For most countries, declaring that nuclear weapons are ready to launch at the United States would be considered an act of war. Fortunately for South Korea and its allies, North Korea isn't most countries.
Americans went to bed Wednesday to news reports that North Korean officials had granted approval for a tactical missile strike on the U.S.
"This is the final decision of justice prompted by the matchless grit of the brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu [Kim Jong Un] to put a definite end to the long-standing history of showdown with the U.S. imperialists and blow up the dens of evils," North Korea's official state news service reported on April 3. The reclusive communist country reportedly moved a missile to its east coast Thursday morning with a "considerable" range, according to the New York Times.
Should we reinstate nuclear attack safety drills? One Korean expert says the situation isn't yet that dire.
"North Korea looks provocative from our standpoint. But North Korea is actually being defensive," says JeongJin Park, a professor at South Korea's Kyungnam University.
North Korea has always responded to its southerly neighbor's military drills with an mobilization of its own, he says. Historically, the Kim dynasty has believed this brand of aggression will prime itself to get the most out of subsequent negotiations with the United States and the Republic of Korea.
And it usually works: North Korea came to an agreement with the U.S. in 1994 to safely pare down its nuclear power program in exchange for fuel among other resources. Kim Jong Il's decision to freeze its nuclear program in 1995 led to the U.S. restricting economic sanctions on the communist country.
"Right now, the North Koreans see themselves as standing up against the US-ROK forces," says Park, the director of the university's Institute of Far Eastern Studies. The massive publicity campaign for the ongoing Foal Eagle exercises hasn't helped the North Korean regime save face in the eyes of its people.
The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber flyby made the front page of most newspapers on the peninsula, and two F-22 Raptor stealth jets remain on a runway at a South Korean air base as of Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. sailed a new missile shield to Guam, and at least two destroyers are parked off the coast.
North Korea is capable of demonstrating its military might with some saber rattling of its own, including its third nuclear test earlier this year before the U.S. exercises began.
"Showing that these capabilities can be mobilized is being used as a way to prevent North Korea itself from moving toward further provocative military action," Park says.
This could also explain its decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Zone, the only remaining cooperative business venture between the two Koreas. News reports said North Korea's desperation for money would preclude it from ever closing down the plant. North Korea sees that as "an attack on its image, an insult, especially from South Korea," Park says, so it decided to shut down the plant to placate its citizens. That also leaves North Korea with fewer options for communication.
"If KIZ is completely shut down, then the situation will not be good, as [North Korea] will be left with military provocations as a means to respond to [South Korea] and the U.S.," he says.
But the true danger lies in the potential for human error and an uncalculated escalation.
"The threat of misperception is high," Park says. "The risk is that some small action, on either side, might lead to misperception and escalate to further conflict, even war."
"So the situation right now is dangerous," he adds. "North Korea could, for example, decide to launch a missile as an experiment (like in the past), but not as a military action. But if it did do that, under these circumstances, that would be risky."