Thursday, March 28, 2013

Breaking News: North Korea readies rockets after U.S. show of force

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (2nd R) looks at the latest combat and
technical equipments, made by unit 1501 of the Korean People's Army,
during his visit to the unit March 24, 2013 in this picture released
by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 25, 2013.
REUTERS/KCNA

By David Chance and Phil Stewart

SEOUL/WASHINGTON | Thu Mar 28, 2013 11:07pm EDT

(Reuters) - North Korea put its missile units on standby on Friday to
attack U.S. military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, after the
United States flew two nuclear-capable stealth bombers over the Korean
peninsula in a rare show of force.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed off on the order at a midnight
meeting of top generals and "judged the time has come to settle
accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing
situation", the official KCNA news agency said.

The North has an arsenal of Soviet-era short-range Scud missiles that
can hit South Korea and have been proven, but its longer-range Nodong
and Musudan missiles that could in theory hit U.S. Pacific bases are
untested.

On Thursday, the United States flew two radar-evading B-2 Spirit
bombers on practice runs over South Korea, responding to a series of
North Korean threats. They flew from the United States and back in
what appeared to be the first exercise of its kind, designed to show
America's ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes "quickly
and at will", the U.S. military said.

The news of Kim's response was unusually swift.

"He finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic
rockets of the KPA (Korean People's Army), ordering them to be on
standby for fire so that they may strike any time the U.S. mainland,
its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific,
including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea," KCNA said.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported there had been additional
troop and vehicle movements at the North's mid- and long-range missile
sites, indicating they may be ready to fire.

"Sharply increased movements of vehicles and soldiers have been
detected recently at North Korea's mid and long-range missile sites,"
Yonhap quoted a South Korean military source as saying.

It was impossible to verify the report which did not specify a time
frame, although South Korea's Defense Ministry said on Friday that it
was watching shorter-range Scud missile sites closes as well as Nodong
and Musudan missile batteries.

The North has launched a daily barrage of threats since early this
month when the United States and the South, allies in the 1950-53
Korean War, began routine military drills.

The South and the United States have said the drills are purely
defensive in nature and that no incident has taken place in the
decades they have been conducted in various forms.

The United States also flew B-52 bombers over South Korea earlier this week.

The North has put its military on highest readiness to fight what it
says are hostile forces conducting war drills. Its young leader has
previously given "final orders" for its military to wage revolutionary
war with the South.

ECONOMIC ZONE

Despite the tide of hostile rhetoric from Pyongyang, it has kept open
a joint economic zone with the South which generates $2 billion a year
in trade, money the impoverished state can ill-afford to lose.

Pyongyang has also canceled an armistice agreement with the United
States that ended the Korean War and cut all communications hotlines
with U.S. forces, the United Nations and South Korea.

"The North Koreans have to understand that what they're doing is very
dangerous," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the
Pentagon on Thursday.

"We must make clear that these provocations by the North are taken by
us very seriously and we'll respond to that."

The U.S. military said that its B-2 bombers had flown more than 6,500
miles to stage a trial bombing raid from their bases in Missouri as
part of the Foal Eagle war drills being held with South Korea.

The bombers dropped inert munitions on the Jik Do Range, in South
Korea, and then returned to the continental United States in a single,
continuous mission, the military said.

Thursday's drill was the first time B-2s flew round-trip from the
mainland United States over South Korea and dropped inert munitions, a
Pentagon spokeswoman said.

Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said the drill fitted within the context of
ramped-up efforts by the Pentagon to deter the North from acting upon
any of its threats.

Asked whether he thought the latest moves could further aggravate
tensions on the peninsula, Cha, a former White House official, said:
"I don't think the situation can get any more aggravated than it
already is."

South Korea denied suggestions on Friday that the bomber drills
contained an implicit threat of attack on the North.

"There is no entity on the earth who will strike an attack on North
Korea or expressed their wishes to do so," a spokesman for the South's
Unification Ministry said.

Despite the shrill rhetoric from Pyongyang, few believe North Korea,
formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, will risk
starting a full-out war.

Still, Hagel, who on March 15 announced he was bolstering missile
defenses over the growing North Korea threat, said all of the
provocations by the North had to be taken seriously.

"Their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted
up the danger and we have to understand that reality," Hagel said,
renewing a warning that the U.S. military was ready for "any
eventuality" on the peninsula.

North Korea conducted a third nuclear weapons test in February in
breach of U.N. sanctions and despite warnings from China, its one
major diplomatic ally.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by
Warren Strobel, Paul Simao and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Sean Eagan
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