Kim stresses military preparations ahead of US-SKorea drills

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday that leader Kim Jong Un called for stronger capability to cope with any foreign provocation as he met with military officers ahead of annual drills next month between South Korea and the United States that Pyongyang views as an invasion rehearsal.

Earlier this week, Kim reopened suspended communication channels with rival South Korea, raising hopes of reduced animosities on the Korean Peninsula. But some experts say Pyongyang could conduct missile tests or take other tension-raising actions in response to the drills, which Seoul and Washington have altered in past years to support diplomacy.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Kim held the workshop of military commanders and political officers from July 24-27 to discuss ways to enhance the North’s military strength. It said it was the first such meeting since North Korea's military was founded.

During the meeting, Kim “stressed that commanders and political officers should focus all efforts on completing preparations for actively and offensively coping with any military provocation of enemies,” KCNA said.

Kim accused “the hostile forces,” an apparent reference to the U.S. and South Korea, of bolstering their capabilities for making a preemptive attack and intensifying "all sorts of frantic and persistent war drills for aggression.” Kim ordered the workshop attendees to put greater efforts to boost their units' combat efficiency, KCNA said.

Kim’s speech carried by KCNA didn't mention his nuclear program and didn't contain any fiery rhetoric against the United States or South Korea.

In the past few years, South Korean and U.S. militaries have cancelled or scaled back some of their regular military exercises to support the now-stalled diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear program or due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Asked over a possibility for next month’s drills being canceled or downsized, Boo Seung-Chan, a spokesman at South Korea’s Defense Ministry, told a briefing Thursday that Seoul and Washington were reviewing factors like the pandemic’s current status, efforts to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and their combined military readiness.

Some experts say North Korea could test-fire powerful missiles if the United States and South Korea conduct the drills in a full-fledged manner.

U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program remain stalled for about 2 ½ years due to disputes over international sanctions on the North. During the diplomatic impasse, Kim has threatened to build up his nuclear arsenal if Washington doesn't withdraw policies it considers hostile to North Korea.