North Korea said today it has moved strategic rocket and artillery units into top combat position in preparation for a strike against the United States.
In a statement released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea said, "From this moment, the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army will be putting in combat duty posture No. 1 all field artillery units including long-range artillery strategic rocket units that will target all enemy objects in U.S. invasionary bases on its mainland, Hawaii and Guam."
The United States recently engaged in long-planned joint military exercises in the region. Also, the United States and South Korea Friday signed a military pact providing for a joint response to even low-level provocation from the North.
The move was predicted by analysts to provoke the North, and state news Monday released photos of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, inspecting People's Army Unit 1501.
In response to the KCNA statement today, South Korea's Presidential Office downplayed the threat. "We have not detected any special movements in the North Korean military," the office said.
Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Studies at Dong Guk University in Seoul, said North Korea's statement "doesn't mean that they will conduct some sort of military attack right away. They are elevating the crisis situation with the harshest rhetoric as possible."
North Korea has made similar statements in the past but has not included the term "No.1" until now. South Korean military experts are analyzing what that might mean.
It is not the first time the military regime has put its forces on "combat-ready' posture."
North Korea put the country on "pre-war" status in 1993 after it announced it was abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The most recent statement comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test Feb. 12. It successfully tested in December a long-range rocket capable of hitting the United States. Both actions led to a U.N. resolution toughening sanctions against the reclusive regime.
North Korea has since released consistently bellicose threats directed at both the United States and neighboring South Korea.
There are also reports of a divide between North Korea and its traditional ally, China. China provides critical food aid and other support to North Korea but recently voted in support of sanctions against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
China urged restraint in response to North Korea's announcement today.
But according to Rodong Sinmum, a mouthpiece for the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), at a rally on March 8 in Pyongyang, North Korean General Kang Pyo-yong announced the military is in position to launch a "war of reunification" if the order is given. He said North Korea has developed nuclear warheads that can fit on the end of a long-range missile and are capable of hitting the United States.
Experts question the veracity of the claim. Such expertise has long been believed to be years away.
But with recent posturing becoming consistent and aggressive, many observers underscore how difficult it is to predict what North Korea will do or what the specifics of its capabilities are.