North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his military should “thoroughly annihilate” the US and South Korea if provoked, according to state media.
Mr Kim’s comments on Sunday came after he said moves by the US and its allies against Pyongyang had been unprecedented in 2023, pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.
In a meeting with commanding army officers on Sunday, he said the country needed to sharpen “the treasured sword” to safeguard national security – an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons programme.
He cited “the US and other hostile forces’ military confrontation moves”, according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Mr Kim said that “our army should deal a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate them by mobilising all the toughest means and potentialities without moment’s hesitation” if they opt for military confrontation and provocations against North Korea, KCNA added.
North Korea’s leader is expected to ramp up weapons tests in 2024 ahead of the US presidential election in November, with many experts believing that Mr Kim thinks an expanded nuclear arsenal will allow him to gain US concessions if former president Donald Trump is re-elected.
In a five-day meeting of the ruling party last week, Mr Kim pledged to launch three new spy satellites, build military drones and increase his country’s stock of nuclear weapons in 2024.
At the meeting, Mr Kim called South Korea “a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state” whose society is “tainted by Yankee culture”.
He said his military must use all available means including nuclear weapons to “suppress the whole territory of South Korea” in the event of a conflict.
In response, South Korea’s Defence Ministry warned that if North Korea attempts to use nuclear weapons, South Korean and US forces will punish it overwhelmingly, resulting in the end of the Kim government.
Experts say small-scale military clashes between North and South Korea could happen this year along their heavily armed border.
They say North Korea is also expected to test launch intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the mainland US, and other major new weapons.
In his New Year’s Day address on Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said he will strengthen his military’s pre-emptive strike, missile defence and retaliatory capabilities in response to the North Korean nuclear threat.
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He said South Korea was “building genuine, lasting peace through strength, not a submissive peace that is dependent on the goodwill of the adversary”.
Mr Kim has focused on modernising his nuclear and missile arsenals since talks with then US President Trump broke down in 2019 over disagreements about international sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea has carried out more than 100 missile tests since 2022, prompting the US and South Korea to expand their joint military drills.