By KJ Kwon, Jethro Mullen and Catherine E. Shoichet
(CNN) — North Korea’s threatening rhetoric has reached a fevered pitch, but the Pentagon and the South Korean government have said it’s nothing new.
“We have no indications at this point that it’s anything more than warmongering rhetoric,” a senior Washington defense official said late Saturday.
The official was not authorized to speak to the media and asked not to be named.
The National Security Council, which advises the U.S. president on matters of war, struck a similar cord. Washington finds North Korea’s statements “unconstructive,” and it does take the threats seriously.
“But, we would also note that North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats and today’s announcement follows that familiar pattern,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for NSC.
The United States will continue to update its capabilities against any military threat from the north, which includes plans to deploy missile defense systems.
North Korea’s rhetoric
North Korea declared it had entered a “state of war” with neighboring South Korea, according to a report Saturday from the state-run Korean Central News Agency. It included a threat to “dissolve” the U.S. mainland.
“The condition, which was neither war nor peace, has ended, North Korea’s government said in a special statement carried by KCNA.”
North Korea and South Korea technically remain at war since their conflict between 1950 and 1953 ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty. On March 11, the North Korean army declared the armistice agreement invalid.
Saturday’s report included a direct threat to the United States, while also asserting any conflict “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.”
The statement made the prospect of war contingent upon “a military provocation … against the DPRK” in sensitive areas on the border between North and South.
The South: It’s not new
In a statement later Saturday, South Korea did not treat their neighbor’s latest threat as imminent danger.
Seoul noted scores of its personnel had entered the Kaesong Industrial complex — a joint economic cooperation zone between the two Koreas situated on the North’s side of the border — on Saturday morning with hundreds more set to join them later in the day, seemingly suggesting they were going about business as usual.
“The announcement made by North Korea is not a new threat, but part of follow-up measures after North Korea’s supreme command’s statement that it will enter the highest military alert” on Tuesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
Map appears to show U.S. targets
A day earlier, the same official North Korean news agency reported its leader Kim Jong Un had approved a plan to prepare standby rockets to hit U.S. targets.
In a meeting with military leaders early Friday, Kim “said he has judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation,” KCNA reported.
The rockets are aimed at U.S. targets, including military bases in the Pacific and in South Korea, it said.
“If they make a reckless provocation with huge strategic forces, (we) should mercilessly strike the U.S. mainland, their stronghold, their military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea,” the report said.
Behind North Korea’s heated words about missile strikes, one analyst said, there might not be much mettle.
“Unless there has been a miraculous turnaround among North Korea’s strategic forces, there is little to no chance that it could successfully land a missile on Guam, Hawaii or anywhere else outside the Korean Peninsula that U.S. forces may be stationed,” James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, wrote in an opinion column published Thursday on CNN.com.
U.S. official: We’re ‘committed … to peace’
U.S. defense officials said Friday that the North’s bantering is destructive.
“This is troubling rhetoric that disrupts the prospects for peace on the Peninsula,” the senior official said.
Some observers have suggested that Washington is adding to tensions in the region by drawing attention to its displays of military strength on North Korea’s doorstep, such as the flights by the B-2 stealth bombers.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argued against that assertion Thursday.
“We, the United States and South Korea, have not been involved in provocating anything,” he said. “We, over the years, have been engaged with South Korea on joint exercises. The B-2 flight was part of that.”
Washington and its allies “are committed to a pathway to peace,” Hagel said. “And the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction here.”
Amid the uneasy situation, China, a key North Korean ally that expressed frustration about Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, also called for calm.
“We hope relevant parties can work together to turn around the tense situation in the region,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said Friday, describing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as “a joint responsibility.”
Tensions have been rising for months
Tensions escalated on the Korean Peninsula after the North carried out a long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test last month, prompting the U.N. Security Council to step up sanctions on the secretive government.
Pyongyang has expressed fury about the sanctions and the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, due to continue until the end of April.
The deteriorating relations have killed hopes of reviving multilateral talks over North Korea’s nuclear program for the foreseeable future. Indeed, Pyongyang has declared that the subject is no longer up for discussion.