North Korea's leader said Friday that his rocket forces are ready "to settle accounts with the U.S.," an escalation of the country's bellicose rhetoric and a direct response to U.S. nuclear-capable B-2 bombers joining military drills with South Korea a day earlier.
Kim Jong Un's comments in an early morning meeting with his senior generals are part of a rising tide of threats meant to highlight anger over the military drills and recent U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear test. North Korea sees U.S. nuclear firepower as a direct threat to its existence and claims the annual military drills are a preparation for invasion. Pyongyang also uses the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a justification for its own push for nuclear-tipped missiles that can strike the United States a goal that experts believe to be years away, despite a nuclear test last month and a long-range rocket launch in December.
A full-blown North Korean attack is unlikely, though there are fears of a more localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999. North Korea's threats are seen by outside analysts as efforts to provoke South Korea to soften its policies and to win direct talks with Washington that could result in aid. Kim's comments are also seen as ways to build domestic loyalty and strengthen his military credentials.
Kim "convened an urgent operation meeting" early Friday, 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. Many analysts say they've seen no evidence that Pyongyang's missiles can hit the U.S. mainland. But it has capable short- and mid-range missiles, and Seoul is only a short drive from the heavily armed border separating the Koreas.
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. The stealth bombers' flight indicates that U.S. hostility against North Korea has "entered a reckless phase, going beyond the phase of threat and blackmail."
U.S. Forces Korea said that the B-2 stealth bombers flew from a U.S. air base in Missouri and dropped dummy munitions on an uninhabited South Korean island range on Thursday before returning home. While B-2 bombers have been used in past military exercises, including one in 2000 that included flights over South Korea, this is the first time that dummy munitions were dropped, according to the Pentagon.
The statement follows an earlier U.S. announcement that nuclear-capable B-52 bombers participated in the joint military drills.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Thursday that the decision to send B-2 bombers to join the military drills was part of normal exercises and not intended to provoke North Korea. Hagel acknowledged, however, that North Korea's belligerent tones and actions in recent weeks have ratcheted up the danger in the region, "and we have to understand that reality."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was making sure its defenses were "appropriate and strong" as North Korea continues to test and seeks to extend the reach of its weaponry.
Washington and Seoul say the military drills are routine and defensive.
North Korea has already threatened nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul in recent weeks. It said Wednesday there was no need for communication in a situation "where a war may break out at any moment." Earlier this month, it announced that it considers void the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
But there were also signs that Pyongyang is willing to go only so far.
A North Korean industrial plant operated with South Korean know-how was running normally Friday, despite the North's shutdown two days earlier of communication lines ordinarily used to move workers and goods across the border. At least for the moment, Pyongyang was choosing the factory's infusion of hard currency over yet another provocation.
Pyongyang would have gone beyond words, possibly damaging its own weak finances, if it had blocked South Koreans from getting in and out of the Kaesong industrial plant, which produced $470 million worth of goods last year. South Korean managers at the plant reported no signs of trouble Friday.
The Kaesong plant, just across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that separates the Koreas, normally relies on a military hotline for the governments to coordinate the movement of goods and South Korean workers.
Without the hotline, the governments, which lack diplomatic relations, used middlemen. North Korea verbally approved the crossing Thursday and Friday of hundreds of South Koreans by telling South Koreans at a management office at the Kaesong factory. Those South Koreans then called officials in South Korea.
Both governments prohibit direct contact with citizens on the other side, but Kaesong has separate telephone lines that allow South Korean managers there to communicate with people in South Korea.
Factory managers at Kaesong reached by The Associated Press by telephone at the factory said the overall mood there is normal.
"Tension rises almost every year when it's time for the U.S.-South Korean drills to take place, but as soon as those drills end, things quickly return to normal," Sung Hyun-sang said Thursday in Seoul, a day after returning from Kaesong. He is president of Mansun Corporation, an apparel manufacturer that employs 1,400 North Korean workers and regularly stations 12 South Koreans at Kaesong.
"I think and hope that this time won't be different," Sung said.
Technically, the divided Korean Peninsula remains in a state of war. North Korea last shut down communications at Kaesong four years ago, and that time some workers were temporarily stranded.
North Korea could be trying to stoke worries that the hotline shutdown could mean that a military provocation could come any time without notice.
South Korea urged the North to quickly restore the hotline, and the U.S. State Department said the shutdown was unconstructive.
Although North Korea has vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S., analysts outside the country have seen no proof that North Korean scientists have yet mastered the technology needed to build a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a missile.