Kim Calls South Korea a Principal Enemy as His Rhetoric Sharpens in a US Election Year

In this photo provided on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, inspects as he tours munitions factories on Jan. 8-9, 2024, in North Korea. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called South Korea “our principal enemy” and threatened to annihilate it if provoked, as he escalates his inflammatory, belligerent rhetoric against Seoul and the United States before their elections this year.

Kim's threat comes as the White House said it has evidence that Russia has fired additional North Korean-provided ballistic missiles at Ukraine. The U.S., South Korea and their partners issued a statement Wednesday condemning both North Korea and Russia over the missile transfer.

Experts say Kim will likely further raise animosities with weapons tests to try to influence the results of South Korea’s parliamentary elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November.

During tours of local munitions factories this week, Kim said it's time to define South Korea “as a state most hostile toward” North Korea because of its long-running confrontational moves to topple the North's social system. He said North Korea must subsequently bolster its nuclear war deterrent, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday.

If South Korea dares to use his military force against North Korea and threaten its sovereignty, Kim said “We will have no hesitation in annihilating (South Korea) by mobilizing all means and forces in our hands,” according to KCNA.

He has made similar such threats recently, and analysts say Kim likely hopes South Korean liberals seeking reconciliation with North Korea win the April elections. They believe Kim also thinks he can win U.S. concessions if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House. Kim and Trump met three times as part of high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018-19.

Some observers say possible North Korean provocations could trigger accidental, limited armed clashes between the two Koreas along their heavily armed border.

Last Friday, North Korea fired artillery shells near the disputed western sea boundary with South Korea, prompting South Korea to stage its own firing drills in the same area in response. South Korea accused North Korea of having continued artillery firing drills in the area on Saturday and Sunday, but the North insisted it only performed such drills on Sunday.

Three bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas have occurred along the disputed sea boundary since 1999 and two attacks blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans in the area in 2010. Military firing exercises in the area violate the Koreas’ fragile 2018 agreement to ease front-line tensions.

Kim’s visit to munitions factories could also be related to North Korea’s alleged supply of conventional arms to Russia to support its war in Ukraine in return to sophisticated Russian weapons technologies. The factories likely include a missile-producing facility as KCNA said they carried out the plan for deploying new weapons to major missile units.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the North Korea-supplied missiles were fired on the Ukraine city of Kharkiv on Jan. 6, and come after the White House last week declassified U.S. intelligence determinations that the Russians fired North Korean-provided missiles on Ukraine on Jan. 2 and Dec. 30.

Kirby said that the U.S. would raise the matter at Wednesday’s U.N. Security Council meeting and underscored that the transfer of ballistic missiles from North Korea “directly violates” multiple U.N. resolutions. Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. council, supported those resolutions.

In a joint statement, the top diplomats of 48 countries including South Korea, the U.S. and Japan and the European Union said they “condemn in the strongest possible terms” North Korea's missile exports and Russia's use of those weapons against Ukraine.

“The transfer of these weapons increases the suffering of the Ukrainian people, supports Russia’s war of aggression, and undermines the global non-proliferation regime,” the statement said.

“Russia’s use of (North Korean) ballistic missiles in Ukraine also provides valuable technical and military insights to (North Korea),” it said. “We are deeply concerned about the security implications that this cooperation has in Europe, on the Korean Peninsula, across the Indo-Pacific region, and around the world.”

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