North Korea threatens 'preemptive nuclear attack' on US as UN readies new sanctions

The UN Security Council is expected today to approve a new round of sanctions against Pyongyang in response to its nuclear weapon test last month.

Jon Chol Jin/AP
North Koreans attend a rally Thursday in Pyongyang to support a statement given on Tuesday by a North Korean military spokesman vowing to cancel the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War. The billboard in background depicts a large bayonet pointing at US army soldiers and reads 'If you dare invade, only death will be waiting for you!'

North Korea upped the ante in its vitriolic rhetoric today, threatening to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the US and other "aggressors," just hours ahead of the United Nations Security Council's expected vote to implement harsh new sanctions against the regime.

According to North Korea's state news agency, a foreign ministry official warned that "Now that the US is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, (our) revolutionary armed forces... will exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors," writes Agence France-Presse. The official also said that a second Korean war is "unavoidable."

AFP notes that while North Korea claims to have missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US, they have yet to successfully demonstrate such technology. Most observers believe that North Korea is many years away from such a capacity.

North Korea's latest threat comes amid growing international concern – including that of longtime ally China – over the country's continued nuclear testing, its third such test occuring last month. In response, the US and China negotiated a tightening of sanctions against the regime, which is expected to pass later today at the UN Security Council. 

The Monitor reported yesterday that while probably not ready to impose sanctions strong enough to destabilize the Kim regime, China was angered by the decision to follow through with last month's weapons test in spite of Beijing's direct requests otherwise.

The resolution due to be approved Thursday will make it harder for North Korean diplomats to transport large quantities of cash, which they are forced to do by existing financial sanctions that make banks unwilling to deal with Pyongyang.

The resolution will also step up the inspection of North Korean imports and exports, so as to crack down on Pyongyang’s purchase of technology that could help its weapons program and on North Korean military sales abroad.

The sanctions will prohibit the sale of luxury items such as yachts and racing cars to North Korea, in a bid to deny the country’s rulers some of their toys.

Still, experts are dubious that the sanctions will make much difference.

David Kang, an expert on North Korea at the University of Southern California, told the Monitor that "There is zero chance that this new resolution will have any effect on North Korean behavior. Pressure does not work on North Korea."

The sanctions' passage is unlikely to end North Korea's bellicose rhetoric in the coming days, as the US and South Korea are set to engage in two months of war games starting next week. Pyongyang warned on Tuesday that if the games were held, North Korea would "completely nullify" the armistice that has held since the Korean War unofficially ended in 1953. An official peace between North and South Korea has never been enacted.

"The war exercise being done by the United States and the puppet South Korea is a systematic act of destruction aimed at the Korean armistice," the KCNA quoted a top military official as saying.

But the Monitor noted that North Korea's threat "rings hollow," as the government made a similar declaration in 2009 amid an earlier round of international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.

“Maybe North Korea should check its files, because they already abrogated the armistice in May 2009,” says Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “They said at the time they had abrogated it and were no longer bound by it,” Mr. Klinger says, “so I guess you could say history is repeating itself.”

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