North Korean female artilleries fire rockets during the landing and anti-landing drills of KPA Large Combined Units 324 and 287 and KPA Navy Combined Unit 597 at an undisclosed location March 25 on North Korea's east coast. (AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS)
SEOUL — North Korea’s military put its “strategic” rocket units on a war footing Tuesday with a fresh threat to strike targets on the U.S. mainland, Hawaii and Guam, as well as South Korea.
The move came as South Korea marked the third anniversary of the sinking of its naval vessel Cheonan by what Seoul insists was a North Korean submarine.
“All artillery troops including strategic rocket units and long-range artillery units are to be placed under class-A combat readiness,” the Korean People’s Army (KPA) supreme command said in a statement. The units should be prepared to attack “all U.S. military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, including the U.S. mainland, Hawaii and Guam” and South Korea, said the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
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 U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has spent the past few weeks touring frontline military units, monitoring live-fire artillery drills and making inflammatory speeches about wiping out the enemy. Saber-rattling and displays of brinkmanship are nothing new in the region, but there are concerns that the current situation is so volatile that one accidental step could escalate into serious conflict.
“We are closely monitoring the situation. So far, there has been no particular North Korean troop movement,” a South Korean defense ministry spokesman said.
Addressing a ceremony for the 46 sailors who died in the 2010 Cheonan incident, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye warned Pyongyang that its only “path to survival” lay in abandoning its nuclear and missile programs. The North has always denied sinking the Cheonan, but a few months later it launched an artillery attack on a South Korean border island, killing four people.
North Korea’s patron and sole major ally, China, was quick to urge calm from all sides Tuesday.
“We hope that relevant parties will exercise restraint so as to ease the tension,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
Military tensions on the Korean peninsula have been at an elevated level for months following December’s rocket launch and the North’s third nuclear test, which it carried out last month. Both events triggered U.N. sanctions that infuriated the North, which has spent the past month issuing increasingly threatening statements about unleashing an “all-out war” backed by nuclear weapons.
It was particularly incensed that nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bombers flying out of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam took part in recent joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises.
“We will demonstrate the firm resolution of our people and military to protect our sovereignty and dignity through real military action,” the KPA statement warned.
The latest threat came days after the South Korean and U.S. militaries signed a new pact, envisaging a joint military response to even low-level provocation by North Korea. While existing agreements provide for U.S. engagement in the event of a full-scale conflict, the new protocol addresses the response to a limited provocation such as an isolated incident of cross-border shelling. It guarantees U.S. support for any South Korean retaliation and allows Seoul to request any additional U.S. military force it deems necessary.
In an open letter to troops published to mark the Cheonan anniversary, South Korea’s hawkish defense minister, Kim Kwan-Jin, said there was a “high possibility” the North’s threats might be translated into action. He also reiterated that South Korea’s response to any provocation would not only target the origin of the attack, “but also its supporting and commanding forces.”
Late last year, South Korea deployed cruise missiles it said were capable of carrying out high-precision strikes on targets anywhere in North Korea.