- - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

SEOUL — North Korea’s top general warned Wednesday that his army holds weapons that can defeat the United States – a threat that regional experts dismissed as face-saving rhetoric.

“The [North] Korean People’s Army is armed with powerful modern weapons [that can defeat the United States] at a single blow,” Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of the General Staff, told a meeting attended by new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Vice Marshal Ri added that his army would “cut the throats” of anyone who defamed North Korean leaders.

The address, reported by North Korean state media, commemorated the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean People’s Army, and followed the totalitarian regime’s failed rocket launch earlier this month intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

The White House responded by urging North Korea “to refrain from any provocative acts that would threaten the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.”

“Threatening rhetoric only reinforces North Korea’s isolation and does nothing to address the need of its people,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council.

On Monday, North Korean army units warned, via state media, that they were planning unspecified special operations against South Korea’s government.

And North Korea is believed to be preparing a nuclear test – its third, after detonations following failed missile launches in 2006 and 2009.

Regional experts said the North Korean military’s recent bellicosity could be an effort by the regime to mask failed economic policies, influence the South Korean electorate or demonstrate the army’s loyalty to the country’s young new leader, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in January.

North Korea is not believed to possess a missile that can reach the U.S. or have the capability of creating a nuclear warhead, the experts noted.

“I think it is bluster, it is kind of absurd,” Dan Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office, said of Vice Marshal Ri’s threat. “The U.S. has robust second-strike capabilities. If they had a war with the U.S., they would cease to exist.”

However, Kim Myung-chol, a North Korea apologist who has visited Pyongyang’s missile units, claimed in the Asia Times this month that the regime now has a hydrogen-based munition that could disable all electronics and potentially paralyze U.S. forces in South Korea.

Specialists agree that North Korean technology is constantly improving.

“When we take a look at the history of nuclear weapon development, the average country took three to four years to build a hydrogen bomb after their first-generation bomb,” said Kim Tae-woo, president of Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “This is why we have no reason not to believe that North Korea is trying to have a hydrogen bomb program. Technology-wise, it is feasible.”

The regime’s unfulfilled economic promises could be behind recent rhetoric.

Pyongyang has told its people that 2012 would be the nation’s year of “strength and prosperity.” But while North Korea’s 1.2 million strong military is formidable, prosperity is a distant dream, given that as much as one third of the population is estimated to be malnourished.

“I think the [failed] rocket launch was very important. They have failed to become a strong and prosperous nation and their economic situation is getting worse,” said Choi Jin-wook, the senior North Korea researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “They need aid from outside, but they can’t get this aid, so what is left? One option: tension.”

With South Korea’s presidential election set for December, North Korea is likely to continue issuing threats, experts said.

“North Korea may commit another provocation as they want to maintain some degree of tension in South Korea in expectation of the next government being more friendly to them,” said Mr. Kim of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Still, Mr. Pinkston said the situation holds elements of risk.

“What I think this is, is the need to demonstrate loyalty within the military. I think this is mostly for internal consumption,” he said of the army’s rhetoric. “But they better watch what they wish for. They can miscalculate. They are playing with fire.”

David Boyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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