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(3rd LD) N.K. in final stage of preparations to launch ICBM: leader

All News 17:38 January 01, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info, context, Seoul's response throughout)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is in the final stage of preparing to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the country's leader said Sunday, in the latest sign that Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea "soared as a nuclear and military power," boosted by the success of the country's two nuclear tests last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his verbal New Year's speech broadcast by the state-run TV station.

"We were actively engaged in research and development of advanced weapons.... We are in the final stages of the preparation to test-launch an ICBM," Kim said.

His remarks come amid growing speculation that North Korea may carry out more powerful provocations around its key anniversaries this year to boost its internal solidarity and show off its military prowess.

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North Korea conducted two nuclear tests last year alone following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013. It also launched around 20 ballistic missiles in 2016 including the intermediate-range Musudan and those launched from a submarine.

Pyongyang has pumped up efforts to make miniaturized and diversified nuclear weapons with the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM which can fly as far as the U.S. mainland.

The North's leader vowed to develop more weapons to boost its strike capabilities while boasting of the country's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

"It is also important to bring about a great surge in bolstering military capabilities," Kim said.

The year 2017 marks the sixth year of Kim's iron-fisted rule following the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011.

Last year, the current young leader reaffirmed his one-man leadership by holding two key events that analysts say served as his coronation -- a congress by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in May and a parliamentary meeting in June.

Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile North Korean defector, said last week that the North's leader is determined to complete the development of nuclear weapons by the end of 2017.

For Pyongyang, the year 2017 is "an opportune time," as it believes that Seoul and Washington will not be able to take physical or military actions to deter its nuclear aspirations due to their internal political situation, said Thae, a former top North Korean diplomat who defected to the South last July.

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Kim's 2017 New Year message has been closely monitored to gauge how Pyongyang hopes to set its ties with South Korea and the United States, which are undergoing political changes.

But his speech did not include any comment on U.S. President-elect Donald Trump or a proposal for inter-Korean talks. It indicates Pyongyang would likely show a clearer stance after political uncertainty in Seoul and Washington are resolved, experts say.

South Korea could hold a presidential election earlier than expected this year, as parliament approved a motion in December to impeach President Park Geun-hye over an alleged corruption scandal involving her friend of 40 years.

North Korea is taking a wait-and-see approach to assess Trump's North Korea policy without taking provocative actions so far.

During the speech, the North's leader blamed South Korea for the strained inter-Korean ties, calling on Seoul to respond to his country's efforts to ease tensions on the divided peninsula.

"South Korea should not take issue with a set of our measures for self-defense. It should respond to our sincere effort to prevent military conflicts and ease tension," he said.

He also made a rare comment on anti-government rallies in South Korea sparked by the scandal involving Park and her longtime friend, calling them "an explosion of resentment toward conservative authorities."

The two Koreas remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said that North Korea is likely to seek to complete the development of its nuclear weapons and ICBM technology as early as possible.

"After South Korea's new administration takes office, Pyongyang may shift into a charm offensive," he added.

South Korea's unification ministry strongly condemned North Korea's nuclear aspiration and also urged Pyongyang to suspend its campaign to drive a wedge among South Koreans.

"We repeatedly warn that if North Korea sticks to nuclear development, it will only face tougher sanctions and pressure," the ministry said in a statement. "If Pyongyang wants to improve inter-Korean ties, it should walk the path toward denuclearization."

When it comes to the U.S., Kim warned that Pyongyang will beef up its readiness to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes if South Korea and the United States do not suspend their annual joint military exercises.

"(If they do not stop nuclear threats), North Korea will keep increasing the military capabilities for self-defense and preemptive striking capacity with a main emphasis on nuclear force," he said.

North Korea has long denounced the military drills between Seoul and Washington as a rehearsal for a northern invasion.

The North has insisted that its development of nuclear weapons is a deterrent against what it called Washington's hostile policy toward Pyongyang.

"Kim did not mention (the North's hope for) a peace treaty (with the U.S.) or the Trump administration," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "It seems to be Pyongyang's strategic calculus showing that it will adjust its stance after taking Trump's policy into account."

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