North Korea is threatening the United States – again. On July 11 the hermetically sealed nation vowed to sever its only diplomatic communication line and stage “powerful counter-action” over new sanctions on its leader and a planned missile detection system meant to prevent the totalitarian regime’s abuse of nuclear weaponry.
North Korea has been under strict sanctions for years, but the United States last week personally penalized Kim Jong Un for the first time, accusing the 32-year-old dictator and 10 top officials of human rights abuses. It is estimated the country holds up to 120,000 political prisoners.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture,” said Adam Szubin, in a Treasury Department report released this month.
Pyongyang claimed the blacklisting equaled a declaration of war – and promised to retaliate.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby urged North Korea to “refrain from actions and rhetoric that only further raise tensions in the region,” but declined to comment further on the situation.
In response to the North’s penchant for unauthorized weaponry testing, the U.S. and South Korea have collaborated to develop the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), an elite missile detection system. THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy enemy warheads in the terminal stage of flight, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Today, Seoul officials announced THAAD will be deployed in Seongju, a southeast farming town where most locals grow yellow melons for a living. Afraid the radar’s electromagnetic waves could cause health hazards, Seongju residents reacted with bitter opposition, and a group of local leaders immediately delivered complaint letters, written in blood, to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
But South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Ryu Je Seung stood by the choice of Seongju as a missile-hosting town, claiming the placement would maximize THAAD’s military effectiveness while posing no danger to the environment or locals’ health and safety. Ryu said the system would be in place by the end of next year and would cover up to two-thirds of the nation’s territory from North Korean nuclear and missile threats.
Just days after the U.S. announced the impending placement of THAAD, North Korea reacted by threatening to terminate the nation’s single diplomatic contact line. The New-York based channel allows North Korea’s United Nations diplomats to communicate, which could be crucial in the face of ever-deepening animosity over the North’s missile and nuclear programs.
North Korea isn’t the only nation mad about THAAD. Officials in China and Russia complain the defense system could make it easier for the U.S. to spot their missiles. China’s Foreign Ministry last week expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute objection,” to THAAD.
The North Korean military this week denounced THAAD as “an invasionary tool for U.S. world supremacy,” and promised a “ruthless retaliatory strike [that will turn South Korea] into a sea of fire and a pile of ashes.” North Korea’s claim to reduce its southern counterpart to flaming rubble is a threat well-worn – the totalitarian regime has been using it since 1994.
North Korea’s statement was characteristically belligerent and overblown, but experts say a direct attack from Pyongyang’s impoverished military is unlikely.
“If you follow North Korean media you constantly see bellicose language directed against the U.S. and South Korea. … It’s hard to know what to take seriously,” professor John Delury of Yonsei University in South Korea told the BBC.
North Korea is still holding two American hostages for alleged espionage and subversion, and local officials implied the detainees would be treated under wartime law, which could complicate U.S. efforts to secure their release.