“North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and the threats that they engage in follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday in Washington. It’s the highest-level combat posture North Korea has issued, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said in Seoul.
South Korea’s military put a border region on its highest alert level after spotting a suspicious object at 2:30 a.m. and retracted the alert at 9:20 a.m. after some warning shots were fired, said a Joint Chiefs of Staff official who asked not to be named due to national security concerns. There were no signs of North Korean infiltration or unusual troop movements, the official said, declining to specify the nature of the object.
Tensions have risen to the highest in at least three years since North Korea detonated a nuclear device in February in defiance of global sanctions. The U.S. and South Korea are in the midst of military drills that North Korea says puts the peninsula on the brink of war, and the Obama administration is boosting its regional anti-missile defenses.
The North Korean alert affects “all the field artillery units including strategic rocket units and long-range artillery units which are assigned to strike bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor troops in the U.S. mainland and on Hawaii and Guam,” the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“North Korea may launch a limited, localized attack with a clear political purpose to highlight the 60th anniversary of the truce agreement this year and win international recognition as a nuclear power,” said Kim Yeon Su, a professor at the state-run Korea National Defense University in Seoul.
Yesterday’s threat came days after the U.S. and South Korea signed a contingency plan against potential attacks from North Korea. The regime this month warned of preemptive nuclear strikes, threatened to destroy regional American military bases and invalidated the July 27, 1953, armistice ending the Korean War.
The U.S. and South Korea have created “a state of nuclear war” on the Korean peninsula, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said, according to a KCNA statement yesterday that didn’t identify the person.
In a statement echoed by the State Department, Carney said North Korea “will achieve nothing by these threats or provocations.”
Kim became leader after his father Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December 2011. He undertook a series of military and government personnel reshuffles to strengthen his power base, and named economic improvement as one of his top policy priorities in an effort to win more support from the impoverished nation.
“Kim Jong Un’s recent threats always include a reaffirming his commitment to improving the lives of the North Korean people, which indicates that all of the bellicose rhetoric is a manifestation of his unstable hold on power,” university professor Kim Yeon Su said.
North Korea will hold a plenary meeting of its top party leaders this month “to discuss and decide an important issue,” KCNA said today without elaborating.
“Today we have a sacred task to closely unite around Kim Jong Un in single mind,” KCNA said, citing the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, of which Kim is first secretary.
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters yesterday that the U.S. is concerned about North Korean capabilities “that could raise tensions and lead to provocations that go to a place none of us wants to go.”
“It’s not just artillery,” Little said. “Let’s remember North Korea has nuclear capabilities, so the full range of their arsenal is of concern.”
Little also said that U.S. B-52 bombers have made three practice flights over South Korea this month. While Little has said such training missions are routine, he has cited them as an example of American strength in the region.
North Korea’s conventional military arsenal includes 13,000 artillery systems, more than 4,000 tanks, and more than 2,000 armored personnel carriers, according to Army General James Thurman, the top U.S. commander for Korea. Its air force has 1,700 aircraft, and its navy has more than 800 surface vessels, he said in a speech in Washington in October.
“More than 70 percent of this combat power is positioned within 90 miles” (145 kilometers) of the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, Thurman said.
North Korea’s long-range artillery “are capable” of hitting the South Korean capital, and an attack of any scale “could cause significant damage to” the Seoul metropolitan area, he said.
North Korea’s economy is about one-fortieth the size of that of its southern neighbor. Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition affect about two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people, Jerome Sauvage, then-UN resident coordinator in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, said in June.
Kim’s country is reliant on its neighbor China for diplomatic and economic support. Bilateral trade amounted to $5.63 billion in 2011, 70.1 percent of the North’s total commerce that year, according to an annual report by South Korea’s national statistics office. North Korea does not release its economic data.
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