SEOUL — North Korea’s army said Thursday that it had received approval for a “cutting edge” nuclear strike on the United States, adding that the situation on the Korean Peninsula had reached an explosive stage.
The threat followed the North’s move Wednesday to ban South Korean workers from a joint industrial complex that has long stood as a symbol of the tenuous peace on the peninsula. South Korea’s defense minister said Seoul would consider military action if the safety of workers is put at risk.
Those moves raised concerns in the region about the prospect for armed conflict amid uncertainty on whether the North is blustering, bluffing or becoming more dangerous than it has been since the Korean War.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced Wednesday that the U.S. will deploy a sophisticated anti-missile defense system to Guam in response to North Korean threats.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System is a relatively new land-based system designed to destroy incoming short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles by crashing into them in the air. Only two batteries of the system, produced by Lockheed Martin, are deployed, both at Fort Bliss, Texas.
A Pentagon statement said deployment in Guam was expected “in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.”
In recent weeks, North Korea has upped its hostile rhetoric while pulling the plugs on its few lines of communication with South Korea, including at the Kaesong industrial complex and a military hot line along the demilitarized border.
‘Real and clear danger’
The statement issued Thursday followed up on a threat last month to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies, including South Korea.
The North blamed Washington for its “hostile” policy and said its resentment toward the United States has reached an “irrepressible phase.”
“The moment of explosion is approaching fast,” the North said. “No one can say a war will break out in Korea or not and whether it will break out today or tomorrow.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday called the North Korean actions a “real and clear danger and threat” to the United States’ allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.
“They have nuclear capacity now. They have missile delivery capacity now,” he said.
Hagel, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, specifically cited “the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States.”
“We have to take those threats seriously,” he said.
Kaesong a forceful step
Some analysts say the North is using the threats as a way to raise tensions and pressure Seoul or Washington into negotiations. For new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the next days will be critical in determining the future of Kaesong, where North Koreans and South Koreans worked side by side until Wednesday.
The North’s decision to ban entry presents an immediate and “serious” obstacle to the roughly 120 South Korean businesses that operate at Kaesong, a South Korean government spokesman said.
North Korea has tried in recent weeks to boost tensions on the peninsula, nullifying an armistice agreement, declaring a “state of war,” and vowing to produce new fissile material for its nuclear weapons. But the Kaesong move marks an even more forceful step, showing the North’s willingness to meddle with – and potentially lose – a cash cow that generates between $20 million and $100 million annually for the authoritarian government, according to estimates from economists.