March 29 (Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un put some North Korean forces on standby to strike South Korea and U.S. forces as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel denounced the totalitarian state’s “provocative actions and belligerent tone.”
Kim met with his military leaders today and ordered the preparations after two U.S. B-2 stealth bombers flew over South Korea yesterday in a show of deterrence. Hagel condemned North Korea’s recent actions, which include cutting off a military hotline with South Korea, putting its artillery forces on high alert, and threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
En route today to a speech in Florida by President Barack Obama, deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the current U.S. administration isn’t the first to hear “bellicose rhetoric” from North Korea.
“We’ve made very clear that we have the capability and willingness to protect our interests and our allies in the region,” Earnest said. He added that U.S. military exercises is conducting with South Korea should offer “pretty clear evidence” that the U.S. can defend its allies in the region.
North Korea “has ratcheted up the danger, and we have to understand that reality,” Hagel told a press conference at the Pentagon yesterday. The U.S. and South Korea “are committed to a pathway to peace, and the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction here.”
Tensions have risen since Kim’s impoverished state detonated a nuclear device in February in defiance of global sanctions. The U.S. and South Korea are conducting military drills that North Korea says puts the region the brink of war. Kim, who inherited his position after his father’s death in December 2011, has rebuffed international aid in favor of preserving a military-first policy to secure his legitimacy.
“The time has come to settle accounts with the U.S.,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying today. Rockets will be on standby to “strike any time the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea.”
North Korea’s military is awaiting a decision to attack from the Worker’s Party Central Committee, the report said. Party leaders are scheduled to meet by the end of the month.
North Korea’s rhetoric has had little impact on South Korean stocks, as the benchmark Kospi index closed up 0.57 percent today, headed for its best week in six months. The won was little changed at 1,111.4 per dollar.
Some U.S. Korea experts have been equally unmoved.
“There is less here than is apparent because North Korea has had a rocket and missile firing plan for years,” wrote former U.S. government intelligence analyst John McCreary in his March 28 NightWatch newsletter, published by Fairfax, Virginia-based Kforce Government Solutions, Inc.. “All the forces are not always on high alert, but some are. The statement simply restates the normal command procedure: fire when ordered.”
Kim’s statement, McCreary continued, “almost belabors the point that no order has been issued.”
“Somebody in the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Central Committee apparently judges that every time the U.S. makes any show of force, the North must put on another phony skit that makes Kim look defiant and unafraid,” he added.
Still, McCreary and two U.S. officials who are monitoring the situation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have access to classified intelligence, said the situation is dangerous because -- unlike his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung -- Kim Jong-un has publicly abandoned the 1953 armistice that halted the fighting in Korea and he has raised artillery, rocket and missile units to full combat readiness and put them on standby.
His predecessors, McCreary wrote, “took similar measures during periods of tension, but they maintained fail safe mechanisms.”
U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials are “intensively, closely” monitoring the possibility of North Korea attacking with its short and long-range missiles, Soouth Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters today in Seoul.
Analysts such as Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, have said Kim’s regime is years away from deploying missiles that could reach the continental U.S.
A successful long-range rocket test in December shows the North has made headway in its intercontinental ballistic missile development, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin told lawmakers at the time, adding that the tested rocket had a potential range of about 10,000 kilometers (6,245 miles).
Despite the escalating rhetoric, the U.S. sees no sign of any unusual military maneuvers by North Korea, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at yesterday’s press conference with Hagel.
“We haven’t seen anything that would cause us to believe there are movements other than consistent with historic patterns and training exercises,” Dempsey said.
Asked about Kim’s intentions, Hagel said, “there are a lot of unknowns here, but we have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new, young leader has taken so far since he’s come to power.”
Hagel spoke by phone this week with defense minister Kim. The two discussed the U.S. plan to expand its regional anti-missile defense after North Korea threatened to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes, according to the Pentagon.
In a demonstration of U.S. support, two B-2 stealth bombers flew 6,500 miles from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to the Korean peninsula yesterday for a “long-duration, round-trip training mission,” U.S. Forces Korea said in an e-mailed statement.
The bombers, made by Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Corp., dropped munitions on a range on an island off South Korea’s western coast to showcase the U.S. ability to conduct “long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will,” according to the statement. The flight was a part of the annual two-month Foal Eagle military exercise between the U.S. and South Korean forces which ends on April 30.
“Those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict,” Dempsey said of the B-2 flights.
In addition to the B-2 flights, U.S. B-52 bombers have made three training flights over South Korea this month, according to the Pentagon.
The American bomber missions, the two U.S. officials said, are intended not only to deter North Korea, but also to reassure South Korea. An Asan Institute for Policy Studies poll conducted in February after the North Korean nuclear test found that two-thirds of South Koreans surveyed “supported a domestic nuclear weapons program.”
Such a move by South Korea, the two officials said, would only legitimize the pursuit of nuclear weapons by other nations, including Iran.
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 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.
North Korea’s economy is about one-fortieth the size of that of its southern neighbor and is reliant on China for diplomatic and economic support. 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.