Thursday’s announcement by North Korea that it could launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack against the United States in the face of new U.N. sanctions is a predictable escalation of the isolated nation’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Washington over the past year. But experts note that Pyongyang’s recent advances in its nuclear weapons and missile programs mean that such bellicose rhetoric cannot be taken lightly.
The escalation of the North’s oratory began not long after the country’s 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, took over from his late father, Kim Jong Il, on Dec. 28, 2011. It has been accompanied by two space launches – one successful – and a third nuclear weapons test.
It is not unusual for the North to make threats against the U.S., Japan or South Korea. And on occasion -- as in the case of the 2010 artillery barrage of Yeonpyeong Island and an earlier attack on a South Korean gunboat -- it has carried out these threats. It has never taken any military action after threatening the United States, however.
Some analysts have suggested that the latest round of threats is intended to show that the young Kim will continue his father’s legacy of hostility toward the U.S.
To what end?
North Korea has long wanted the U.S. to sit down with its negotiators to hammer out an agreement to end the Korean War, which ended in 1953 not in a peace treaty but in a truce.
The North would like to gain concessions from the U.S. in such a negotiation, but its escalating threats and rhetoric have the opposite effect: The Obama administration, like preceding administrations, has steadfastly refused to negotiate with Pyongyang.
The problem is that North Korea, which has long taken a backseat in U.S. councils to the Middle East, does have military capabilities that could at the very least threaten U.S. interests in North Asia.
According to a recent analysis, North Korea has a weapon stockpile that could threaten both Japan and South Korea and, in longer term, the United States. Some of the weapons have already been deployed, say U.S. officials, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity. Moreover, the North has begun research into more advanced and dangerous weapons, possibly even thermonuclear weapons, they say.
At the high end of the stockpile range, U.S. officials and other researchers said North Korea may already have up to "a few dozen" nuclear weapons that could be fitted atop its vast fleet of ballistic missiles. Those missiles are limited to an intermediate range, capable of hitting targets in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere in the northern Pacific, including U.S. military bases as far south as Guam, the officials believe.
The U.S. believes the space launch tests are part of a development plan for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental United States with a payload of several hundred kilotons — 10 to 20 times the size of the bombs that destroyed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
U.S. officials publicly express confidence that the national missile defense system based in Alaska would be able to shoot down any incoming North Korean ICBM.
“I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday in response to a question about the North Korean threat.
He also said the U.N. sanctions will make it harder for Pyongyang to continue to make progress on its weapons and missiles.
“North Korea … will now face new barriers to developing its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” he said. “Resolution 2094 increases North Korea's isolation and demonstrates to North Korea's leaders the increasing costs they pay for defying the international community.”
For the past several years, the U.S. also has been monitoring North Korean research into thermonuclear weapons — hydrogen bombs and bombs known as boosted-fission weapons, in which plutonium and uranium are combined for a higher energy yield. (The problem is that if the North conducted a test and claimed that it was thermonuclear, the U.S. would have difficulty determining if the North was telling the truth. The test site at Kilchu is far enough inland that the U.S. would not have access to the particulate matter needed to make an accurate determination, experts say. )
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, or ISIS, a nonpartisan nuclear arms research group, said last year that any tests in the future may also be about ensuring the reliability of North Korea's current weapons design.
"Once you get beyond a dozen, it makes sense to test type and reliability of your weapons," he said. Albright said then that his group's estimate of North Korea's weapons stockpile is a bit less than those provided by the U.S. officials, but that ISIS, too, believes Pyongyang has "missile-deliverable weapons."
The design of the weapons is believed to be based on Chinese models (as were the first generation Pakistani nuclear weapons). The design is basic, and was developed in the 1960s with help from the Soviet Union, which used it to produce a whole line of nuclear warheads.
While some analysts suggested that the North planned its December rocket launch to gain attention ahead of the presidential election in South Korea , some in the U.S. non-proliferation community think otherwise. They expect that once the North feels comfortable with its ICBM technology, it will deploy the missiles. They point to the Musudan intermediate range missile which was tested in middle of the last decade, then deployed — presumably with nuclear warheads — and aimed at Japan.
Once the North has confidence in the long-range missile based on the space rocket, U.S. officials believe they will deploy it as well, making North Korea the third nation to have nuclear weapons targeted at the United States, after Russia and China.
Many in the Obama administration see that as a more frightening prospect than Iran gaining nuclear weapons, believing that Tehran is a rational actor that will serve its own national interest and preserve the regime, compared to successive generations of North Korean leaders who have shown that they are unpredictable and erratic.
But would it force the U.S. to conduct face-to-face talks with the North? State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in December that the North has a better option.
Referring to Kim Jong Un, Nuland said: "He can plot a way forward that ends the isolation, that brings relief and a different way of life and progress to his people, or he can further isolate them with steps like this. He can spend his time and his money shooting off missiles, or he can feed his people, but he can't have both."
NBC News' Shawna Thomas contributed to this report; this piece is an updated version of a post originally published on Dec. 13, 2012.
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