North Korean leader reaffirms arms buildup in party meeting

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on his arms buildup in face of what he described as an aggravating security environment as he concluded a major political conference that came as U.S. and South Korean officials said his plans to conduct another nuclear test explosion was imminent.

Kim’s comments published by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Saturday didn’t include any direct criticism of the United States or rival South Korea amid a prolonged deadlock in nuclear diplomacy during the three days of discussions that wrapped up Friday.

Kim defended his accelerating weapons development as rightful exercise of sovereign rights to self-defense and set forth further “militant tasks” to be pursued 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.

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.

During the meeting, North Korea maintained a dubious claim that its coronavirus outbreak was easing, despite outside concerns of huge death rates considering the country’s broken health care system and a largely unvaccinated population.

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, U.S.-led sanctions over Kim’s nuclear ambitions 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, which he claimed was coming under control.

The COVID-19 outbreak hasn’t slowed Kim’s pressure campaign 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.

Jolting an old pattern of brinkmanship, 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 since 2017.

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

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.

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