SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — Day after day, North Korea boasts of new weapons programs developments and unleashes fiery threats to attack rivals South Korea and the United States.
On Friday, for example, the North’s state media said it staged its largest-ever long-range artillery drills aimed at bringing the “most miserable doom to the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet group of traitors.”
The North’s threats are an apparent response to ongoing South Korea-U.S. military drills that it describes as a dress rehearsal for an invasion. If the past is any guide, most of Pyongyang’s warlike threats will likely turn out to be empty propaganda and gradually subside when the allies’ springtime training ends in late April.
But there is always a small chance that North Korea could launch some kind of surprise attack. Two 2010 assaults blamed on Pyongyang were totally unexpected: the torpedoing of a warship and shelling of a border island that together killed 50 South Koreans. Pyongyang denies responsibility for the torpedoing that occurred when the same South Korea-U.S. drills were under way, though it acknowledged bombarding the island.
Here is a look at North Korea’s recent bellicose threats, claims and weapons launches.
THREATS OF NUCLEAR STRIKES
At the start of the allies’ drills on March 7, North Korea’s powerful National Defence Commission, led by absolute leader Kim Jong Un, warned of a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” on Washington and Seoul.
While such rhetoric is relatively common, it intensified as the North furiously reacted to tough U.N. sanctions imposed for its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year.
North Korea is known to have a handful of rudimentary atomic bombs. But analysts say it is highly unlikely the North would actually carry out its threat of nuclear attacks due to concerns of massive retaliation by the superior U.S. and South Korean militaries that would probably end Kim’s rule.
Last week, state media said Kim ordered tests of a nuclear warhead explosion and ballistic missiles capable of warheads, but there are no signs tests have been carried out.
In recent weeks, North Korea has fired a slew of short-range missiles and artillery shells into the sea in an apparent response to the South Korea-U.S. drills. Last Friday, it launched a medium-range ballistic missile into waters off its east coast for the first time since 2014.
North Korea routinely tests short-range missiles and artillery systems but it tends to do more launches in times of tension with the outside world.
Among the weapons tested this month was what North Korea called a new large-calibre artillery rocket system, which experts believe could reach Seoul, a metropolitan area of 10 million. South Korean experts believe the new launchers can fire 300-millimeter rockets up to 200 kilometres (125 miles).
DISCLOSING NUCLEAR CAPABILTY
North Korea has gone to great lengths to tout its alleged advancements in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The North’s official media on March 9 showed a smiling Kim posing with nuclear scientists beside what appeared to be a model trigger device of a nuclear warhead. Kim declared warheads had been miniaturized for use on ballistic missiles, according to the report.
Days later, the North claimed to have mastered a re-entry technology that is designed to protect a warhead from extreme heat and other challenges when it returns to the atmosphere from space following a missile launch.
The miniaturization and re-entry technologies are among the last major hurdles that foreign experts say the North must tackle to accomplish its goal of manufacturing a nuclear-armed missile that can reach the continental U.S.
South Korean defence officials, however, say there is no proof that North Korea has a functioning intercontinental ballistic missile.
On Thursday, North Korea created a stir by claiming it had successfully conducted a high-powered, solid-fuel rocket engine test. Solid-fuel missiles are generally harder to detect before they are launched than liquid-fuel missiles. South Korea said it needs to analyze the North’s claim.
SEA OF FIRE
When North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” in 1994, alarmed Seoul residents rushed to stock up on instant noodles and other supplies. But after repeated similar threats that were never carried out, most South Koreans now react with indifference.
In recent weeks, North Korea again fired verbal salvos, saying it will “liberate” South Korea, launch attacks with the new artillery rockets to “instantly destroy” Seoul’s presidential palace and turn the city into a “sea of flames.”
While South Korea’s president ordered a heightened security posture, the largely unflustered public has been more preoccupied with political squabbling ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections, the start of baseball season and the new hit soap opera, “Descendants of the Sun.”