North Korea’s military put its “strategic” rocket units on a war footing yesterday, with a fresh threat to strike targets on the US 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 the 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 Supreme Command said in a statement.
The units should be prepared to attack “all US military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, including the US mainland, Hawaii and Guam” as well as South Korea, the statement carried by Korean Central News Agency said.
Despite a successful long-range rocket launch in December last year, most experts believe North Korea is years from developing a genuine intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the mainland US.
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.
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.
Sabre-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 Ministry of Defense 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.
“We hope that relevant parties will exercise restraint so as to ease the tension,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said.