Kim has threatened to use nuclear weapons over tensions with the US and South Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he stands ready to use his nuclear weapons in possible military conflicts with the United States and South Korea, state media said on Thursday as he unleashed fiery rhetoric against rivals he believed to be a part of says they are pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.

Kim’s speech to war veterans marking the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War was apparently intended to strengthen internal unity in the impoverished country amid pandemic-related economic difficulties. While Kim has increasingly threatened his rivals with nuclear weapons, it’s unlikely he would first use them against the superior militaries of the US and its allies, observers say.

“Our armed forces are fully prepared to respond to any crisis, and our country’s nuclear war deterrent is also ready to dutifully, accurately and quickly mobilize its absolute power according to its mission,” Kim said in Wednesday’s speech, according to the Korean official Central News Agency.

He accused the United States of “demonizing” North Korea to justify its hostile policies. Kim said that regular US-South Korea military drills, which he claimed are targeting the North, highlight US “double standards” and “gangster-like” aspects because they interfere with North Korea’s routine military activities — an apparent reference to brand its missile tests as provocations or threats.

Kim also claimed that the new South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol will be led by “confrontational maniacs” and “gangsters” who have gone further than previous South Korean conservative governments. Since taking office in May, Yoon’s government has sought to strengthen Seoul’s military alliance with the United States and strengthen its own ability to counter North Korean nuclear threats, including a pre-emptive strike capability.

“Talking about military action against our nation, which possesses absolute weapons they fear most, is absurd and a very dangerous suicidal action,” Kim said. “Such a dangerous attempt will be immediately punished by our mighty strength and the government of Yoon Suk Yeol and his military will be annihilated.”

South Korea expressed “deep regret” over Kim’s threat and said it stands ready to deal with any provocation by North Korea “in a forceful and effective manner.”

In a statement read by Spokesman Kang In-sun, Yoon’s Presidential National Security Office said South Korea will protect its national security and the safety of its citizens based on a solid alliance with the United States. It urged North Korea to return to talks to take steps toward denuclearization.

Earlier Thursday, South Korea’s defense ministry reiterated its earlier position that it had bolstered its military capabilities and shared defense stance with the United States to deal with the escalating nuclear threat from North Korea.

In April, Kim said North Korea could use nuclear weapons pre-emptively if threatened, saying they would “never be limited to the sole mission of war deterrence.” Kim’s military has also tested nuclear-capable missiles that put both the US mainland and South Korea within striking distance. US and South Korean officials have repeatedly said in recent months that North Korea is ready to conduct its first nuclear test in five years.

Kim is seeking more public support as his country’s economy has been battered by pandemic-related border closures, US-led sanctions and his own mismanagement. In May, North Korea also admitted its first COVID-19 outbreak, although the extent of illness and death in a country that lacks modern medical capacity is disputed.

“Kim’s rhetoric builds external threats to justify his military-focused and economically struggling regime,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs violate international law, but Kim is attempting to portray its destabilizing buildup as a just attempt at self-defense.”

Experts say North Korea is likely to step up its threats against the US and South Korea as allies prepare to expand summer exercises. In recent years, the South Korean and US militaries have canceled or downsized some of their regular drills over concerns about COVID-19 and backed now-stalled US-led diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to retaliate nuclear program give up economic and political benefits.

During Wednesday’s speech, Kim said his administration recently set out tasks to improve its military capabilities more quickly to respond to military pressure campaigns from its enemies, and hinted that he intends to conduct an expected nuclear test.

But Cheong Seong-Chang of the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said North Korea is unlikely to conduct its nuclear test before China, its main ally and biggest aid benefactor, holds its Communist Party convention in the fall. He said China fears a North Korean nuclear test could give the United States justification for strengthening its security partnerships with its allies, which it could use to control Chinese influence in the region.

North Korea recently said it was recovering from the COVID-19 outbreak amid falling fever cases, but experts say it’s unclear whether the country will be able to lift its tight restrictions anytime soon as it faces a virus resurgence later this year could be. During Wednesday’s event, Kim, veterans and others did not wear masks, state media photos showed. On Thursday, North Korea reported 11 cases of fever, a huge drop from the peak of about 400,000 a day in May.

North Korea has rejected US and South Korean bids for medical supplies. It has also said it will not return to talks with the United States unless it first abandons its hostile policy towards the North, in an apparent reference to US-led sanctions and military exercises between the US and South Korea.

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