The Cable

North Korea Rattles Nuclear Saber

With the restart of nuclear reactors that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, and another illegal satellite launch planned next month, the Hermit Kingdom is again sparking fear and loathing from Tokyo to Washington.

A North Korean missile Taepodong class is displayed during a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea.    AFP PHOTO / PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)
A North Korean missile Taepodong class is displayed during a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. The commemorations came just two days after a satellite launch timed to mark the centenary fizzled out embarrassingly when the rocket apparently exploded within minutes of blastoff and plunged into the sea. AFP PHOTO / PEDRO UGARTE (Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea has started beating the war drums again, announcing the restart of nuclear facilities that produce weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium and threatening attacks on the U.S. homeland. The North Korean bluster comes just ahead of a planned satellite launch next month, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea — the foundational party of the state — that would employ long-range missiles that the United Nations has banned Pyongyang from using.

North Korea’s saber rattling is most likely part of a well-established playbook to garner the world’s attention. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Washington next week, while the United States and Russia are increasingly squaring off over Moscow’s military buildup in war-ravaged Syria.

North Korean state media trumpeted a now-familiar litany of threats, including the use of nuclear weapons against the United States “and other hostile forces” at any time if they “persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the [North] and behave mischievously.”

“We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday afternoon. “We will work with our partners in the context of the six-party talks to try to return North Korea to a posture of fulfilling those commitments that they’ve made in the context of those conversations.” He called North Korean threats “irresponsible provocations.”

Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook called on Pyongyang “to refrain from actions and rhetoric that threaten regional peace and stability and security in the area.”

While the North Korean defense complex, and especially its nuclear weapons development, has made plenty of progress in recent years, analysts and diplomats doubt the isolated and impoverished country has the wherewithal to successfully attack the United States. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert told CNN Tuesday that in recent years the United States has moved “a good deal of missile defense capability to the region,” including “ground-based interceptors to Alaska, surface combatants to the Western Pacific, [an anti-ballistic missile] battery on Guam, [and] another radar in Japan in order to be ready and vigilant for anything the North Koreans may or may not do.”

And while the North is promising satellite launches next month, “there’s no sign that there’s a launch in the works,” says Joel Wit, a visiting fellow with the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But it’s possible they could be starting some preparations out of view, so in the next week or so it’ll become more evident what’s going on,” he added.

North Korea managed to launch its first satellite into space in 2012, but the United Nations said it was a cover for testing banned ballistic missile technology and slammed sanctions on the Kim regime.

The dramatic announcements from the North reflect both growing confidence and rising rancor, according to Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

First, “the confidence reflects most likely advancements in their capabilities,” after years of sometimes humiliating failures to develop advanced missile technology. At the same time, Pyongyang appears upset at the cold-shoulder treatment meted out by its longtime backer, China, Cha said. While South Korean officials were treated to a front row seat at China’s huge Victory Day parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, the North’s Choe Ryong Hae “sat in the back row, emphasizing the estrangement in relations,” Cha said in an email to Foreign Policy.

Photo credit: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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