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Kim Jong Un’s sister vowed North Korea would amp up its national defense and deterrence after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises that she demanded be canceled appeared likely to begin next week.
Preliminary training has already begun for the annual Seoul-Washington exercises, South Korean media reported. They were once large-scale field drills featuring tens of thousands of military personnel, but are now largely computer simulations, following orders from then-President Donald Trump to scale them back. But North Korea remains angry.
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On Tuesday, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean dictator’s younger sister, excoriated Washington and Seoul for ignoring her earlier warnings to halt the exercises. In failing to do so, the present U.S. administration proves that engagement and dialogue overtures are nothing but "hypocrisy to cover up its aggressive nature," Ms. Kim said in a statement carried by state media.
"The reality proves that only substantial deterrent, not words, can ensure the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula," Ms. Kim said.
Ms. Kim, who has seen her role elevated in recent years, serves as Pyongyang’s mouthpiece for relations with Washington and Seoul. In March, she protested springtime exercises — then days later, the North test-fired its first ballistic missiles since President Biden took office. Pyongyang has been free of provocations ever since.
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North Korea is prone to making grandiose claims in its state media, though it often telegraphs its next moves. To defend itself from outside military threats, Ms. Kim said the country would boost its national defenses, hone its pre-emptive strike powers and increase a deterrence of "absolute capacity."
Late last month, North Korea made the surprise move to reopen a direct communication line with Seoul. But Ms. Kim, in an earlier statement, cautioned against over-optimism, pointing to the U.S.-South Korea drills as a litmus test of mutual trust.
Canceling the joint exercises was unlikely, especially since the Biden administration could look weak in bowing to Ms. Kim’s demands, so the restoration of the inter-Korean hotline appears to have been a low-risk gambit for Pyongyang, according to Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. If the drills were shelved, Pyongyang may have come back to the table for talks, he added.
"Now, the Kim regime can confidently place the blame on the Biden administration for a breakdown of dialogue," Mr. Go said. "North Korea will respond to the joint military exercises with provocations, likely with missile launches as it has done in the past."
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The U.S. and South Korea haven't conducted joint, large-scale field drills for years. After meeting Mr. Kim for the first time at a summit in Singapore in 2018, Mr. Trump, to the surprise of some of his own defense officials, said the exercises would be scaled back or suspended. Last year, spring training was canceled due to Covid-19. The exercises, including the one planned for this month, unfold indoors in front of computer monitors.
After the restoration of the inter-Korean hotline last month, political pressure built in South Korea about whether the joint training should go ahead as planned. Several dozen lawmakers from President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party signed a petition saying the exercises would be delayed if the two Koreas struck an agreement to resume dialogue. But the ruling party’s chairman backed the exercises, calling them defensive in nature and necessary to maintain peace.
Pyongyang hasn’t conducted a nuclear test or test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile in years. After a 2019 nuclear summit in Vietnam between Messrs. Kim and Trump ended without a deal, the North has conducted more than 20 smaller-range weapons tests. Pyongyang has also added to its nuclear arsenal, according to government and think-tank estimates.
Last month, port activity was detected at a shipyard where one of the North’s two submersible test barges is warehoused, according to a satellite-imagery analysis by 38 North, a website focused on North Korea. The work suggests either maintenance or potential retrofitting to handle a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 38 North said.
Pyongyang had rolled out a new submarine-launched ballistic missile at a January military parade; state media touted it as the "world’s most powerful weapon."
In June, Mr. Kim, making his first remarks about U.S. policy since Mr. Biden took office, kept his options open. The country should be ready for both dialogue and confrontation, he said.
But Pyongyang hadn’t shown much interest in talking, having brushed off Washington’s outreach for months. The two countries haven’t held formal denuclearization talks since October 2019. To come back to the table, Pyongyang is believed to want sanctions restrictions to allow for minerals exports and more imports of refined fuel, according to South Korean lawmakers briefed last week by Seoul’s spy agency.
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North Korea has been dealing with a series of domestic crises, from a weakened economy and food shortages to recent floods that destroyed farmland and homes. The Kim regime sealed off its borders during the pandemic, curbing cross-border trade with China and forgoing foreign-tourism dollars.
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