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International relations

North Korea touts nuclear status at start of tense month

Key anniversaries could give occasion for destabilizing actions

SEOUL -- North Korea will keep building up its military and nuclear strength, a top official in Pyongyang said Tuesday, underscoring the threat of further weapons tests during a time of nationalistic fervor.

Talk of a nuclear buildup was conspicuously absent at the public session of the Supreme People's Assembly, however. The body convened Tuesday with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance. The legislature weighed in on five matters, including progress on the country's five-year economic development plan through 2020, according to the state-run Korea Central News Agency. The assembly also created a foreign affairs committee, naming as its chief Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea. Measures to advance the nuclear program were not on the public agenda.

A separate meeting commemorating five years since Kim took power after his father's death struck a more combative tone, highlighting Pyongyang's hard line on foreign policy. Choe Ryong Hae, also a Workers' Party vice-chairman, praised Kim for elevating the country to the status of "a nuclear and missile superpower."

Pyongyang had held off on provocations like nuclear and ballistic missile tests since last September, during the U.S. presidential campaign, apparently eager to see how American policy toward the North might shift under a new administration. But missile testing resumed in February after the U.S. and South Korea's chief diplomats agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in the South by the end of the year.

Doubling down

April is an important month in Pyongyang: The 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, is on Saturday, and the 85th anniversary of the military's creation is on April 25. Some predict a sixth nuclear test could occur shortly. The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported Tuesday that the North had demonstrated its status as a nuclear and military power to the world and mentioned testing of a high-power rocket engine. This could be a sign of further provocations to come.

The U.S. is also doubling down on tough rhetoric, heightening tensions in the region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implied in a Sunday television appearance that the missile strike on Syria last week should serve as a warning to Pyongyang as well, saying, "If you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken."

North Korea's Foreign Ministry called the Syria strike a reckless act of aggression in a statement carried by the KCNA.

"The reality today goes to prove that any aggression should be countered with force only and that [North Korea's] choice is entirely just, as it has bolstered up its nuclear force remarkably," the statement read. The North will continue to build up its defensive capabilities and respond accordingly to an attack by the U.S., the ministry added.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea's prime minister and acting president, warned his cabinet Tuesday that Pyongyang "could engage in severe provocations" to coincide with various national celebrations.

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