North Korea says it will maintain high defense spending in 2023

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SEOUL, Jan. 19 (UPI) — North Korea‘s parliament signed off on an annual budget that will sustain a high level of defense spending for 2023, state media reported Thursday, as the isolated regime continues to ramp up its nuclear and missile programs despite heavy economic struggles.

Defense sector spending will account for 15.9% of North Korea’s total budget in 2023, the same as the previous year, according to a report in state-run Korean Central News Agency.

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The budget was passed at a two-day session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, which ended Wednesday. The SPA is defined as “the highest level of State power” in North Korea’s constitution, but it remains a rubber-stamp parliament for decisions by the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, headed by leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim did not make an appearance at the meeting, which focused primarily on domestic issues.

Overall spending would increase by 1.7% over the previous year, the assembly said, although the actual amount of the budget was not revealed.

The U.S. State Department has estimated that North Korea spent around $4 billion on defense in 2019, representing more than 26% of its overall economy, by far the highest proportion in the world.

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North Korea’s economy has suffered in recent years under extensive global sanctions and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its most recent estimate, Seoul’s central bank said that the North Korean economy shrank by 0.1% in 2021 after plunging by 4.5% in 2020.

However, Pyongyang has continued to accelerate its weapons development, firing more than 70 ballistic missiles last year in a record-setting display.

At a year-end meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un called for “an exponential increase” of the country’s nuclear arsenal in order to face off against the “hostile military moves” of the United States and South Korea.

He also ordered the mass production of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which are designed to be used on the battlefield.

A recent report by a South Korean government-run think tank estimated that Pyongyang currently possesses between 80 and 90 nuclear weapons and is aiming for an arsenal of 300 warheads.

In remarks at the parliamentary session, premier Kim Tok Hun said that last year North Korea successfully overcame the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he called “the worst-ever upheaval since the founding of the country.”

Kim said the North’s priority for 2023 was to “put the country’s economy on a normal track,” with metal factories and chemical plants returning to operations at “full capacity,” according to KCNA.

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The parliament also adopted a number of laws, including one “to protect and actively preserve the cultured Pyongyang dialect,” KCNA reported, in what may be an effort to strengthen control over cultural influences from outside the country’s borders.

North Korea has cracked down brutally on the consumption of foreign media, particularly from neighboring South Korea, in recent years.

An “anti-reactionary thought” law passed in December 2020 calls for punishments that range from hard labor to death for crimes such as importing videos or even singing in a South Korean style.