North Korean leader Kim visits tank unit and touts war preparations in face of tensions with Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a tank exercise and encouraged his armored forces to sharpen war preparations in the face of growing tensions with South Korea, the North’s state media said Monday.

Kim made those comments Sunday while visiting his top tank group, the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su Guards 105th Tank Division. The unit’s name marks how it was the first North Korean military unit to reach the South Korean capital in 1950 when a North Korean surprise attack triggered a war that dragged on for almost four years.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have heightened after Kim in past months dialed up his military demonstrations, including tests of nuclear-capable missiles designed to target South Korea, the United States and Japan, while issuing threats of nuclear conflict against its rivals.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have responded by strengthening their combined military exercises and updating their deterrence plans built around strategic U.S. assets.

Photos published by North Korean state media showed Kim talking with military officers at an observation post and tanks with North Korean flags rolling through dirt, with at least one of the vehicles carrying a sign that read: “Annihilate U.S. invaders who are staunch enemies of the Korean people!”

The official Korean Central News Agency said Kim praised the 105th Division as a model for his entire army “in the ongoing struggle … for finishing war preparations.” He also issued instructions to improve the unit’s combat preparations and upgrade its equipment, the report said.

Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely monitoring North Korean military activities but did not provide a specific assessment of the details reported by North Korean state media.

Kim earlier this month supervised a training competition between his military’s tank units, which was won by the 105th Division. The event on March 13 also featured a new North Korean battle tank meant to underscore Kim’s efforts to strengthen his conventional military capabilities along with his arsenal of missiles.

Last week, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill of large-size multiple rocket launchers designed to target Seoul and also claimed a successful engine test in its efforts to build a new intermediate-range hypersonic missile, which would be aimed at remote U.S. targets in the Pacific, including the military hub of Guam.

There are concerns North Korea could further dial up pressure in what is an election year in both the United States and South Korea.

While most analysts doubt Kim is genuinely preparing for war, South Korean officials have raised the possibility of smaller provocations in border regions, including the disputed western sea boundary between the Koreas that has been the site of bloody skirmishes in past years.

In a fiery speech to Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament in January, Kim declared that he was abandoning North Korea’s long-standing goal of reconciliation with the South and ordered the rewriting of the North’s constitution to cement its war-divided rival as its most hostile adversary. He said the new charter must specify North Korea would annex and subjugate the South if another war broke out.

Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press

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