North Korea Threatens Nuclear Attack; U.S. Sending Missile Defense Shield to Guam

By Patrick Goodenough | April 3, 2013 | 8:26 PM EDT

The U.S. ground-based THAAD missile defense system successfully intercepted a ballistic missile target off Hawaii in this March 17, 2009 test. The Pentagon said Wednesday it is deploying a THAAD system to Guam “in the coming weeks.” (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

( – As the Pentagon announced the deployment of a ground-based missile defense shield to Guam, North Korea early Thursday morning issued a new threat, declaring that nuclear strikes on U.S. targets have now been authorized and that “the moment of explosion is approaching fast.”

Pyongyang’s military command in a statement said it was formally notifying the White House and Pentagon that “merciless operations” against the U.S., involving “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons, have been approved.

News of the latest warning broke in South Korea shortly after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. was taking the North Koreans’ threats seriously, noting that “they have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now.”

“Some of the actions they’ve taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger and threat to the interests – certainly of our allies, starting with South Korea and Japan – and also the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States,” he said in response to a question after delivering a speech at the National Defense University.

“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense that was wrong once,” Hagel continued. “So we will continue to take these threats seriously. I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down.”

The Pentagon announced that it would deploy a ground-based missile defense shield to Guam “in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.”

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system involves a tracking radar, a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles and an integrated fire-control system.

“This deployment will strengthen defense capabilities for American citizens in the U.S. territory of Guam and U.S. forces stationed there,” the Pentagon statement said, urging North Korea’s leaders to stop the provocations and “choose the path of peace.”

“The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and stands ready to defend U.S. territory, our allies, and our national interests.”

The U.S. island territory of Guam is currently home to 6,000 U.S. military personnel, with that presence due to grow when around 5,000 U.S. Marines are relocated from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, under a U.S.-Japan agreement reached a year ago.

North Korea recently displayed a map evidently showing its preferred missile targets, including Hawaii and various locations in the continental United States.

Western experts do not generally believe it could now threaten the continental U.S. with missiles, but Guam is a different matter.

As long ago as March 2009, then U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) commander Gen. Walter Sharp told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “North Korea is now fielding a new intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of striking Okinawa, Guam and Alaska.”

Less than three weeks after that Senate hearing, Pyongyang launched a carrier rocket mirroring a Taepogong-2 missile – supposedly in a bid to put a satellite in space – which according to Japanese officials was tracked to a point 1,260 miles east of Japan before it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Guam lies about 1,400 miles southeast of Japan (and roughly 2,000 miles southeast of North Korea.)

Where that 2009 launch was viewed as a failure, North Korea succeeded in a similar attempt last December, using a three-stage rocket to shoot a satellite into orbit and – according to South Korean expert examination of debris – displaying an ability to fire a rocket more than 6,200 miles (although it would also need to master the re-entry technology needed to deliver a ballistic missile.)

A successful test of the THAAD missile defense system, off Hawaii on June 28, 2010. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said Wednesday the government was “doing the right thing for the right reasons at the right time,” and noted that the THAAD system has a 10 for 10 intercept record.

“This best in the world capability is able to detect, target, discriminate, and destroy, with kinetic energy, multiple incoming ballistic missiles during their downward flight phase in lower space as well as in the upper atmosphere,” he said.

“Protecting Guam from ballistic missile threats would further deter North Korea’s rational or irrational decision of launching ballistic missiles as well as maintain their fear of offensive retaliation,” Ellison said.

“It is a necessary strategic move by the United States to assure our allies in this region, specifically South Korea and Japan, that we have our best capabilities deployed so that they do not need to take pre-emptive or reactive action against North Korea.”

Timeline of latest developments on the Korean peninsula

Dec. 12, 2012: North Korea launches a three-stage rocket, firing a satellite into orbit in what is viewed as a successful test of Taepodong-2 long-range missile technology

Feb. 12, 2013: North Korea conducts a nuclear test, its third since 2006

Early March: South Korea and U.S. being annual “Foal Eagle” military exercises

Mar. 5: North Korea threatens to abrogate truce agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War

Mar. 7: U.N. Security Council imposes fresh sanctions over nuclear test

Mar. 11: North Korea says truce agreement with South is now null and void

Mar. 19: U.S. B-52 bombers fly take part in Foal Eagle drill, drawing sharp reaction from Pyongyang

Mar. 22: U.N. Human Rights Council agrees to set up commission of inquiry into North Korean human rights violations; South Korea’s support for the move angered Pyongyang

Mar. 27: North Korea cuts military hotline with Seoul

Mar. 28: Two U.S. B-2 stealth bombers fly from Missouri to South Korea

Mar 30: Pyongyang says inter-Korean relations are now in a “state of war”

Mar. 31: U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighters deploy to South Korea from their base in Japan

Apr. 1: U.S. Navy destroyed equipped with Aegis missile tracking and destroying capability is reportedly deployed to South Korean waters

Apr. 2: North Korea says it is restarting Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was decommissioned as part of a 2007 “six-party” agreement

Apr. 3: North Korea prevents South Korean workers from entering a shared industrial zone inside its territory

Apr 3: Pentagon announces deployment of ground-based missile defense system to Guam

Apr. 4: North Korean military says nuclear attacks on U.S. targets have been authorized

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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