In shift, North Korea's Kim Jong-un calls for 'offensive' military posture

In shift, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un calls for ‘offensive’ military posture

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shaken up his senior military command and announced the need to step up “the war preparations of the [North Korean armed forces] in an offensive way.”

Mr. Kim announced the shift to a more aggressive stance before the party’s Central Military Commission on Wednesday, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, as monitored in Seoul on Thursday.

State media photos showed the national leader standing before a table of uniformed officers and government officials, in front of a blurred-out map board of central-south Korea, under huge portraits of his predecessors — grandfather Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong-il.

At the meeting, he also shuffled his top generals and called for upgraded production of arms and munitions.

Experts say that the offensive rhetoric about Mr. Kim’s armed forces has been heard before, but warn that North Korean forces are gaining dangerous — and potentially game-changing — new capabilities. Last week, Mr. Kim spent three days making a very public tour of the country’s arms and munitions factories.

But he is not the only player raising the tempo on the divided and heavily armed peninsula.

Annual South Korean-U.S. “Ulji Freedom Shield” military exercises kick off later this month. Next week, President Biden will host a trilateral summit with the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David, with the problem of North Korea certain to be one of the top discussion items.

With Seoul and Washington having created a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement, and with Washington recently deploying nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines to South Korea, officials here have stepped up their own rhetoric targeting the North.

“North Korea should realize the more it prepares for war and seeks to bolster its military force, the more vulnerable its security will be in the face of a powerful South Korea-U.S. extended deterrence and overwhelming response,” an unnamed South Korean government official told Yonhap News in response to Mr. Kim’s latest moves.

Rising risk

North Korea-watchers in Seoul are trying to gauge the timing and seriousness of Mr. Kim’s purported strategy shift.

“It is typical North Korean bluster: Their military has had an offensive posture forever,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute, of Mr. Kim’s reported statements. “Look at their posture on the DMZ — and for two years they have been saying they have devolved the authority to use nuclear weapons to unit commanders.”

The North’s publicly announced move to give missile unit commanders more leeway on when to fire a retaliatory nuclear strike is widely believed to be a counter to any South Korean or U.S. strike on the North’s leadership.

“Their nuke posture is pretty hair-trigger: the moment they detect a sign of attack, they will go to nuclear weapons preemptively,’ Mr. Go said. “In that context what they say fits the pattern of the past and is not an inflection point.”

But some analysts sense Mr. Kim is bluffing, saying it was unlikely that Pyongyang would trust subordinate officers with the decision on when to use weapons of mass destruction.

Still, Pyongyang’s two most recent test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles are believed to be solid-fuel Hwasong-18s. These atomic-capable weapons have the range to hit the continental U.S, while their solid-fuel propellant means they can be swiftly moved out of cover, elevated and launched.

Without the necessity of a lengthy liquid-fueling process, they are less vulnerable to detection and preemptive strike.

“Solid fuel means they can launch at any time and any place, it’s a significant improvement in their capabilities,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “If I were [still] in uniform, I would be telling my leaders we need to hit first.”

But he acknowledges the risk involved in that strategy.

“You will never have 100% certainty,” Mr. Chun added. “At 51%, we’d need to strike first.”

The giant Hwasong missiles were highly visible in an arms expo, and subsequently a military parade, attended by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on 27 July.

The military shakeup in Pyongyang revealed by Mr. Kim Thursday included naming Vice Marshal Ri Yong Gil as the new chief of general staff, replacing Gen. Pak Su Il. Gen. Pak had only been in the post for eight months.

Vice Marshal Ri is seen as a more experienced hand, having previously served a term as army chief of staff and also serving for a time as North Korea’s defense minister.