WASHINGTON — North Korea is working on a plan to fire four missiles into the sea off Guam, which will be ready to present to leader Kim Jong Un by mid-August, state media KCNA reported Thursday.
The plan, if implemented, would see four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles fired into waters 30 to 40 kilometers (18 to 25 miles) off the coast of the US territory in response to escalating rhetoric from President Donald Trump.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump vowed to meet any additional threats from Pyongyang with “fire and fury,” a statement backed by strong words from US Defense Secretary James Mattis.
North Korea must “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people,” Mattis said in a written statement Wednesday.
Earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had sought to defuse tensions by saying there was no sign the threat level of North Korea had changed and that Americans should “sleep well at night.”
North Korea’s estimated splash-down of the missiles would place them just outside of Guam’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters, but well within its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
‘Load of nonsense’
However, the new statement from North Korea’s state media made clear that Kim is in no mood to back down.
It criticizes President Trump for having “let out a load of nonsense about ‘fire and fury,’ and accused him of “failing to grasp the on-going grave situation.”
“This is extremely getting on the nerves of the infuriated Hwasong artillerymen of the KPA,” it said, referring to the Korean People’s Army.
The article states that “sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”
It ends by putting the US on notice about any further threats against it, “we keep closely watching the speech and behavior from the US.”
The sudden escalation in tensions in the Pacific came after US intelligence analysts assessed that North Korea has now produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, according to multiple sources familiar with the analysis of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.
There is no indication that the Hwasong-12 missiles that could be fired near Guam would be tipped with nuclear warheads.
However, a South Korean military official says that there have been no indications that Pyongyang is readying a strike.
“Currently, there is no unusual movement related to a direct provocation,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said in a press briefing.
Four rockets flying 1,065 seconds
The KCNA report includes detailed provisional plans to launch four rockets “above Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi Prefectures of Japan,” and specified they would fly 3,356 kilometers (2,000 miles) for 1,065 seconds” as a “crucial warning to the US.” Following that flight path the missiles would also have to travel over the Japanese prefecture of Ehime.
The KPA Strategic Force will present the final plan for the launch to commander-in-chief of North Korea’s nuclear force — Kim — by mid-August and “wait for his order,” the report said.
Should Kim give the go-ahead, it would not be the first time a North Korean rocket has crossed over Japanese territory.
Pyongyang’s 2012 Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite launch — considered to be a major developmental step in the country’s missile program — flew over Japan’s southern Okinawa islands. Previous launches have crossed the country’s main island, Honshu, including one in 2009.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that his government “can never tolerate North Korea’s provocations,” and urged the rogue state to comply with UN resolutions regarding its missile and nuclear programs.
Escalation in tensions
Last month Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as Hwasong-14, which it says are capable of hitting the US mainland.
In response to the missile tests, the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing new sanctions. The resolution, which targets North Korea’s international revenue streams, was passed unanimously after strong lobbying from the United States. The US separately announced sanctions on North Korea, alongside Iran and Russia.
KCNA said that a KPA spokesman had “fully warned the US against its all-round sanctions.”
Images from North Korean state TV showed thousands of citizens protesting the sanctions.
Ri Su Yong, Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, addressed the crowd, saying the country’s nuclear program is under the pressure due to the sanctions, while warning that the US is “driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the verge of a nuclear war.”
Likely to follow threat through?
Some analysts do not think that Kim will follow through on this very specific threat against the US territory.
North Korea is “trying to ratchet up the threat to create political pressure in the US and elsewhere to get talks,” says Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
“They’ve noticed that we’ve never sought conflict with an adversary who can hit our territory (and they) hope that this (threat) will force a more diplomatic line.”
Meredith Sumpter, Asia Director of the Eurasia Group and a long-time Asia analyst, says that despite the escalation in tensions, “we are no closer to actual military confrontation now then we were before.
“Kim Jong Un says a lot of things and he makes a lot of threats, but the end of the day he knows that if he should undertake any kind of military strike against the US and its allies, the counter response will likely be the end his regime,” she told CNN.
“On the US side, the Defense Chief said he’s advising President Trump (of) the catastrophic consequences of any military action against North Korea, and it’s been clearly consistent that… the administration’s focus rather is on ratcheting pressure on North Korea, forcing them back to the negotiation table.”
Calm in the face of threats
Despite the looming threat of a North Korean strike, Guamanians are reacting with calm. Following Pyongyang’s first threat, many Guam residents remained unfazed. Even as the threats became more specific Thursday, the island’s streets and beaches — Guam is a popular tourist spot — remain busy.
One expressed confidence that the military would be able to deal with any incoming threat.
“I’m quite confident that the US and its military assets on Guam and in the region will protect our island,” said Sinajana resident Joshua Tenorio.
While there was a feeling that Guam would remain safe, others expressed a concern that there would be wider escalations.
“I hear we have missile counter sites on our island that will shoot down anything that leaves North Korea,” said Dededo resident John Santos.
“There are bombers located in South Korea that’ll be airborne in minutes.
“The problem is both President Trump and Kim Jong Un are letting their egos get in the way of decision making. The scary part is North Korea is still threatening and Trump might get itchy and just push the destruct button.”
Threat to strike
The latest threat comes on the heels of a previous KCNA report that North Korea’s military was “examining the operational plan” to strike areas around the US territory of Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic missiles.
Specifically, that statement mentioned a potential strike on Andersen Air Force Base designed “to send a serious warning signal to the US.”
The base is one of two on the Pacific island, which are the closest bases on US soil to North Korea, and represent the westernmost tip of the country’s military might.
Dubbed the “tip of the spear,” Guam is a key to the US military’s forward deployed presence in the Pacific and is home to thousands of American service members and their families.
Its importance has declined since World War II, given the creation of military bases in Japan and South Korea, said Schuster. Now it is essentially a staging area, which sees rotations of bomber groups coming through.