North Korea readies ‘missile strike on US mainland’

North Korean rockets were put on standby to attack American targets yesterday after US B-2 stealth bombers dropped dummy munitions in joint military exercises with South Korea.

• Kim Jong Un increases activity at North Korean missile sites

• Thousands march in Pyongyang chanting anti-American slogans

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• South calls for restoration of military ‘hotline’ between two countries - South Korean patrols joined by American B2 bombers

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un “convened an urgent operation meeting” of senior generals just after midnight, signed a rocket preparation plan and ordered his forces on stand-by to strike the US mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, state media reported. Mr Kim said “the time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists in view of the prevailing situation”, according to a report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

Small North Korean warships, including patrol boats, conducted drills off both coasts of North Korea near the border with South Korea on Thursday, South Korean defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said yesterday.

He added that South Korea’s military was mindful of the possibility that North Korean exercises could lead to a real conflict. North Korea, which says it considers the US-South Korean military manoeuvres as preparations for invasion, has issued a string of threats in state media. In the most dramatic case, Pyongyang made the vow to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Yesterday, state media released a photo of Mr Kim and his senior generals huddled in front of a map showing routes for envisioned strikes against cities on both American coasts.

The map bore the title US Mainland Strike Plan.

Portions of the picture appeared to be manipulated, though an intriguing detail – a bandage on Mr Kim’s left arm – appeared to be real.

Experts believe the country is years away from developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike the US. Many say there is no evidence that Pyongyang has long-range missiles that can hit the US mainland.

However, there are fears of a localised conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999. There is also the danger that such a clash could escalate, with Seoul vowing to hit back hard the next time it is attacked.

“The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict,” analysts Victor Cha and David Kang wrote recently for Foreign Policy magazine. They also note that North Korea has a history of testing new South Korean leaders, and president Park Geun-hye took office late last month.

“Since 1992, the North has welcomed five new leaders by disturbing the peace,” they added.

Following yesterday’s threats, tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for a 90-minute mass rally in support of Kim’s call to arms at the main square in Pyongyang. Men and women, many of them in uniform, stood in arrow-straight lines, fists raised as they chanted: “Death to the US imperialists.”

Placards in the plaza bore harsh words for South Korea as well, including, “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!”

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on Thursday that the decision to send nuclear-capable B2 bombers to join the military drills was part of normal exercises and not intended to provoke North Korea.

Mr Hagel acknowledged, however, that North Korea’s belligerent tones and actions in recent weeks have ratcheted up the danger in the region, “and we have to understand that reality”.

US Forces Korea said the B2 stealth bombers flew from an airbase in Missouri and dropped dummy munitions on an uninhabited South Korean island range on Thursday before returning home.

The Pentagon said this was the first time a B-2 had dropped dummy munitions over South Korea.