North Korea cut a third telephone hotline to the South on Wednesday and doubled down on its threats against the United States, but analysts say the bellicose rhetoric is empty — that Pyongyang's missiles cannot reach the U.S.
"North Korea doesn't have the capability to carry out this latest threat to attack U.S. bases in Hawaii, the U.S. mainland or Guam using long-range missiles," said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly.
North Korea this week threatened to strike U.S. military bases in Asia and the U.S. homeland in response to overflights of South Korea by nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 strategic bombers. On Wednesday, Pyongyang cut the last military hotline it shared with South Korea, saying such arrangements aren't necessary at a time when "a war may break out at any moment." It was the latest turn in a heightening of tensions that started earlier this month with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and the imposition of U.N sanctions on the North to punish it for its illegal nuclear test last month.
North Korea's military said Tuesday that it was placing its missile and artillery batteries at "full combat readiness," meaning the units were "set to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist forces of aggression on the U.S. mainland and in the Pacific including Hawaii and Guam." In a note circulated to clients this week, Mr. Hardy said North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles that could strike South Korea, and "perhaps" reach Japan, including the island of Okinawa, home to a major U.S. military base.
"But we have not seen any evidence that it has long-range missiles that could strike the continental United States, Guam or Hawaii," he said.
Some analysts have said North Korea's launch of its Unha-3 rocket — which put a satellite in orbit in December — shows that the communist state can build a long-range ballistic missile that could reach Alaska or even the West Coast of the United States.
Mr. Hardy was skeptical. "The Unha-3 rocket that was fired in December uses ballistic missile technology, but is not a ballistic missile," he said.
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced this month that the U.S. is bolstering its Alaska-based missile-interceptor defense, he cited concern about another North Korean missile — the KN-08.
The KN-08 — a road-mobile, solid-fuel missile carried on a Chinese-built chassis — was publicly unveiled at a military parade in Pyongyang a year ago. It has not been tested, and some analysts believe the missiles shown in the parade were fakes.
But Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon this month that the KN-08 is a real threat.
"We believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States," he said, adding that more detailed U.S. intelligence about the missile is classified.
Mr. Hardy said this assessment is at odds with those expressed by most independent analysts.
"Either the United States knows something about this missile that means they are taking it seriously, or they are using its existence as an excuse to ramp up their Asia-Pacific facing [ballistic missile defense]," he said.
"Despite the rhetoric, North Korea is not in a position to wage a war with the United States or South Korea," he said. Instead, "We would expect to see more asymmetric 'provocations' or activities such as last week's cyberattack on South Korean media and banks or even the shelling of some of South Korea's Yellow Sea islands."
Retired military intelligence analyst John McCreary agreed, noting that North Korea's top leadership is to meet in the next few days, according to official media.
"A politburo plenary would be a rich target for the allies and would never be held if North Korean leaders really anticipated a war," he wrote in his daily e-letter NightWatch. "The entire national leadership could be decapitated in one strike."This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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