North Korea discussed assigning additional duties to front-line army units at a key military meeting, state media said yesterday a move that analysts said indicates it plans to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting South Korea along the rivals’ tense border.
While much international attention has focused on North Korea’s testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, it is also developing a variety of nuclear-capable short-range missiles that can target South Korea.
South Korean officials recently said that North Korea has completed preparations for its first test of a nuclear explosive device in five years, part of a possible effort to build warheads capable of being mounted on short-range missiles.
During an ongoing meeting of the Central Military Commission of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, leader Kim Jong Un and other top military officers discussed on Wednesday “the work of additionally confirming the operation duties of the front-line units of the Korean People’s Army and modifying the operation plans,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim also ordered steps to “enhance the operational capabilities of the front-line units,” KCNA said. A KCNA photo showed what appeared to be a large map of the Korean Peninsula’s eastern coast, including border sites, standing near the conference table.
Although there was no public mention of tactical nuclear weapons, “I can assess that the issues of forward-deploying tactical nuclear weapons and the modification of related operational plans and military organization reshuffles have been discussed in an in-depth manner” at the meeting, said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute.
Cheong said North Korea’s push to deploy nuclear weapons at front-line units was expected since it said in April that its new tactical weapons would significantly boost the units’ attack capacity and the efficient operation of tactical nuclear weapons.
A KCNA report on April 17 on the test-launch of what it called a new type of tactical guided weapon said it 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.”
Later in April, Kim said North Korea could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened, saying they would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent” in situations in which the country faces external threats to its “fundamental interests.” The possibility of North Korea having an escalatory nuclear doctrine could pose greater concern for South Korea, Japan and the United States.
North Korea has described some of its other short-range nuclear-capable missiles tested in recent years as tactical weapons, which experts say communicates a threat to proactively use them during conventional warfare to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States. HYUNG-JIN KIM, SEOUL, MDT/AP