SEOUL, South Korea – Ratcheting up the rhetoric, North Korea warned early today that its military has been cleared to wage an attack on the U.S. using “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear” weapons.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, said in Washington that it will deploy a missile defense system to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack from North Korea. The defense secretary said the U.S. was seeking to defuse the situation.
Despite the rhetoric, analysts said they do not expect a nuclear attack by North Korea, which knows the move could trigger a destructive, suicidal war that no one in the region wants.
The strident warning from Pyongyang is latest in a series of escalating threats from North Korea, which has railed for weeks against joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises taking place in South Korea and has expressed anger over tightened sanctions for a February nuclear test.
Following through on one threat Wednesday, North Korean border authorities refused to allow entry to South Koreans who manage jointly run factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
Washington calls the military drills, which this time have incorporated fighter jets and nuclear-capable stealth bombers, routine annual exercises between the allies. Pyongyang calls them rehearsals for a northward invasion.
The foes fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. The divided Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war six decades later, and Washington keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington was doing all it can to defuse the situation, echoing comments a day earlier by Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Some of the actions they’ve taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger and threat to the interests, certainly of our allies, starting with South Korea and Japan and also the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States,” Hagel said Wednesday.
In Pyongyang, the military statement said North Korean troops had been authorized to counter U.S. “aggression” with “powerful practical military counteractions,” including nuclear weapons.
“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means,” an unnamed spokesman from the General Bureau of the Korean People’s Army said in a statement carried by state media, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”
However, North Korea’s nuclear strike capabilities remain unclear.
Pyongyang is believed to be working toward building an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile. Long-range rocket launches designed to send satellites into space in 2009 and 2012 were widely considered covert tests of missile technology, and North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, most recently in February.
“I don’t believe North Korea has the capacity to attack the United States with nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, and won’t for many years. Its ability to target and strike South Korea is also very limited,” nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said this week.
“And even if Pyongyang had the technical means, why would the regime want to launch a nuclear attack when it fully knows that any use of nuclear weapons would result in a devastating military response and would spell the end of the regime? “ he said in answers posted to CISAC’s website.
In Seoul, a senior government official said Tuesday that it wasn’t clear how advanced North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities are. But he also noted fallout from any nuclear strike on Seoul or beyond would threaten Pyongyang as well, making a strike unlikely. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly to the media.
North Korea maintains that it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the United States. On Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a high-level meeting of party officials who declared building the economy and “nuclear armed forces” as the nation’s two top priorities.