North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called for bolstered war readiness to repel what he said were unprecedented US-led confrontational moves, state media reported.
South Korea has vowed a stern retaliation against any provocations by the North.
Mr Kim’s comments, which came during a key political meeting tasked with setting state objectives for 2024, indicated North Korea will likely continue weapons tests to modernise its nuclear arsenal.
Observers say Mr Kim likely hopes to use his boosted arsenal as leverage in potential diplomacy with Washington, possibly after the US presidential election in November next year.
During Wednesday’s second-day session of the ruling party’s plenary meeting, Mr Kim set forth unspecified tasks for the military and the munitions industry to “further accelerate the war preparations” in the face of “(anti-North Korea) confrontation moves by the US and its vassal forces unprecedented in history”, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
It said Mr Kim also clarified the party’s stance on expanding North Korea’s strategic cooperation with anti-imperialist countries amid the world’s rapidly changing geopolitical situation.
KCNA said Mr Kim spoke about the direction of the North’s dealings with South Korea as well but did not elaborate.
The Workers’ Party meeting is expected to last several days, and state media are expected to publicise details of its discussions after it ends, likely on December 31.
Experts say North Korea is expected to come up with pledges and steps to strengthen its nuclear attack capability and expand cooperation with Russia and China, which are also locked in separate confrontations with the US.
South Korea’s spy agency said there is a high possibility that North Korea will launch military provocations and cyber attacks ahead of South Korean parliamentary elections in April and the US presidential election in November.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a statement that senior North Korean military figures believed involved in past major deadly attacks and provocations have been given top posts in recent months.
The NIS said North Korea has conducted nuclear and missile tests and flown a drone across the rivals’ border ahead of the South’s previous parliamentary elections.
During a visit to a frontline army unit on Thursday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called for a swift, stern retaliation against any provocations by North Korea.
“If provoked, you should immediately respond and retaliate before reporting to (your higher-ups) later. I’d like you to sternly and swiftly smash the enemy’s intentions to stage provocations on the spot,” Mr Yoon told troops.
Topics to be dealt with at the North Korean meeting could include its push to operate more spy satellites following its launch of its first military reconnaissance satellite on November 21.
After the November launch, North Korea said it would submit to the plenary meeting a plan to launch more satellites to improve its spaced-based surveillance capabilities on its rivals.
Since last year, North Korea has performed a barrage of missile tests in breach of UN bans, including last week’s launch of the solid-fuelled Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile – its most advanced weapon designed to attack the mainland US.
The North has argued it has sovereign, legitimate rights to conduct such tests to deal with the expansion of US-South Korean military exercises that it views as invasion rehearsals.
Mr Kim has refused to return to diplomacy with the US since his high-stakes diplomacy with then-president Donald Trump fell apart in 2019. A main sticking point in the collapsed Kim-Trump diplomacy was how much sanctions relief North Korea would be given in return for a partial surrender of its nuclear programme.
Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the US State Department, maintained last week that the US harbours no hostile intent toward North Korea and remains committed to a diplomatic approach. He said the US commitment to the defence of South Korea and Japan remains “ironclad”.