SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-Un vowed North Korea would mass-produce nuclear warheads and missiles in a defiant New Year message Monday suggesting he would continue to accelerate a rogue weapons program that has stoked international tensions.
Kim, who said Monday that he always had a nuclear launch button on his desk, has presided over multiple missile tests in recent months and the North’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test — which it said was a hydrogen bomb — in September.
“We must mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and speed up their deployment,” said Kim in his annual address to the nation.
He reiterated his claims that North Korea had achieved its goal of becoming a nuclear state but insisted its expansion of the weapons program was a defensive measure.
“We should always keep readiness to take immediate nuclear counter-attacks against the enemy’s scheme for a nuclear war.”
Pyongyang dramatically ramped up its efforts to become a nuclear power in 2017, despite a raft of international sanctions and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the United States.
The North claims it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from a hostile Washington and has strived to create a warhead capable of targeting the US mainland.
US President Donald Trump has responded to each test with his own amplified declarations, threatening to “totally destroy” Pyongyang and taunting Kim, saying the North Korean leader was on “a suicide mission.”
But far from persuading Kim to give up his nuclear drive, analysts say Trump’s tough talk may have prompted the North Korean leader to push through with his dangerous quest.
“(The North) can cope with any kind of nuclear threats from the US and has a strong nuclear deterrence that is able to prevent the US from playing with fire,” Kim said Monday.
“The nuclear button is always on my table. The US must realize this is not blackmail but reality,” he said during the speech. “The entire area of the US mainland is within our nuclear strike range. … The United States can never start a war against me and our country.”
Kim’s comments come after a former top US military officer warned that the Trump presidency had helped create “an incredibly dangerous climate.”
“We’re actually closer, in my view, to a nuclear war with North Korea and in that region than we have ever been,” said Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
When asked for a response to Kim’s claim that he had a nuclear button on his desk, Trump said “We’ll see, we’ll see”, in comments to reporters during the New Year’s Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Pyongyang sees American military activities in the region — such as the joint drills it holds with the South — as a precursor to invasion.
It has rattled the international community by testing increasingly longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) throughout 2017.
But any military intervention by the US could escalate rapidly into a catastrophic conflict that would threaten the lives of millions.
Critics say Pyongyang wants to forcibly reunify the peninsula — divided by a demilitarised zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.
But Kim also sugared his speech Monday with a conciliatory tone towards Seoul, indicating for the first time that the North is considering taking part in the South’s Winter Olympics next month.
“(The Olympics) will serve as a good chance to display our Korean people’s grace toward the world and we sincerely hope the Games will be a success,” Kim said, urging the South to cease its “nuclear war exercise” with the US.
At a time when the risk of a US pre-emptive strike is “higher than ever,” Koh Yu-Hwan, Political Science Professor at Dongguk University, said the speech indicated Kim was using the Olympics gesture as a means to “shift from confrontation to peaceful co-existence with the United States”.
“When he said a nuclear launch button is always on his desk, he is hinting it is not necessary for the North to stage nuclear or ICBM tests in the foreseeable future,” he told AFP, adding however that Kim also wanted to build “massive nuclear retaliation capabilities.”
In December the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed new, US-drafted sanctions against Pyongyang, restricting oil supplies vital for the impoverished state.
The third raft of sanctions imposed last year, which the North slammed as an “act of war”, also received the backing of China — the country’s sole major ally and economic lifeline.
Observers say Washington must open talks with the North to defuse tensions — but that remains a challenge.
Pyongyang has always said it will only deal with the US from a position of equality as a nuclear state.
Washington has long insisted that it will not accept a nuclear-armed North and Pyongyang must embark on a path towards denuclearization before any talks.