Today In North Korea Bluster
The bluster out of Pyongyang isn’t letting up at all.
Today, for example, saw the North Koreans bar South Korean workers from entering the joint industrial zone that the North and South have been operating for the better part of a decade, while the United States moves to beef up defenses in our western frontier:
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea blocked South Koreans from crossing the heavily armed border to a jointly operated industrial park on Wednesday, raising the possibility that the North might be adding to its recent cascade of threats and provocative actions by cutting the last remaining major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
Angry over joint American-South Korean military drills and a recent round of United Nations sanctions, the North has in recent weeks threatened to strike at the United States, the South’s ally, in Guam, Hawaii and the mainland United States. While analysts doubt the potency of the North’s arsenal, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded Wednesday that the North’s recent inflammatory language and actions presented “a real and clear danger” to the interests of South Korea, Japan and the United States, and the Pentagon announced that it would significantly increase its missile-defense systems deployed to the Pacific.
A land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, would be sent to Guam in the coming weeks “as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat,” the Pentagon said. The system includes a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles, an integrated fire control system and advanced tracking radar.
Earlier this week, the Defense Department announced that two of the Navy’s Aegis-class missile-defense warships also would be positioned in Pacific waters to watch North Korea. Those vessels have radar and interceptor missiles, as well. Adding a land-based system to Guam would free the ships to provide coverage to other areas.
The jointly operated industrial complex, in the North Korean town of Kaesong, had continued to operate for days since the North threatened to shut it down. But on Wednesday, more than 480 South Koreans who showed up at a border crossing were denied permission to cross, said the Unification Ministry of South Korea, which is in charge of relations with the North. North Korea promised to allow 861 South Koreans currently staying in Kaesong to return home if they wished, the ministry said. But with no replacements arriving, only 33 immediately decided to return home.
The eight-year-old industrial park, on the western edge of the border of the two Koreas, produced $470 million worth of goods last year, helping provide a badly needed source of hard currency for the cash-strapped North. It generates more than $92 million a year in wages for 53,400 North Koreans employed by 123 textile and other labor-intensive South Korean factories there.
It was not the first time that North Korea had disrupted the park’s operation. It blocked cross-border traffic three times in 2009, once for three days, out of anger over joint military drills by South Korean and American troops. That blockade was lifted when the military exercises ended. The current American-South Korean military drills are to continue until the end of April.
China’s deputy foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, met with the ambassadors of the two Koreas and the United States on Tuesday to express serious concern over the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Hong Lei, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday.
“The improvement of relationships between the two Koreas, as well as their reconciliation and cooperation, are conducive to the peace and stability on the peninsula,” he said. “We hope the two Koreas can resolve the relevant issues through dialogue and consultation.”
Well, that Chinese hope for resolution was responded to by a North Korean announcement that its military forces were now authorized to direct nuclear strikes in the United States:
The North Korean army said Thursday it had final approval to launch “merciless” military strikes on the United States, involving the possible use of “cutting-edge” nuclear weapons.
In a statement published by the official KCNA news agency, the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) said it was formally informing Washington that reckless US threats would be “smashed by … cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means”.
“The merciless operation of (our) revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” the statement said.
North Korea had threatened a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States a month ago, and last week the supreme army command ordered its strategic rocket units to combat status for strikes on the US mainland and US bases in Guam and Hawaii.
“The moment of explosion is approaching fast,” Thursday’s statement said, adding that a war could break out on the Korean peninsula “today or tomorrow”.
“In view of this situation, the KPA General Staff in charge of all operations will take powerful practical military counteractions in succession,” it said.
Despite a successful long-range rocket launch in December, most experts believe North Korea is years from developing a genuine inter-continental ballistic missile that could strike the mainland United States.
Hawaii and Guam would also be outside the range of its medium-range missiles, which would be capable, however, of striking US bases in South Korea and Japan.
Meanwhile, the isolated country said Tuesday it will escalate production of nuclear weapons material, including restarting a long-shuttered plutonium reactor, in what outsiders see as Pyongyang’s latest attempt to extract U.S. concessions by raising fears of war.
A spokesman for the North’s General Department of Atomic Energy said scientists will quickly begin work “readjusting and restarting” a uranium enrichment plant and a graphite-moderated, five-megawatt reactor that could produce a bomb’s worth of plutonium each year. Experts considered the uranium announcement to be a public declaration from Pyongyang that it will make highly enriched uranium that could be used for bomb fuel.
The plutonium reactor began operations in 1986 but was shut down in 2007 as part of international nuclear disarmament talks that have since stalled. It wasn’t immediately clear if North Korea had already begun work to restart facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex. Experts estimate it could take anywhere from three months to a year to reactivate the reactor.
The announcement will boost concerns in Washington and among its allies about North Korea’s timetable for building a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the United States, although it is still believed to be years away from developing that technology.
The reaction to this latest North Korean threat seems to be more laughter than anything else. At this point, Kim Jong Un is beginning to sound like Ming The Merciless from the old Flash Gordon serials.