Kim confirms North Korea's weapons buildup in party meeting

Kim Jong-un doubled down on his arms buildup in the face of what he described as an aggravating security environment as he concluded a major political conference which occurred as outside governments monitor signs of a possibly imminent North Korean nuclear test explosion.

North Korea has fired 31 missiles over 18 different test events so far this year

President Kim Jong-un attends a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee held this week in Pyongyang, in this photo provided Saturday by the North Korean government. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted, and the content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/The Associated Press)

Kim Jong-un doubled down on his arms buildup in the face of what he described as an aggravating security environment as he concluded a major political conference which occurred as outside governments monitor signs of a possibly imminent North Korean nuclear test explosion.

The North Korean leader defended his accelerating weapons development as a rightful exercise of sovereign rights to self-defence and set forth further "militant tasks" to be pursued by his armed forces and military scientists, according to the agency. But the report didn't mention any specific goals or plans regarding testing activity, including the detonation of a nuclear device.

"[Kim] said the right to self-defence is an issue of defending sovereignty, clarifying once again the party's invariable fighting principle of power for power and head-on contest," KCNA said.

The meeting came amid a provocative streak in missile demonstrations that jolts an old pattern of brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee also reviewed key state affairs, including efforts to slow a COVID-19 outbreak the North first acknowledged last month and progress in economic goals Kim is desperate to keep alive amid strengthened virus restrictions.

New foreign minister

North Korea for years has mastered the art of manufacturing diplomatic crises with weapons tests and threats before eventually offering negotiations aimed at extracting concessions.

In a move that may have future foreign policy implications, Kim during the meeting promoted a veteran diplomat with deep experience in handling U.S. affairs as his new foreign minister.

Choe Sun-hui, who is among the North's most powerful women along with the leader's sister Kim Yo-jong, had a major role in preparing Kim Jong-un for his meetings with former U.S. president Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019. Talks between Pyongyang and Washington derailed after the collapse of Kim's second meeting with Trump in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea's demands for a major release of U.S.-led sanctions on the North in exchange for limited disarmament steps.

People watch a TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's latest missile launch with a file image at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, on June 5. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

Choe replaces Ri Son-gwon, a hardliner with a military background who during the meeting was announced as Kim's new point person for South Korea relations.

North Korea has a history of dialling up pressure on Seoul when it doesn't get what it wants from Washington. While KCNA's report on the meeting didn't include any comments specifically referring to South Korea, it said the participants clarified "principles and strategic and tactical orientations to be maintained in the struggle against the enemy and in the field of foreign affairs."

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it isn't immediately clear how North Korea's comments and personnel moves would affect relations with the South. The ministry said in a statement that the South would sternly respond in conjunction with its U.S. ally if provoked by the North.

The ministry added that North Korean state media's lack of specific descriptions about the state of the economy beyond some agricultural and construction campaigns suggests the country is struggling to meet development goals Kim presented in a five-year plan in early 2021.

Record ballistic launches

North Korea has already set an annual record in ballistic launches through the first half of 2022, firing 31 missiles over 18 different launch events, including its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.

Kim may up the ante soon as U.S. and South Korean officials say North Korea has all but finished preparations to detonate a nuclear device at its testing ground in the northeastern town of Punggye-ri.

The site had been inactive since hosting the North's sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it said it detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.

The North's unusually fast pace in testing activity underscores Kim's dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled nuclear diplomacy, experts say.

While the U.S. has said it would push for additional sanctions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, the divisions between permanent members of the UN Security Council make the prospects for meaningful punitive measures unclear.

Russia and China this year vetoed U.S.-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting Washington should focus on reviving dialogue.

COVID-19 outbreak

Kim's pressure campaign hasn't been slowed by a COVID-19 outbreak spreading across the largely unvaccinated autocracy of 26 million people.

During the meeting, North Korea maintained a dubious claim that its outbreak was easing, despite outside concerns of huge death rates given the country's broken health-care system.

A health official of the Kim Jong-suk textile mill disinfects the floor of a workplace in Pyongyang on Friday, as North Korea grapples with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Cha Song Ho/The Associated Press)

North Korea has restricted movement of people and supplies between regions, but large groups of workers have continued to gather at farms and industrial sites, being driven to shore up an economy decimated by decades of mismanagement, sanctions and pandemic border closures.

Kim during the meeting said the country's "maximum emergency" anti-virus campaign of the past month has strengthened the economic sector's ability to cope with the virus.

Kim has rejected U.S. and South Korean offers of vaccines and other help. GAVI, the non-profit that runs the UN-backed COVAX distribution program for vaccines, believes North Korea has begun administering doses given by its ally China. But the number of doses and how they were being distributed wasn't known.