North Korea’s Kim orders increased production of mobile launch vehicles as tensions grow with US

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered authorities to increase production of mobile launch vehicles for missiles because the country faces a looming military showdown with its enemies, state media reported Friday, as it pushes to make its launches harder to detect. The report on Kim’s order came hours after the White House said US intelligence has determined that North Korea has supplied ballistic missile launchers to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The US and its allies have previously accused North Korea of sending artillery and ammunition to Russia in return for Russian technologies to enhance its military programmes.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Kim visited a factory that produces transport erector launchers, or TELs, without saying when he went or where the factory was. TELs are mobile launch vehicles which give North Korea the ability to move missiles around its territory, making it more difficult for its adversaries to detect launches in advance. Some South Korean experts have estimated that North Korea has about 100-200 such vehicles. Kim said the factory’s role is “very important” in bolstering North Korea’s national defence “given the prevailing grave situation that requires the country to be more firmly prepared for a military showdown with the enemy,” KCNA reported.

“He took an important measure for expanding the production capacity of the factory,” it said. In a key ruling party meeting last week, Kim vowed to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal, launch three additional military spy satellites and take other steps to build up the military this year to acquire “overwhelming” war readiness to cope with what he called U.S.-led confrontation. Kim cited the expansion of U.S.-South Korean military drills that sometimes involve U.S. long-range bombers and a nuclear-armed submarine.

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Experts say Kim is likely to increase weapons tests ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November because of a belief that a boosted military capability would increase his chances of wresting U.S. concessions if former President Donald Trump is reelected. Kim’s factory visit may also be related to arms supplies for Russia. Last year, Kim toured weapons factories and pledged to speed up efforts to advance his military when speculation about North Korea-Russia weapons transfers was widespread.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that recently declassified intelligence showed that North Korea has provided Russia with ballistic missile launchers and several ballistic missiles. He said Russian forces fired at least one of those missiles into Ukraine on Dec. 30 and it landed in an open field in the Zaporizhzhia region. In November, South Korea’s military said North Korea is suspected of sending short-range ballistic missiles, anti-tank missiles and portable anti-aircraft missiles to Russia, in addition to rifles, rocket launchers, mortars and shells.

Julianne Smith, the US permanent representative to NATO, said last month that US intelligence indicates that North Korea has provided Russia with more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions. Smith said North Korea is suspected of seeking Russian technologies related to fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles and ballistic missile production.