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Is this the first unfiltered threat out of North Korea?

Determining what’s a credible threat out of North Korea is something of a fool’s errand. Official ultimatums by Pyongyang routinely evaporate into nothing. But what happens when U.S. spies uncover threats never intended for mass consumption? CNN’s Jethro Mullen, Barbara Starr, and Joe Sterling appear to have picked up on such a red flag: Communication ...

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A South Korean man watches a TV newscast reporting about the "marshal" title of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un at a railway station in Seoul on July 18, 2012. North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un has been made "Marshal" of the communist state, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GettyImages)

Determining what’s a credible threat out of North Korea is something of a fool’s errand. Official ultimatums by Pyongyang routinely evaporate into nothing. But what happens when U.S. spies uncover threats never intended for mass consumption? CNN’s Jethro Mullen, Barbara Starr, and Joe Sterling appear to have picked up on such a red flag:

Communication intercepts in recent days also seem to show that Pyongyang could be planning to launch a mobile ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks, another official said.

The story notes that this communication intercept comes as the North moved a missile of "considerable range" to its east coast for a potential strike or test launch. There are conflicting reports about the capability of that missile: Japanese media reports suggested it was a KN-08, a long-range missile that if operable could reach the United States, but South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said the missile was not capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Either way, the uncovering of an actual threat as opposed to a telegraphed threat marks a new development in this month-long East Asian standoff.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time to batten down the hatches. For starters, North Korea doesn’t have a nuclear bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile even though it’s working on such a weapon, reports the Associated Press. Other experts say Pyongyang doesn’t have enough bomb fuel to back up its nuclear threats. And despite the announcement that it’s restarting its nuclear plant, it could be years before North Korea actually churns out more weaponized fuel. So while the regime can still further inflame tensions — which it appears dead set on doing — the nuclear threat only holds so much plausibility. 

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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