From psychedelic propaganda videos of missiles exploding over U.S. cities to behavior described by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as “skating very close to a dangerous line,” North Korea’s latest round of nuclear threats strikes experts as something beyond the norm for the erratic communist country, which has leveraged its nuclear ambitions with disarmament incentives for decades. At the height of anticipation over the North’s threatened missile test, expected in the next few days, here are five things you need to know about movement in the Korean peninsula.
1. North Korea is threatening nuclear war
“The difference [this time] is, North Korea is threatening to bring nuclear war to the rest of the world and has a capacity to have a weapons deliverable nuclear device,” NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel said on Andrea Mitchell Reports Wednesday.
Last month, North Korea renounced the 60-year-old armistice ending the war with its neighbor to the south, just as the United States and South Korea began annual military drills. The North has a history of launching some form of military provocation on the anniversary of its leaders’ birthdays (North Korean founder Kim Il Sung was born 101 year ago on Monday) as well as after the inauguration of a new South Korean leader (President Park Geun-hye took office on February 25)—making the timing of this round of threats credible.
2. North Korea is not responding to economic sanctions
After North Korea launched a long-range rocket in December, conducted a missile test in February, and threatened the U.S. with a preemptive nuclear strike, the United Nation’s Security Council in March imposed one of the harshest rounds of sanctions in the body’s history, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told Andrea Mitchell. In a rare arrangement, the U.S. managed to persuade China—North Korea’s most powerful, and one if its last allies—to support the sanction resolution, the fourth against Pyongyang.
But signs point to North Korea continuing to prioritize its nuclear program ahead of the economic security of its people: The North moved to shut down the Kaesong industrial complex shared with the South, despite a desperate need for hard currency.
“That’s probably one of the more worrying actions that they’ve taken,” Victor Cha, Georgetown University professor and former Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, told Andrea Mitchell Tuesday. “Yes, they’ve moved missiles to the east coast but this is real money for them and it’s been a very important symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and they’ve done lots of things in the past, but they’ve never shut this down.”
3. Kim Jong Un is an untested—and unknown—leader
North Korea’s Supreme Leader, believed to be 30 years old, is a wild card. While the country has for decades expanded and then curtailed its nuclear program in order to gain concessions in the form of foreign aid, experts say Kim Jong Un might be looking to flex the country’s military might to consolidate his power and establish himself as a hardliner. Whether he or the military generals believed to be running the country are calling the shots, the recent threats are more concentrated and exaggerated than in the past. One year into his reign, Un may be looking to showcase his power to achieve an end his father and grandfather skirted.
4. North Korea’s nuclear weapons aren’t useful yet, and they can’t reach the U.S.
Most experts agree the country is a few years away from being able to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile—and their missiles can’t yet reach the U.S. mainland. Defense Secretary Hagel reaffirmed that stance in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, but added, “Does that mean that they won’t have it or they cant have it or they’re not working on it? Um, no. And that’s why this is a very dangerous situation.” He reiterated that the U.S. is “capable of dealing with any threat and any action.”
Despite not having the mainland U.S. in its target range, there are clear signs Pyongyang has Washington’s attention: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel moved in March to increase the total existing ground-based missile interceptors in the U.S. by 50% with the addition of 14 missile interceptors in Alaska, projected to be fully deployed by 2017.
After North Korea moved medium-range missiles to mobile launchers on the country’s east coast last week, the Pentagon sent two missile-defense-capable U.S. Navy destroyers to the western Pacific, and announced that it would deploy a land-based missile defense system to Guam.
5. Any provocation could increase regional conflict
Continued provocation from the North has increased the tension on an already tense Korean peninsula.
U.S. troops are “standing vigilant” along the North-South border, Hagel said in a committee hearing Thursday morning, as the U.S. has had a presence there with South Korean troops since the end of the Korean War.
“They are eyeball to eyeball, frankly,” Andrea Mitchell said Tuesday, reflecting on her time in the demilitarized zone. “At Panmunjom, they’re looking feet away from each other… And so you’ve got soldiers looking at each other from the two countries. And according to the armistice terms, if you raise your arm or point, you can be legally shot because you are doing something that they interpret as being hostile. And here we’re talking about an 800,000-person [North Korean] army with tactical nuclear weapons, arrayed only miles from our forces.”
Watch Andrea Mitchell report live from Seoul, South Korea Thursday: