s nuclear program, with inspectors to carefully scrutinize compliance” before a more comprehensive deal is reached.

“The plan poses a direct security threat to Washington as it may target the U.S. mainland,” said Koh Yu-hwan, president of KINU.

“North Korea is sending a clear message that it would continue to modernize its nuclear weaponry and delivery systems if sanctions are not lifted,” Koh said.

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