SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea discussed assigning additional operational duties to its frontline military units at a key military meeting, state media said Thursday, a suggestion the country may want to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons targeting rival South Korea along the two countries’ tense border.
The discussion comes as South Korea officials said North Korea has finished preparation for its first nuclear test in five years as part of its possible efforts to build a warhead to be mounted on short-range weapons capable of hitting targets in South Korea.
During an ongoing meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday, leader Kim Jong Un and other top military officers discussed “the work of additionally confirming the operation duties of the frontline 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 be taken to “enhance the operational capabilities of the frontline units,” KCNA said.
In April, when North Korea test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon,” it said the weapon 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.”
Its use of the words “tactical nukes” suggested the weapon is likely a short-range weapons system armed with a nuclear warhead. Some experts said at the time that North Korea intended to deploy such weapons threatening key facilitates in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.
Later in April, Kim said North Korea could preemptively use its nuclear weapons if threatened, saying his nukes would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent” in situations where the North faces external threats to its “fundamental interests.” That portended a possible escalatory nuclear doctrine by North Korea that could pose greater concern for South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Kim convened the Central Military Commission meeting earlier this week to confirm “crucial and urgent tasks” to expand military capabilities and implement key defense policies.
Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, said North Korea is expected to preform its seventh nuclear test after the meeting, saying that its third nuclear test in 2013 also came days after another Central Military Commission meeting.
Before this week’s meeting, Kim called a meeting of the Central Military Commission a total of 16 times since he took power in late 2011 but it’s the first time that a commission meeting has been held for more than two days, Cheong said.
Wednesday was the second-day session of the commission meeting. KCNA said the commission continues its discussion on the presented agenda items, indicating the meeting would continue on Thursday.
Earlier this year, North Korea test-launched a spate of missiles whose potential ranges place both the U.S. mainland and its Asian allies like South Korea and Japan within striking distances. Some experts say North Korea wants to modernize its weapons systems and boost its leverage in future negotiations with the United States to win sanctions relief and other concessions.
South Korean and U.S. officials have warned North Korea to face consequences if it goes ahead with a nuclear test. But the divisions between permanent members of the U.N. Security Council make the prospects for fresh punitive international sanctions on North Korea unclear. Russia and China this year vetoed U.S.-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting Washington should focus on reviving dialogue.