North Korea Threatens to Strike the United States

A KCNA report in English revealed that Kim Jong-un has signed off on an order for the military to prepare rockets on standby for a strike on the U.S. mainland and U.S. military bases in the Pacific, including South Korea. Visible on the photos published by the Korea Worker’s Party paper, the Rodong are the words, “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan [미본토타격계획]” showing San Diego, Washington D.C., Hawaii and possibly Austin, Texas as possible targets. These were the official lines from the KCNA report: “He finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets, ordering them to be on standby to fire so that they may 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.”

Q1: Why is North Korea releasing photos depicting Kim Jong-un studying an apparent missile attack plan against the United States?

A1: The most proximate explanation is that the North is responding to the ongoing and routine U.S.-ROK military exercises this month, and specifically the portion of the exercise reported yesterday in which the U.S. military sent two nuclear-capable B-2s stealth strategic bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri on a “a long-duration, round-trip training mission”—practice sortie—over South Korea. In addition, the young leader presumably needs to prove his bona fides, and therefore is making as much of the current situation as he can.

Q2: Can the DPRK reach the United States with missiles?

A2: Not yet. The DPRK does not currently possess a deployed missile system that can reach the United States. The primary deployed system today, the No-Dong missile system, can reach U.S. troops in Korea and Japan, but the accuracy of these missiles is not known. The missile test last December successfully demonstrated ballistic missile technology of a longer range, possibly as far as Hawaii and maybe Alaska. There are still several technical hurdles to deploy a finished system, but this test undeniably crossed a technological threshold that puts them within years—rather than decades—of deploying a longer range system.

Q3: What was the purpose of the U.S. B-2 bomber exercise? Does it aggravate the situation?

A3: This exercise is part of the ongoing Foal Eagle training exercise between the United States and the ROK which began on March 1st and will last until April 30. This was the first time the United States publicly reported flying B-2 bombers to the Korean Peninsula as part of a military exercise on a nonstop, round-trip mission from the United States. The B-2s dropped inert munitions at Jik Islet bombing range off the coast of Gunsan, about 274 kilometers (170 mi) south of Seoul, and then returned to base in Missouri in a continuous flight of over 6,500 miles.

Like all exercises, this was meant, first and foremost, to test U.S. capabilities to carry out a particular military mission. The mission clearly signaled a U.S. commitment to support extended nuclear deterrence of its allies, South Korea and Japan, in the face of North Korea’s nuclear development. At a Pentagon news conference held on Thursday, General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized the purpose of the mission was to reassure our allies (South Korea and Japan) that they can count on us to help them. While the operation was an exercise, the North undeniably must have been unsettled by this demonstration of long-range force projection by the United States.

Q4: Is the United States taking the threat seriously?

A4: Yes. While many analysts and media pass over Pyongyang’s rhetoric as harmless blather, actions by the U.S. government over the past couple of weeks demonstrate the seriousness with which it takes the threat. These actions each constitute a direct response to North Korean provocations.
On March 15, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the U.S. military will spend $1 billion to increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska from 30 to 44 by 2017. The 14 new interceptors will be placed at Fort Greely, Alaska, where there are already 26 interceptors deployed, while 4 are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This is clearly intended to signal U.S. readiness to neutralize any new possible long-range ballistic missile threats prompted by North Korea’s December 2012 missile test.

The United States also put forth a direct response to North Korean threats of more conventional military provocations. On Monday, March 25, the United States and South Korea signed a new agreement detailing counter-provocation plans against North Korea. The Combined Counter-Provocation Plan, signed on March 22 by Gen. James D. Thurman, the head of USFK and Gen. Jung Seung-jo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROKA, is a ROK-led, U.S.-supported contingency plan that respond to local clashes and skirmishes—such as the Yeonpyeong shelling—that does not meet the threshold of full-scale war.

The B-2 bomber mission was a clear statement of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees to South Korea and Japan. Taken together, this appears to be an unprecedented package of measures tailored to address the range of potential North Korean threats.

Q5: Does the counter-provocation plan drag us into a war on the Korean Peninsula?

A5: No. The new agreement does two things that enhance peace on the peninsula rather than hurt it. First, it enhances deterrence. The incorporation of the U.S. military at lower levels of conflict sends a clear message to Pyongyang that Washington is standing side-by-side with its ally not just in politicians’ words but in an integrated operational manner. This bolsters deterrence and will cause the North to think twice before its next provocation. Second, the new agreement prevents inadvertent escalation. Having the United States involved in the early stages of a South Korean response to a DPRK provocation helps to control the escalation ladder. It minimizes the chances for things spinning out of control if the ROK and DPRK get locked into a head-to-head confrontation

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair