North Korea's military ratcheted up its threat to carry out a nuclear strike on the U.S. to new heights Thursday — just hours after the Pentagon announced the deployment of an American ballistic missile defense system to Guam.
Claiming that the "moment of explosion is approaching fast" and that war could break out "today or tomorrow," the General Staff of North Korea's military claimed in a statement to the nation's official government-run news agency that it has final approval to carry out "merciless" strikes on the United States.
The statement appeared to come in response to Washington's decision to enhance U.S. military assets in the region and to the Obama administration's own ramping up of rhetoric toward North Korea in recent days.
The escalation comes as senior administration officials say that they are searching for ways to defuse the situation, which also saw North Korea on Wednesday block South Koreans from accessing a border industrial park that has long stood as an important, albeit precarious, symbol of cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.
The State Department and Pentagon have suggested that a core part of the administration's Korea strategy is to gently push on China to play a more active role in steering Pyongyang away from provocations and threats that may ultimately provoke military conflict.
But foreign policy insiders say the administration faces an uphill battle.
"Since the Chinese are the party that knows the North Koreans best and has the most comprehensive relationship with them, they clearly have leverage that I think the administration would like to see Beijing bring to bear," said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The catch, Mr. Snyder said, is that the U.S. and China see the North Korean problem differently.
"The fundamental challenge for North Korea as an issue in the U.S-China relationship is that China views it from the perspective of geopolitics while the U.S. has viewed it as a functional denuclearization issue," he said, adding that "the U.S. and China have been talking past each other" rather than truly working together.
North Korea has bowed to Chinese pressure in the past, but the threat made by Pyongyang's military Wednesday seems to suggest that the nation is bent on flouting international pressure under the leadership of 28-year-old leader Kim Jong-un, who came to power a year ago this month.
While it is unclear whether North Korean military commanders are working in direct concert with the young leader, the latest threat claimed that a potential nuclear attack option by the military "has been finally examined and ratified."
The assertion made international headlines just after the Pentagon had announced the deployment of a land-based missile defense system to Guam, a U.S. island territory about 2,100 miles southeast of North Korea in the Pacific Ocean, where some 6,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
The deployment comes after a week of tough statements directed at North Korea by the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry described recent threats by Mr. Kim as "reckless" and "provocative," and vowed that the U.S. is prepared to "do what is necessary" to defend itself and its core allies in Asia.
And early on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that Pyongyang's recent posturing represents a "real and clear danger and threat" being taken seriously by Washington.
The tension surrounding North Korea, meanwhile, is sending a new jolt through the wider debate about nuclear proliferation in Asia. There were signs Wednesday that a new arms race is heating up in the region, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that South Korea is now pressing the Obama administration for permission to produce its own nuclear fuel.
Some foreign policy analysts note that the North Korea crisis may force the Obama administration, which has tended to address the varied nuclear ambitions and concerns of the region on a nation-by-nation basis, to rethink its approach to security in East Asia.
"The strategic and nuclear calculations of China, Korea and Japan are becoming more and more tightly connected," said Henry D. Sokolski, who heads the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a think tank based in Washington. "Every time you talk about one of these countries, you now have to be thinking hard about the other two."
With Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey preparing rare trips to Beijing later this month, the relationship has been complicated in recent years by China's rise as a major global economic power.
North Korea is just one of many "issues on the agenda in the U.S-China relationship," Mr. Snyder said. "So one of the challenges has been figuring out where this belongs as an issue on the agenda."
In that, the Obama White House appears to have struggled badly. Specifically, recent years have found senior officials far less than eager to speak publicly about the administration's true strategy for dealing with North Korea.
"The administration didn't see much benefit in highlighting an issue where there's very little space to take an initiative without risking potential for failure," Mr. Snyder said. "I think one of the effects of the Obama administration's downplaying the issue, was that it sent a message to the Chinese that the U.S. sees it as unimportant, when that was actually not the case."
Most Western foreign policy analysts agree that China's interests are rooted in a desire to grow its own regional power base — a policy that would, inherently, resist a Washington-engineered resolution to the Korean conflict.
During a meeting Tuesday with ambassadors from North and South Korea and the U.S., China's foreign minister "expressed serious concern" about the recent wave of tension of the Korean Peninsula and urged all sides to "remain calm and exercise restraint," according to a report by Reuters.
However, the remarks coincided with reports that Beijing continues to quietly build up its military assets in northeastern China, a move some believe is tied to the crisis with North Korea.
Such belief appears to have been on the mind of Mr. Hagel, who reached out by telephone Tuesday evening to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chang Wanquan.
During the call, Mr. Hagel "emphasized the growing threat to the U.S. and our allies posed by North Korea's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs," the Pentagon said in a statement.
The defense secretary also "expressed to Gen. Chang the importance of sustained U.S.-China dialogue and cooperation on these issues," the statement said.
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