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N. Korea to boost nuclear warhead production ‘exponentially’

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to increase the production of nuclear warheads “exponentially” and build a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, state media reported Sunday, signaling deepening animosities with the United States, South Korea and others.

Kim’s statement at a key ruling party meeting was released hours after North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward its eastern waters, entering 2023 with another weapons test following a record number of missile firings last year.

“The currently established situation calls for our country doubling down our efforts to strengthen our military power overwhelmingly to safeguard our sovereignty, safety and basic national intertest to cope with the dangerous military moves by the U.S. and other hostile forces that target us,” Kim said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

KCNA cited Kim as saying North Korea is compelled to boost the production “exponentially” to mass-produce tactical nuclear weapons.

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It also said Kim has ordered the manufacturing of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile with a swift, retaliatory attack capability. Kim also reportedly said North Korea plans to launch its first military spy satellite soon.

South Korea’s military detected Sunday’s launch from the North’s capital region around 2:50 a.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It said the missile traveled about 400 kilometers (250 miles) before falling into the water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff called the launch “a grave provocation” that hurts peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and around the world. It said South Korea closely monitors North Korean moves in coordination with the United States and maintains a readiness to deal with any provocations.

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The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the launch highlights “the destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs. It said U.S. commitments to defend South Korea and Japan “remain ironclad.”

North Korea test-fired more than 70 missiles last year. Some experts say the country eventually aims to boost its weapons arsenals and increase pressure on its rivals to win concessions such as sanctions relief.

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On Saturday, North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern water.

North Korea’s state media confirmed Sunday that the country conducted the test-firings of its super-large multiple rocket launcher to test the weapon’s capability. The official Korean Central News Agency said three shells fired from the launcher on Saturday accurately hit an island target off the country’s eastern coast. It said North Korea fired another shell from the launcher toward its eastern waters Sunday.

Outside experts categorize weapons fired from the launcher as ballistic missiles because of their trajectories, ranges and other characteristics.

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The North’s missile launch for a second straight day could be a response to rival South Korea’s recent rocket test related to its plan to establish a space-based surveillance to better monitor North Korea. On Friday, South Korea’s military said it test-launched a solid-fueled rocket, a type of a space launch vehicle that it plans to use to put its first spy satellite into orbit in coming years.

Animosities between the rival Koreas have deepened since early last week, when South Korea accused North Korea of flying drones across the countries’ heavily fortified border for the first time in five years and sent its own drones toward the North.

South Korea acknowledged it failed to shoot down any of the five North Korean drones it said were found south of the border. But South Korea has vowed to bolster its air defense network and get tough on future provocations by North Korea.

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