(ATTN: UPDATES with unification ministry's remarks in paras 15-17)
By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stressed the need to "exponentially" increase the number of the country's nuclear arsenal and develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the new year, Pyongyang's state media reported Sunday.
He delivered the message during a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) that ended the previous day. It was held to set Pyongyang's major policy directions for the new year.
In a situation where South Korea has become "our undoubted enemy, it highlights the importance and necessity of a mass-producing of tactical nuclear weapons and calls for an exponential increase of the country's nuclear arsenal," Kim was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in an English dispatch.
He also called for efforts to develop new ICBMs and put a spy satellite into orbit as early as possible in a bid to "overwhelmingly" beef up its military capabilities.
"A task was raised to develop another ICBM system whose main mission is quick nuclear counterstrike," the KCNA said.
Kim has skipped his annual New Year's Day speech since 2020, instead choosing to use his key messages delivered at year-end party meetings to lay out the country's policy lines for the new year.
In an indication that the regime will continue its provocations in 2023, Kim laid out new goals for strengthening the country's military power for the new year early last week during the six-day WPK plenary meeting.
The North fired around 70 ballistic missiles last year, the most in a single year, including the Nov. 18 firing of a Hwasong-17 ICBM, amid speculation that it may conduct a nuclear test in the near future.
In December, North Korea tested a high-thrust solid-fuel rocket engine for a "new-type strategic weapon system," a move seen as developing a solid-propellant ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
The North conducted a "final-stage" test for the development of a military spy satellite with a plan to complete preparations for the project by April 2023. It also flew five drones across the South last week in its first such intrusion in five years.
"There is a possibility that the North will develop a solid-fuel ICBM. The North may unveil (it) at a military parade, for which the country is known to be preparing," said Ryu Sung-yeop, an expert at the South's Korea Research Institute of Military Affairs.
At the party meeting, Kim vowed to strengthen nuclear force, stressing that the regime could use its nuclear arsenal if it comes under attack.
"Our nuclear force considers it as the first mission to deter war and safeguard peace and stability and, however, if it fails to deter, it will carry out the second mission, which will not be for defense," he said.
In September last year, Kim publicly announced the legalization of nuclear weapons, as the rubber-stamp parliament approved a new law that allows for a preemptive nuclear strike. He stated the new law makes his regime's nuclear power status "irreversible."
Seoul's unification ministry decried the North's "attitude threatening the same Koreans with nuclear arms," as well as its "obsession" with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) projects at the expense of people's livelihoods.
"As we greet the New Year, we urge North Korea to come out onto a path for peace on the Korean Peninsula and common prosperity for Koreans rather than sticking to a wrong path," the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also accused the North of attempting to shift the blame for strained inter-Korean relations to the South, as Pyongyang castigated Seoul's cross-border approach as being "reckless and confrontational."
In a separate dispatch, the KCNA confirmed the firing of a "super-large" multiple rocket launcher on Saturday and Sunday.
The North test-fired three rounds of shells from the launcher in its performance test on the final day of 2022, and a long-range artillery military unit fired one shot toward the East Sea on the following day.
In a ceremony to "present" the 600-mm rocker launcher to the WPK's plenary meeting, Kim called it an "offensive weapon" capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads that could put the entire South Korea within its range, the KCNA said.
The North's leader called for all-out efforts to produce powerful weapons to "overwhelm" the United States and South Korea.
He condemned the U.S. for frequently deploying nuclear strike means to the South in 2022 and strengthening its military cooperation with the South and Japan.
South Korea is "hell-bent on imprudent and dangerous arms buildup while busying itself with hostile military moves to pose a confrontational challenge," he added.
Kim has made clear that his regime has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons and it is not interested in returning to denuclearization talks that have stalled following the no-deal summit between the U.S. and the North in early 2019.
Inter-Korean relations have been frosty especially since the launch of the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration in May on a pledge to get tough on Pyongyang's saber-rattling.