N. Korea leader: We will only use nuclear weapons if under threat

PYONGYANG, North Korea (UPDATED) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un told a rare ruling party congress that the country would only use its nuclear weapons if its sovereignty came under threat from another nuclear power, state media said Sunday, May 8.

Kim also promised that the North would follow a policy of non-proliferation, and said Pyongyang was willing to improve and normalize relations with countries that had been "hostile" in the past.

His remarks came in a report delivered on the second day Saturday of the first Workers' Party congress to be held since 1980.

Kim had opened the conclave on Friday with a defiant defence of the North's nuclear weapons program, and praised the "magnificent... and thrilling" test of what Pyongyang claimed was a powerful hydrogen bomb on January 6.

It was the North's fourth nuclear test, and there are growing signs that a fifth test could be imminent.

"As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes," Kim was quoted as telling the party gathering on Saturday.

He also vowed that Pyongyang would "faithfully fulfil" its non-proliferation obligations and push for global denuclearisation, the North's official KCNA news agency said.

North Korea withdrew from the global Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 – the first signatory country to do so.

Opaque policy 

Pyongyang's nuclear weapons use policy has never been completely clear.

At the time of the first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea stated it would "never use nuclear weapons first", but has since made repeated threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.

Kim's latest statement does not seem to amount to a clear "no first-use" policy, as it does not specify what kind of "encroachment" might justify a nuclear strike.

In recent years, North Korea has put a focus on the development of tactical nuclear weapons, with numerous – and increasingly successful – tests of a submarine-launched ballistic missile system.

In his address, Kim also waved what might be taken as a potential olive branch, with his statement that North Korea would seek better relations with friendly countries, "(even) though they had been hostile in the past."

There has been speculation that, in the wake of the party congress, Pyongyang might renew its push for talks with Washington.

US and North Korean officials have held a number of informal discussions in neutral venues in recent years, but they are understood to have stalled over the basis for beginning any substantive dialogue.

Peace treaty

Pyongyang wants a permanent peace treaty to be the focus of any dialogue with Washington, while the United States, backed by South Korea, insists the first priority is the issue of North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice that has never been formalized by a peace treaty, meaning that the two Koreas technically remain at war.

The ongoing party congress has offered no sign whatsoever that Pyongyang would consider offering up its nuclear arsenal for negotiation, with Kim underlining the importance of a credible nuclear deterrent to the country's national security.

In his opening speech, the 33-year-old leader said the January test – and long-range rocket launch that followed a month later – had "smashed the hostile forces' vicious maneuvers geared to sanctions and strangulation, and displayed to the world the indomitable spirit, daring grit and inexhaustible strength of heroic Korea."

Two of the North's 4 nuclear tests have been conducted since Kim came to power following the death of his father, late leader Kim Jong-Il, in late 2011.

Speculation that the North might be readying a fifth test, in defiance of toughened UN sanctions, was fuelled Saturday by recent satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the northeast of the country.

Analysts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said the presence of vehicles at the complex's test command centre signalled the possibility of a test "in the near future".

The party congress is widely seen as Kim's formal "coronation" and recognition of his status as the legitimate inheritor of the Kim family's dynastic rule which spans almost seven decades. – Simon Martin, AFP/Rappler.com