(CNN) – North Korea is again banging the war drums. This time, it’s over ongoing military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.
The secretive nation has made similar threats before. But should they be taken seriously this time?
Explosions, thundering up a mountainside. Hundreds of thousands of troops, storming ashore by sea and air. These are massive, joint military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea. Another round kicked-off Monday, and Kim Jong Un is furious, issuing an ominous warning.
Through its official news-reader, North Korea’s regime says it will launch a, “preemptive and offensive nuclear strike” in response to the drills.
Former National Security Council Official Jamie Metzl says, “They have threatened nuclear attack before, but the farther North Korea progresses in its development of nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms – like its advanced rockets – the more serious those threats become and the more seriously everybody else needs to take them.”
A U.S. defense official tells CNN the Pentagon is closely monitoring the tension on the Korean peninsula, calling on Kim’s regime to refrain from provocative actions.
But there’ve been provocations near the world’s most heavily-armed border for two solid months.
There was North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, its rocket-launch, U.S. stealth fighters flying low over South Korea, and recently, damaging U.N. sanctions against Kim’s government.
Could Kim back up his nuclear threat?
A U.S. official tells CNN, his efforts to advance his ballistic missile capabilities are a serious concern.
Weapons experts say Kim could probably launch a nuclear attack from close-range – hitting Japan or South Korea – if he wanted to. But analysts say there’s a key long-range missile capability he doesn’t yet have; preventing him from hitting the United States.
Joseph Cirincione from the Ploughshares Fund said, “A re-entry vehicle that can come back down and deliver the warhead on target. Major strides yet to be made.”
Still, U.S. officials say Kim is working feverishly toward perfecting that missile capability.
Most experts believe Kim would not launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. or South Korea. That, they say, would bring about his country’s annihilation. But they say this is a young leader who’s unpredictable – and under enormous strain.
Metzl said, “Kim Jong Un is under immense pressure to demonstrate his leadership, and certainly that explains some of this escalation. Additionally, North Korea is feeling its position weakening. Its relationship with China is fraying, its economy is in terrible shape.”
Analysts say North Korea is more likely to launch a conventional or cyber-attack than attempt a nuclear strike. South Korea’s intelligence agency says, in recent days, North Korea has tried to hack South Korean officials’ smartphones.
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