Kim calls for 'exponential increase' of N. Korea's nuclear arsenal

North Korea's Kim Jong Un has called for a major increase in the country's nuclear arsenal, including mass producing tactical nuclear weapons and developing new missiles for nuclear counterstrikes, state media said Sunday.

In a report at the end of a key party meeting in Pyongyang, Kim called "for an exponential increase of the country's nuclear arsenal", the official KCNA reported.

Citing what it called US and South Korean hostility, the report said the North needed "mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons" and to "develop another ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike".

Military tensions on the Korean peninsula rose sharply in 2022 as the North conducted sanctions-busting weapons tests nearly every month, including firing its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile ever.

It capped its record-breaking year of launches by firing three short range ballistic missiles early Saturday, and conducting another rare late-night launch at 2:50 am (1750 GMT Saturday) on Sunday, Seoul's military said.

The official KCNA reported Sunday that the launches had been "a test-fire of the super-large multiple rocket launchers".

In a separate KCNA report, Kim said the weapons put South Korea "as a whole within the range of strike and (were) capable of carrying (a) tactical nuclear warhead".

The launches come just days after Seoul scrambled fighter jets as five North Korean drones made an incursion into the South's airspace Monday.

- Mass producing nukes? -

North Korea has talked about mass producing nuclear weapons before, said Go Myong-hyun, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"The intention is that if North Korea mass produces nuclear weapons, even without aggressive provocations, the United States will have no choice but to someday recognise North Korea as a nuclear state," he told AFP.

"Kim Jong Un's New Year message is something like 'Let's play with nuclear weapons,'" he added.

"His New Year message is that North Korea will not beg for dialogue and that it will pressure South Korea and the United States, especially the United States, by bolstering its nuclear power."

In 2022, Kim said he wanted his country to have the world's most powerful nuclear force and declared the North an "irreversible" nuclear state.

On Wednesday, he set out "new key goals" for the country's military, state media reported, without giving any specifics.

The reports come at the end of a major party meeting in Pyongyang at which Kim and other senior officials outlined their policy goals for 2023 in key areas including diplomacy, security and the economy.

North Korea's end-of-year plenary meetings are typically used by the regime to unveil the country's domestic and foreign policy priorities for the year ahead.

In past years, Kim had delivered a speech on January 1, but he recently dropped the tradition in favour of making announcements at the year-end plenary meeting.

"North Korea ended the year with a bang but its recent missile launches were not technically impressive," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

But the recent "provocations, including drone incursions, appear excessive for deterrence and may be intended to scare South Korea into taking a softer policy".

But with Kim disavowing diplomacy and threatening to mass produce nuclear weapons, it is likely South Korea will double down on boosting its own defence capacities and readiness, he said.

"If China doesn't want the regional instability of an inter-Korean arms race on its doorstep, it will have to do more to restrain Pyongyang in 2023."

sh/ceb/smw