Tensions rise as North Korea threatens “nuclear strike”

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Tensions between North Korea and its southern neighbour continue to mount after the North Korean government closed the Kaesong industrial complex 6 miles north of the border between North and South Korea.  Kaesong is the site of a number of factories owned and operated by South Korean companies employing North Korean labour, it was seen as the last remaining element of co-operation between the two states.  

Technically the two countries remain in a state of war.  There was no peace treaty at the end of the Korean War in the 1950s, merely an armistice.  

Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took over after the death of his father, warlike rhetoric from the totalitarian state has increased.  On Wednesday, North Korea upped the stakes by threatening a “merciless nuclear attack” against American targets, a claim which experts describe as “hollow”, given the outdated condition of the country’s nuclear and missile technology.

North Korea’s economy is in tatters, following a series of bad harvests which caused widespread famine in the country.  What scarce resources do exist are invested in the country’s bloated military.  With an estimated population of 25.5 million, North Korea maintains a standing army of around 1.2 million armed services personnel, making it the most militarised society on Earth.  It is thought that around 20% of North Korean men aged between 17 and 54 serve in the country’s armed forces.

North Korea is regularly described as the most repressive society in the world.  Those convicted of “political crimes” find that their families are deported to labour camps, there is no free press, and citizens are permitted to listen only to domestic TV and radio broadcasts.

Recently North Korea announced that it was to restart its nuclear programme, in defiance of a UN resolution.  

On Wednesday, North Korea announced in a statement released by the official news agency KCNA that its armed forces had been authorised to make nuclear strikes against US targets.  The statement said:

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating US hostile policy toward the DPRK (North Korea) and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified.”

Responding to the announcement from Pyongyang, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea’s threats and recent actions represented a “real and clear danger” to the United States as well as its allies in South Korea and Japan.

Speaking after giving a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Mr Hagel described North Korea’s “bellicose dangerous rhetoric” as problematic and said: “They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now.”

He added:

“We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously.

“We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese and others to defuse that situation on the peninsula.

“I hope the North will ratchet its very dangerous rhetoric down.”

In response to the increasingly shrill threats from North Korea, the United States has announced that it is to bring forward the planned deployment of its missile defence system, which will be based on the island of Guam.

Some observers believe that the ramping up of rhetoric from North Korea is an attempt to gain a bargaining chip in order to increase its chances of receiving interntional aid.