North Korea on Tuesday ratcheted up its rhetoric against the United States and South Korea, warning its military is prepared for combat operations and charging there would be "disastrous consequences" in response to the presence of U.S. Navy warships in the South, Reuters reported.
The Navy ships, including the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington, are in the region to participate in trilateral defense exercises with South Korea and Japan. Pyongyang often responds harshly to such maritime maneuvers, and sometimes it takes the threats to exceptionally provocative levels. It did so this past spring when it repeatedly warned it would carry out nuclear missile strikes on the United States and South Korea, going so far as to field medium-range ballistic missiles on its coast before eventually stepping back from the brink.
A North Korean armed forces spokesman said, in a statement disseminated by a regime propaganda outlet, that "the units of all services and army corps levels of the [Korean People's Army] received an emergency order from its supreme command to re-examine the operation plans already ratified by it and keep themselves fully ready to promptly launch operations anytime."
The U.S. and South Korean governments did not express significant alarm in their initial reactions to North Korea's renewed posturing.
"We've seen this type of rhetoric from North Korea before," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The South Korean Defense Ministry on Tuesday said there have been no signs of abnormal movements by the North's armed forces.
Pyongyang in its statement said it was particularly upset by the presence of the atomic-powered aircraft carrier in South Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
"The more frequently and the deeper [U.S.] imperialist aggression forces' nuclear strike means, including the nuclear carrier, enter the air above the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula and waters off it, the more unpredictable disasters their actions will cause," the North Korean military spokesman said.
Though the United States withdrew its tactical-nuclear weapons from the South in the 1990s, it still occasionally fields strategic assets in the region such as the nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers that participated in practice bombing runs in a spring military exercise with the South that was meant to send a deterring message to North Korea. This week's trilateral maritime maneuvers were supposed to have begun on Tuesday but were postponed because of poor weather.
Analysts said Pyongyang's threats appear to be aimed at strong-arming Washington into reviving moribund aid-for-denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and other nations.
Meanwhile, South Korea's National Intelligence Service has confirmed Pyongyang has restarted an old plutonium-production reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday, citing information provided by two informed South Korean legislators.
Independent experts have been reporting for weeks the Soviet-era five-megawatt reactor had been reactivated based on analysis of commercial satellite photographs. North Korea this spring announced it would reopen the reactor, which had been disabled under a 2007 denuclearization agreement, in order to boost fissile-material production.