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A TV screen shows a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station, in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 19.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for bolstered war readiness to repel what he said were unprecedented United States-led confrontational moves, state media reported Thursday, as rival South Korea vowed a stern retaliation against any provocations by the North.

Kim’s comments during the key political meeting tasked with setting state objectives for 2024 indicated North Korea will likely continue weapons tests to modernize its nuclear arsenal. Observers say Kim likely hopes to eventually use his boosted arsenal as leverage in potential diplomacy with Washington, possibly after the 2024 U.S. presidential election in November.

During Wednesday’s second-day session of the ruling party’s plenary meeting, Kim set forth unspecified tasks for the military and the munitions industry to “further accelerate the war preparations” in the face of anti-North Korea “confrontation moves by the U.S. and its vassal forces unprecedented in history,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

It said Kim also clarified the party’s stance on expanding North Korea’s strategic co-operation with anti-imperialist countries amid the world’s rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

KCNA said Kim spoke about the direction of the North’s dealings with South Korea as well, but didn’t elaborate.

The Workers’ Party meeting is expected to last several days, and state media are expected to publicize details of its discussions after it ends, likely on Dec. 31. Experts say North Korea is expected to come up with pledges and steps to strengthen its nuclear attack capability and expand co-operation with Russia and China, which are also locked in separate confrontations with the U.S.

South Korea’s spy agency said Thursday there is a high possibility that North Korea will launch military provocations and cyberattacks ahead of South Korean parliamentary elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November. The National Intelligence Service said in a statement that senior North Korean military figures believed involved in past major deadly attacks and provocations have been given top posts in recent months. The NIS said North Korea has conducted nuclear and missile tests and flown a drone across the rivals’ border ahead of the South’s previous parliamentary elections.

During a visit to a front line army unit Thursday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called for a swift, stern retaliation against any provocations by North Korea.

“If provoked, you should immediately respond and retaliate before reporting to (your higher-ups) later. I’d like you to sternly and swiftly smash the enemy’s intentions to stage provocations on the spot,” Yoon told troops.

Lee Sang-sook, a research professor at Seoul’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said that limited clashes triggered by North Korean provocations along the Koreas’ tense border could happen next year. She said North Korea will also likely test-launch an intermediate-range missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and other weapons under its five-year military buildup plan launched in 2021.

Topics to be dealt with at the North Korean meeting could include its push to operate more spy satellites following its launch of its first military reconnaissance satellite on Nov. 21. After the November launch, North Korea said it would submit to the plenary meeting a plan to launch more satellites to improve its spaced-based surveillance capabilities on its rivals.

Since 2022, North Korea has performed a barrage of missile tests in breach of United Nations bans, including the Dec. 18 launch of the solid-fueled Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile – its most advanced weapon designed to attack the mainland U.S. The North has argued it has sovereign, legitimate rights to conduct such tests to deal with the expansion of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that it views as invasion rehearsals.

Kim has refused to return to diplomacy with the U.S. since his high-stakes diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump fell apart in 2019. A main sticking point in the collapsed Kim-Trump diplomacy was how much sanctions relief North Korea would be given in return for a partial surrender of its nuclear program.

Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the State Department, maintained last week that the U.S. harbours no hostile intent toward North Korea and remains committed to a diplomatic approach. He said the U.S. commitment to the defence of South Korea and Japan remains “ironclad.”

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