By Jethro Mullen and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
(CNN) — North Korea’s leader approved a plan to prepare standby rockets to hit U.S. targets, state media said Friday, after American stealth bombers carried out a practice mission over South Korea.
In a meeting with military leaders early Friday, Kim Jong Un “said he has judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation,” the state-run KCNA news agency 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,” KCNA reported.
North Korean state media carried a photo of Kim meeting with military officials Friday. In the photo, the young leader is seated, leafing through documents with four uniformed officers standing around him.
On the wall behind them, a map titled “Plan for the strategic forces to target mainland U.S.” appears to show straight lines stretching across the Pacific to points on the continental United States.
South Korea and the United States are “monitoring any movements of North Korea’s short, middle and middle- to long-range missiles,” South Korean Defense Ministry Spokesman Kim Min-seok said Friday.
Kim’s regime has unleashed a torrent of threats in the past few weeks, and U.S. officials have said they’re concerned about the recent rhetoric.
“I think their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger, and we have to understand that reality,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday at a news briefing.
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.
Hagel argued against that assertion.
“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.”
But Pentagon spokesman George Little said it was important to remain calm and urged North Korea to “dial the temperature down.”
“No one wants there to be war on the Korean Peninsula, let me make that very clear,” he told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Thursday.
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.”
Behind North Korea’s heated words about missile strikes, one analyst said, there might not be much mettle.
“The fact is that despite the bombast, and 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.
North Korea’s latest threat Friday morning came after the United States said Thursday that it flew two stealth bombers over South Korea in annual military exercises.
The mission by the B-2 Spirit bombers, which can carry conventional and nuclear weapons, “demonstrates the United States’ ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will,” a statement from U.S. Forces Korea said.
The North Korean state news agency described the mission as “an ultimatum that they (the United States) will ignite a nuclear war at any cost on the Korean Peninsula.”
The North has repeatedly claimed that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises are tantamount to threats of nuclear war against it.
The disclosure of the B-2 flights came a day after North Korea said it was cutting a key military hotline with South Korea, provoking fresh expressions of concern from U.S. officials about Pyongyang’s recent rhetoric.
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.
While Kim appears to have spurned the prospect of dialogue with U.S. and South Korean officials, he met with Dennis Rodman during the U.S. basketball star’s bizarre recent visit to North Korea.
Sharp increases in tensions on the Korean Peninsula have taken place during the drills in previous years. The last time the North cut off military communications with the South was during similar exercises in March 2009.
North Korea has gone through cycles of “provocative behavior” for decades, Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday.
“And we have to deal with them. We have to be sober, calm, cool, collected about these periods. That’s what we’re doing right now,” he said. “And we are assuring our South Korean allies day to day that we stand with them in the face of these provocations.”
The recent saber-rattling from Pyongyang has included threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea, as well as the declaration that the armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953 is null and void.
On Tuesday, the North said it planned to place military units tasked with targeting U.S. bases under combat-ready status.
Most observers say North Korea is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, but it does have plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles.
Little said Thursday that the United States was keeping a close eye on North Korea’s missile capabilities.
“The important thing is for us to stay out ahead of what we think the North Korean threat is, especially from their missile program,” he said. “They’ve been testing more missiles, and they’ve been growing their capabilities and we have to stay out ahead.”
CNN’s K.J. Kwon in Seoul, South Korea, and Dayu Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.