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NKorea OKs New Front-Line Army Duties  06/24 06:14


   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on 
his nuclear arms buildup to overwhelm "hostile forces" at a key meeting where 
military leaders approved unspecified new operational duties for front-line 
army units.

   Members of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Military Commission decided 
to supplement an "important military action plan" on the duties of front-line 
troops and further strengthen the country's nuclear war deterrent, state media 
said Friday.

   North Korea hasn't specified the new operational duties for front-line army 
units, but analysts say the country could be planning to deploy battlefield 
nuclear weapons targeting rival South Korea along their tense border.

   While North Korea's pursuit of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that could 
reach the U.S. mainland gets much of the international attention, it is also 
developing a variety of nuclear-capable, short-range missiles that can target 
South Korea. Experts say its rhetoric around those missiles communicates a 
threat to proactively use them in warfare to blunt the stronger conventional 
forces of South Korea and the United States. About 28,500 U.S. troops are 
stationed in the South to deter aggression from the North.

   Kim during the military commission's three-day meeting that ended Thursday 
called for his entire army to "go all out" in carrying out the plans to bolster 
the nation's military muscle and consolidate "powerful self-defense 
capabilities for overwhelming any hostile forces and thus reliably protect the 
dignity of the great country."

   The commission's members discussed ways to strengthen the party's leadership 
over the entire armed forces and ratified plans for unspecified changes in 
"military organizational formations," North Korea's official Korean Central 
News Agency said.

   Some analysts say North Korea's possible plans to deploy tactical nuclear 
weapons to front-line artillery units may require command-and-control changes 
as the country's nuclear-capable weapons have so far been handled by the army's 
strategic force.

   State media reports of the meeting did not include any direct criticism 
toward Washington or Seoul amid a prolonged stalemate in nuclear negotiations.

   The meeting came amid signs that North Korea is preparing to conduct its 
first nuclear test explosion since September 2017, when it claimed to have 
detonated a thermonuclear weapon that could be tipped on its intercontinental 
ballistic missiles.

   Experts say North Korea may use its next nuclear test to claim that it has 
acquired the ability to build a small nuclear warhead to fit its short-range 
missiles or other weapons it recently tested, including a purported hypersonic 
missile and a long-range cruise missile. Smaller warheads would also be 
necessary for the North's stated pursuit of a multiwarhead ICBM.

   While North Korean reports of the meeting didn't mention plans for a nuclear 
test, a South Korean government spokesperson said Seoul is keeping a close 
watch for related developments.

   "As North Korea said it discussed and ratified important plans to expand and 
strengthen its war deterrent, (our) government will prepare for all 
possibilities while carefully monitoring related trends," said Cha Duck Chul 
from Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

   North Korea has already set an annual record in ballistic testing through 
the first half of 2022, firing around 30 missiles, including its first tests 
involving ICBMs in nearly five years.

   Kim has punctuated his recent tests with repeated comments that North Korea 
would use its nuclear weapons proactively when threatened or provoked, which 
experts say portend an escalatory nuclear doctrine that may create greater 
concerns for neighbors.

   South Korea has been spending heavily to expand its conventional arms in 
recent years, but some analysts say the country has no clear way to counter the 
threat posed by Kim's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles.

   While the Biden administration has reaffirmed U.S. commitment to defend 
allies South Korea and Japan with its full range of military capabilities, 
including nuclear, there are concerns in Seoul that Kim's ICBMs could make the 
United States hesitant in the event of another war on the Korean Peninsula.

   Opinion polls show growing support among South Koreans for a redeployment of 
U.S. tactical nukes that were withdrawn from the South in the 1990s or even the 
South's pursuit of its own deterrent, which some experts say would increase 
pressure on Pyongyang and create conditions for mutual nuclear disarmament.

   North Korea's apparent push to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons at 
front-line units had been predicted since April, when Kim supervised a test of 
a new short-range missile that state media said would "drastically" improve the 
firepower of front-line artillery units and "enhance the efficiency in the 
operation of tactical nukes."

   Experts say North Korea's unusually fast pace in testing activity this year 
underscores Kim's dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure Washington 
over long-stalled nuclear diplomacy. Talks have stalled since early 2019 over 
disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions against 
the North and the North's disarmament steps.

   Kim has shown no intentions to fully give away an arsenal he sees as his 
strongest guarantee of survival. His pressure campaign is aimed at forcing the 
United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and 
negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength, 
experts say.

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