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North Korea's Kim Jong-un issues fresh round of threats

Joint US-South Korea military drills yesterday prompted harsh language from North Korea's leader himself today.

Jon Chol Jin/AP
North Koreans punch the air during a rally at Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong-un's call to arms.

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US military drills in South Korea have prompted a fresh round of threats from North Korea, with leader Kim Jong-un ordering that the military be on standby to hit the US mainland with missiles.

There's little concern that North Korea actually can target the US at the moment. What worries many is that the combination of the North's bellicose rhetoric, actions like its severing of a hotline, and Seoul's vow of retaliation, may be creating an environment where a serious misstep is possible. 

As the Associated Press, which has a bureau in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, notes, most experts share the belief that North Korea is "years away" from nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the US. Some even say there is no evidence it has conventional missiles that could do that.

But three naval clashes between the North and South since 1999, recent vows of retaliation from Seoul, and Pyongyang's possession of missiles capable of reaching both South Korea and Japan paint a picture of how smaller-scale clashes could easily happen, either deliberately or because of a misjudgment. The situation is also ripe for escalation, according to the AP.

"The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict," Victor Cha and David Kang wrote for Foreign Policy earlier this week.

NBC News reports that the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency wrote that the “opportunity for peacefully settling the [The Democratic People's Republic of Korea]-US relations is no longer available as the US opted for staking its fate. Consequently, there remains only the settlement of accounts by a physical means.” 

Today's fighting words from Mr. Kim were prompted by a flyover in South Korea yesterday by American B-2 stealth bombers, which dropped dummy munitions. Similar threats were made earlier this week, but were not attributed to the leader, which adds weight to the most recent threats, The New York Times reports.

Following the practice drill, North Korean media released a photo of Kim Jong-un meeting with military officials with a map titled "Plan for the strategic forces to target the US mainland" on the wall behind them, according to CNN. The map appeared to have lines stretching from North Korea to various points in the US, indicating missile paths.

As CNN makes clear, much of the hostility comes down to different interpretations of the motivations behind US military preparation in the region:

The North Korean state news agency described the [B-2 bombers] mission as "an ultimatum that they (the United States) will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula."

The North has repeatedly claimed that the exercises are tantamount to threats of nuclear war against it.

But the US military stressed that the bombers flew in exercises to preserve peace in the region.

South Korean defense officials and media reported a "surge in vehicle and troop movements at North Korean missile units in recent days," as the US and South Korea held the joint military drills, according to The New York Times article. “We believe they are taking follow-up steps,” said defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok. "South Korean and American intelligence authorities are closely watching whether North Korea is preparing its short, medium, and long-range missiles, including its Scud, Rodong and Musudan.”

As a US official told NBC News, it is Kim's inexperience as a leader that may be the biggest threat. “North Korea is not a paper tiger so it wouldn't be smart to dismiss its provocative behavior as pure bluster. What's not clear right now is how much risk Kim Jong Un is willing to run to show the world and domestic elites that he's a tough guy,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “His inexperience is certain – his wisdom is still very much in question.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week that little is understood about Kim Jong-un, or the way the country functions under his leadership.

Kim is still a very young dictator, said to be 30, and is consolidating his power and style. North Korea is for outsiders a dense black box; it is not always clear whom the Kim regime’s threats are meant to satisfy. There are generals who want to see young Kim continue the “military first” policy of his father and grandfather. There is an ongoing need to keep the woeful problems faced daily by ordinary North Koreans, particularly those outside the carefully constructed and supposedly racially-pure world of Pyongyang, at bay, and to ensure that the masses continue in the standard patriotic stupor that is the bedrock of stability in the Kim dynasty.

One theory making the rounds among DPRK watchers is that Kim created internal joy in Pyongyang with a successful cyberattack on banks and websites in South Korea last week, and the threats are an effort to keep that happy ball rolling.

Complicating a response to Pyongyang's threats "is that while threats are a stock in trade for Pyongyang, defense establishments have to take all threats with some modicum of seriousness," The Monitor notes.

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