The U.S. State Department on Tuesday pushed back against recent threats by North Korea, saying the Stalinist regime should tend to the needs of its citizens rather than boasting about its missiles, Agence France-Presse reported.
Pyongyang, reacting to a new U.S.-South Korean defense accord that would permit Seoul to more than double the range of its domestically produced ballistic missiles, claimed possession of missiles capable of striking the mainland United States.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Pyongyang needs to recognize that such claims would not improve its position. "That's only going to undermine their efforts to get back in the conversation with the international community," she said to reporters.
"Rather than bragging about its missile capability, they ought to be feeding their own people," Nuland said.
She declined to answer whether the Obama administration was giving much merit to the North's latest missile claims. Pyongyang has a long record of making unsubstantiated assertions about its military capabilities.
While the North has yet to conduct a single successful long-range ballistic missile test it is believed to have an arsenal of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could target U.S. military forces on Guam.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he found the North's boasting of an ICBM capability "alarming," AFP reported.
While acknowledging he could not verify the veracity of Pyongyang's boast, Ban told AFP: "I read the report and it is quite an alarming statement by the D.P.R.K."
"They should contribute to the reduction of tensions and this will only heighten tensions and create further distrust between South and North Korea," said Ban, who previously served as South Korea's foreign minister.
"[Pyongyang's] reaction seems to come from the recent agreement between the Republic of Korea and the United States," the U.N. chief said, adding that "that is a totally separate issue."
The North Korean Foreign Ministry on Wednesday asserted Washington could not justifiably oppose any future strategic missile launches by Pyongyang because it had agreed to let South Korea develop more powerful missiles, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
The ministry in a statement said the missile accord with Seoul would "result in endangering the security of the U.S. mainland, far from ensuring it."
For Pyongyang to represent a nuclear threat to the continental United States, it must design and produce a ballistic missile large enough to transport a warhead, acquire the capability to build warheads small enough to be fitted to a missile, and produce a re-entry vehicle that would carry the warhead to its target, according to a 2009 assessment by Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione.
Three years ago, Cirincione concluded "North Korea simply does not have the technical background or institutional capacity to achieve these three breakthroughs anytime soon."
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, the disarmament advocate said the North has not made substantive gains on any of those three measures. "There is no evidence that North Korea is anywhere near capable of delivering a nuclear missile to the United States," he said.
In April, North Korea was widely seen to have attempted another long-range ballistic missile test through the launching of a space rocket, which embarrassingly splintered apart not long after leaving the ground. The launch debacle was taken by many experts as proof that Pyongyang's ICBM development attempts are not notably advancing.
The United States and South Korea have readied a multistage plan of attack to be used against the North's nuclear arms sites and other key installations if necessary, the Korea Herald reported on Wednesday.
The plan is expected to be addressed during a joint Security Consultative Meeting upcoming in October, South Korean news outlets cited informed insiders as saying.
The initial step would involve launching against North Korea ballistic missiles that can fly 341 miles and carry a payload weighing as much as 2,205 pounds, the newspaper reported. The new missile accord with the United States allows South Korea to produce ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 497 miles, far higher than the previous 186-mile limit.
The second phase of attack would involve using extended-distance cruise missiles and warplanes against the North's nuclear arms sites. Missile-loaded drone aircraft would also be deployed against mobile North Korean assets.
Seoul might be prepared to conduct an advance strike against its longtime foe if it appears Pyongyang intends to put its nuclear weapons into play during an armed conflict, according to South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jung-Seung-jo.
South Korea under the new ballistic missile rules can become more adaptive in facing the danger posed by its neighbor, Jung said to lawmakers. Modifications will be made to missiles with limited flight distances, while missiles capable of traveling closer to the new 497-mile limit should be prepared within a half-decade, he said.