North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, watches a military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of North Korea s army at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea Monday, April 25, 2022. AP
Despite biting sanctions, North Korea has doubled down on Kim's military modernisation drive, test-firing a slew of banned weapons this year while ignoring US offers of talks -- as analysts warn of a likely resumption of nuclear tests.
Dressed in a white military uniform trimmed with gold brocade, Kim watched as tanks, rocket launchers and his largest ICBMs were paraded through Pyongyang late Monday for the founding anniversary of North Korea's armed forces, state media reported.
Kim said he would "take measures for further developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed", according to KCTV footage of his speech.
"The nuclear forces, the symbol of our national strength and the core of our military power, should be strengthened in terms of both quality and scale," he said.
Repeated negotiations aimed at convincing Kim to give up his nuclear weapons programmes have come to nothing, and he warned Monday he could use his atomic arsenal if North Korea's "fundamental interests" were threatened.
Warning to Seoul?
North Korea had paused long-range and nuclear tests while Kim met then-US president Donald Trump for a bout of doomed diplomacy, which collapsed in 2019.
Last month Pyongyang test-fired an ICBM at full range for the first time since 2017, and satellite imagery shows signs of activity at a nuclear testing site, which was purportedly demolished in 2018 ahead of the first Trump-Kim summit.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday Washington was still "open to engaging in diplomacy and dialogue" on ending the North's nuclear programme.
"But we also have an obligation to address the recent provocations that we've seen from the DPRK including its two recent ICBM launches," he told reporters, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim's messaging on the purpose of his nuclear weapons could be a response to South Korea's new hawkish, conservative President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes office May 10, analysts said.
"Yoon has threatened a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang if needed, and Kim seems to be indirectly saying that he may have to respond with nuclear tactics," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Kim's uniform with a marshal's star -- North Korea's highest military rank -- was also a signal for Seoul, said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute.
"It symbolises his ultra-strong stance to the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration," he said.
Kim's parade speech "suggests that the threshold for North Korea's use of nuclear weapons can be lowered even further", he added.
Columns of goose-stepping soldiers waving flags and carrying weapons marched through a floodlit square, KCTV footage showed, with North Korea's famous news anchor Ri Chun Hi announcing each unit.
Flanked by his generals, Kim smiled, waved and saluted the troops, North Korean jets in formation flew low, and then huge missiles -- from short-range ballistic to hypersonic -- on transporters were driven through the square.
"This is state-of-the-art equipment with strong striking power that can pre-emptively and thoroughly annihilate any enemy outside of our territory," Ri said in a voiceover.
Footage showed the parade showcasing the Hwasong-17, the country's most advanced ICBM that Pyongyang claims to have successfully tested March 24.
When the Hwasong-17s rolled into the square, Ri said the country was "advancing today with pride after showing off the true value of its absolute power before the world".
State media trumpeted the "miraculous" launch of the nation's most advanced ICBM, publishing dramatic photos and videos of leader Kim personally overseeing the test.
But analysts have identified discrepancies in Pyongyang's account, and South Korean and US intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea actually fired a Hwasong-15 -- a less-advanced ICBM which it had already tested in 2017.
"For all the hype and months of practice, Monday's North Korean military parade didn't really show many novel capabilities," said Chad O'Carroll of Seoul-based specialist website NK News, adding that "we've seen the vast majority of this two years ago".
North Korea stages military parades to mark important holidays and events. Observers closely monitor these events for clues on Pyongyang's latest weapons development.
As Kim and his wife walked away with the parade ending, KCTV showed a close-up of a spectator weeping, seemingly in joy, as fireworks exploded overhead.