NKorea says rocket forces ready to 'settle accounts with the US'
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned Friday that his rocket forces were ready "to settle accounts with the U.S.," unleashing a new round of bellicose rhetoric after U.S. nuclear-capable B-2 bombers dropped dummy munitions in joint military drills with South Korea.
Kim's warning, and the litany of threats that have preceded it, don't indicate an imminent war. In fact, they're most likely meant to coerce South Korea into softening its policies, win direct talks and aid from Washington, and strengthen the young leader's credentials and image at home.
But the threats from North Korea and rising animosity from the rivals that have followed U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's Feb. 12 nuclear test do raise worries of a misjudgment leading to a clash.
Kim "convened an urgent operation meeting" of senior generals just after midnight, signed a rocket preparation plan and ordered his forces on standby to strike the U.S. mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, state media reported.
Kim said "the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation," according to a report by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Later Friday at the main square in Pyongyang, tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for a 90-minute mass rally in support of Kim's call to arms. Men and women, many of them in olive drab uniforms, stood in arrow-straight lines, fists raised as they chanted, "Death to the U.S. imperialists." Placards in the plaza bore harsh words for South Korea as well, including, "Let's rip the puppet traitors to death!"
Small North Korean warships, including patrol boats, conducted maritime drills off both coasts of North Korea near the border with South Korea on Thursday, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing Friday. He didn't provide more details.
The spokesman said that South Korea's military was mindful of the possibility that North Korean drills could lead to an actual provocation. He also said that the South Korean and U.S. militaries are watching closely for any signs of missile launch preparations in North Korea. He didn't elaborate.
North Korea, which says it considers the U.S.-South Korean military drills preparations for invasion, has pumped out a string of threats in state media. In the most dramatic case, Pyongyang made the highly improbable vow to nuke the United States.
On Friday, state media released a photo of Kim and his senior generals huddled in front of a map showing routes for envisioned strikes against cities on both American coasts. The map bore the title "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan."
Portions of the photo appeared to be manipulated, though an intriguing detail — a bandage on Kim's left arm — appeared to be real.
Experts believe the country is years away from developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike the United States. Many say they've also seen no evidence that Pyongyang has long-range missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland.
Still, there are fears of a localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999. There's also the danger that such a clash could escalate. Seoul has vowed to hit back hard the next time it is attacked.
North Korea's threats are also worrisome because of its arsenal of short- and mid-range missiles that can hit targets in South Korea and Japan. Seoul is only a short drive from the heavily armed border separating the Koreas.
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