The United States said on Wednesday it will soon send a missile defense system to Guam to defend it from North Korea, as the U.S. military adjusts to what U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described as a “real and clear danger” from Pyongyang.
The announcement came just hours before North Korea’s army said it had ratified an attack against the United States, potentially involving a nuclear strike, the latest in a series of provocations testing President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang.
“Some of the actions they’ve taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger,” Hagel told an audience at the National Defense University in Washington.
The White House said on Tuesday Pyongyang had shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million-strong armed forces for war.
But Hagel renewed his warnings that the U.S. military was compelled to take the threats from Pyongyang seriously.
As part of that U.S. reaction, the Pentagon said it would deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to Guam in the coming weeks, including a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles and an advanced, AN/TPY-2 tracking radar. The deployment was approved at a high-level White House meeting on Tuesday and formalized on Wednesday, one U.S. official told Reuters.
The United States already revamped its mainland U.S. missile defense plans last month and this week announced it had positioned two guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific.
In a rare display of force during military drills with South Korea last week, the United States flew two stealth bombers on a first-of-its-kind practice bombing run over the South.
Put together, the steps imply a heightened defense posture that could become a new normal for the military in the region.
“The fact that the U.S. has taken a number of actions in the past two weeks shows that whatever package of plans we had on the shelf for enhancing deterrence and defense, we’re now deploying that,” said Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Hagel called America’s responses so far “measured, responsible, serious” and also said the United States was working with allies to lower tensions.
“We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese, others to defuse that situation on the peninsula,” he said.
In Beijing, China’s deputy foreign minister met ambassadors from the United States and both Koreas to express “serious concern” about the Korean peninsula, China’s Foreign Ministry said. It was a sign that China, the North’s major benefactor, was increasingly worried about events spinning out of control.
“North Korea is a very good example of a common interest (with China),” Hagel said.
“Certainly, the Chinese don’t want a right now complicated, combustible situation to explode into a worse situation. It’s not in their interests for that to happen, certainly not in our interests or our allies’ interests.”
The rising tensions did not appear to jolt markets, long accustomed to cycles of rising tensions on the peninsula.
“I would say that people are taking it a lot more seriously than they used to,” said Steve Van Order, a fixed income strategist at Calvert Investments in Maryland.
One of the most isolated and unpredictable countries in the world, North Korea said on Tuesday it would revive a mothballed nuclear reactor able to produce bomb-grade plutonium.
North Korea has also previously threatened a nuclear strike on the United States and missile attacks on its Pacific bases, including in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, since new U.N. sanctions were imposed over the country’s third nuclear weapons test in February.
Some U.S. officials believe Pyongyang’s bellicosity is aimed primarily at a domestic audience.
They see Kim trying to keep his vast, poorly paid army motivated with anti-U.S. propaganda and improve his status among North Korea’s largely dirt poor population by standing up to foreign enemies, even as he seeks to cement his grip on power.