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North Korea Hints at New Nuclear, ICBM Tests

People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shown during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 20, 2022.
People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shown during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 20, 2022.

North Korea is hinting it will resume long-range missile and nuclear tests in response to what it calls the "intensifying hostile moves" of the United States.

Any such test would significantly escalate U.S.-North Korea tensions, which have already been heightened because of Pyongyang's six ballistic missile tests to start the new year.

At a Politburo meeting Wednesday attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, officials said they would "reconsider all the confidence-building measures previously and voluntarily taken by our state and rapidly examine the issue on resuming all actions which had been temporarily suspended," according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

That is an apparent reference to Kim's 2018 announcement that he would voluntarily suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or ICBM test since 2017, during the height of tensions between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump. After subsequent Kim-Trump negotiations broke down in 2019, North Korea resumed launching short-range ballistic missiles.

Already this year, North Korea has conducted two tests of what it described as a hypersonic missile, launched a pair of ballistic missiles from a train, and fired a pair of tactical guided missiles from an airport in Pyongyang.

North Korea was especially angered when the U.S. this month imposed unilateral sanctions against five North Koreans linked to Pyongyang's weapons program.

In the official Politburo readout released Thursday, North Korean officials blasted the "recent indiscreet moves" by the United States, which it accused of trying to "emasculate our rights to self-defense." It also complained about recent U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.

"The meeting reconfirmed the tasks of defense policy to strengthen and develop without delay more powerful physical means to definitely overpower the daily intensifying hostile moves of the United States," KCNA added.

It's not clear whether an ICBM or nuclear test is imminent. At the end of 2019, Kim also said he "no longer felt bound" by his moratorium. He has since failed to follow through on that threat.

Many analysts say the latest threat may be more urgent, in part because North Korea appears to be working through a checklist of weapons developments that Kim laid out in a speech about a year ago. That list includes not only weapons that were recently tested, including the North's self-proclaimed hypersonic missiles, but also technology that could be tested in the future, including ICBMs that are propelled with solid fuel or that could carry multiple warheads.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity, including launches of any range, by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

North Korea's political calendar may also be a factor. In the coming months, the country plans to hold major celebrations for the birthdays of deceased leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

"It's a milestone year for the Kim family, and Kim Jong Un is on a mission to unveil new weapons during the big celebrations we can expect in 2022," said Jean Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research organization.

According to the readout issued by KCNA, the Politburo meeting discussed the need to "grandly" celebrate the two leaders' birthdays, which are major holidays in North Korea.

"Reading between the lines, I think we can assume Kim Jong Un has told the Politburo that he may rescind his promise to then-President Donald Trump to refrain from testing nuclear bombs and long-range ballistic missiles," Lee said.

"He has a short time frame to perfect these new weapons and is looking to raise tensions with North Korea's archenemy, the United States, in order to create the impression that the Korean Peninsula is on the verge of war," she added. "Tensions help justify carrying out further testing."