North Korea's Kim calls for stronger war fighting capabilities against the US and South Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for greater war fighting capabilities against the United States and South Korea, state media reported Thursday, after his defense ministry vowed to respond to the ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.

During a visit to a western operational training base on Wednesday, Kim said the military must “steadily intensify the actual war drills aimed at rapidly improving its combat capabilities for perfect war preparedness,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

Kim said the heightened readiness is required to “contain the constant threat of the enemies with overwhelming force,” KCNA said.

It said Kim guided maneuvers of military units at the site but didn’t elaborate. State media photos showed Kim wearing a black leather jacket and standing in position to shoot a rifle and standing near soldiers who were lying on the ground and aiming their rifles.

Kim has previously made similar calls for a stronger military numerous times. But his latest demand came two days after North Korea's Defense Ministry threatened to conduct unspecified ”responsible military activities” because South Korean-U.S. military drills were allegedly getting more undisguised in their attempt for invading the North.

The South Korean and U.S. militaries began their annual computer-simulated command post training and a variety of field exercises on Monday for an 11-day run. This year’s drills were to involve 48 field exercises, twice the number conducted last year. The two countries have said their drills are defensive in nature.

North Korea has reacted to previous South Korean-U.S. military exercises with missile and other weapons tests.

Jeon Ha Gyu, a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry, told reporters later Thursday that South Korea will “overwhelmingly” deal with any provocations by North Korea. He said it’s nonsensical for North Korea to call the South Korea-U.S. military drills an invasion rehearsal while elevating its nuclear and missile threats.

Animosities on the Korean Peninsula remain high in the wake of North Korea's barrage of missile tests since 2022. Many of the tests involved nuclear-capable missiles designed to attack South Korea and the mainland U.S. This year, North Korea performed six rounds of missile tests. The U.S. and South Korean forces have responded by expanding their training exercises.

Experts say North Korea likely believes a bigger weapons arsenal would increase its leverage in future diplomacy with the United States. They say North Korea would want to win extensive sanctions relief while maintaining its nuclear weapons.

North Korea is expected to further raise tensions with more provocative weapons tests and fiery rhetoric this year as the U.S. and South Korea head into major elections, observers say.