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North Korea issues new threats ahead of US, South Korea exercise

North Korea renewed its threat to turn South Korea, the United States and U.S. bases in the Pacific into a “sea of fire” while railing against next month’s joint military exercises and engaging in some revisionist history.

The threat, which appeared Thursday in Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s main newspaper, came as the top U.S. military officer in Korea told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he believes Kim Jong Un would use nuclear weapons if he felt threatened.

The North carried out its fourth underground nuclear test on Jan. 6 and followed with a multistage rocket launch a month later. While Pyongyang has claimed it developed nuclear weapons only for self-defense against a possible U.S.-led invasion and that its space program is peaceful, it also says it is developing a nuclear bomb small enough to fit in a warhead on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

“I think that his stated purpose is to protect his regime and if he thought his regime were challenged, he states that he would use WMD (weapons of mass destruction),” U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said of Kim, who also is believed to have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

“I think they have posed a very distinct and real threat, not only to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula but globally,” added Adm. Harry Harris, commander U.S. Pacific Command. “They pose a real threat to Hawaii and to the West Coast of the mainland United States and soon to the entire U.S.”

The North’s recent provocations have set off a tit-for-tat series of escalations that led to the closing of a factory complex, seen as the last symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas. The closing deprives the North of a key source of hard currency for the cheap labor it provided.

There are also signs that South Korea might be willing to accept a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system from the U.S. after hesitating out of concern over upsetting China and Russia, which claim the missile defense system could be used against them.

South Korea’s president has vowed to get tougher on Pyongyang and referred to the regime’s possible collapse if it doesn’t give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear state, which Washington has said it will never do.

The youthful Kim reportedly is still trying to consolidate power more than four years after taking over following the death of his father. The intense bout of saber-rattling is partially seen as a way to rally public support by showing that he is powerful, clearly in charge and leading the way in the face of an outside threat. North Korea issued photos showing him attending the rocket launch.

The poor country also is facing yet another round of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, although ally and neighbor China has been calling for negotiations instead of strong measures that could cause Kim’s regime to collapse.

North Korea first vowed to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” in 1994 and has repeated the threat a number of times since then, adding the U.S. to its targets during the last major crisis on the peninsula in 2013. It even put together propaganda videos depicting U.S. cities, including Washington D.C., in flames.

Pyongyang regularly calls joint U.S.-South Korea exercises, particularly the annual Key Resolve command post exercise, as preparations to attack it. Rodong Sinmun said this year’s drills, which are being called the biggest ever by South Korea’s Ministry of Defense, would essentially be a “declaration of war” and that the training is aimed at “decapitating” the North Korean leadership.

“Let’s turn Seoul and Washington into a sea of fire,” South Korea’s Yonhap News quoted the newspaper as saying. It vowed to “turn U.S. military installations in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. mainland into ashes” should the U.S. fail to come to its senses.

The newspaper also carried photos related to the 1950-53 Korean War and the North’s seizure in 1968 of the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo, claiming that the North’s past conflicts with the U.S. ended with “the U.S. surrender and apology.”

Scaparrotti said that if war were to break out, it likely would involve heavy ground combat. North Korea gives the lion’s share of its resources to its large military, with most of its troops deployed near the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.

“Given the size of the forces and the weaponry involved, this would be more akin to the Korean War and World War II, very complex, probably high casualty,” Scaparrotti said.

alexander.paul@stripes.com

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