North Korea's leader has signed off on a plan to prepare rockets to be on standby for firing at U.S. targets, including the U.S. mainland and military bases in the Pacific and in South Korea, state media reported.
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.
"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.
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.
"North Korea is not a paper tiger, so it wouldn't be smart to dismiss its provocative behavior as pure bluster," a U.S. official said Wednesday.
But Pentagon spokesman George Little said Thursday that 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."
"We have to be sober, calm, cool, collected about these periods. ... We are assuring our South Korean allies that we stand with them amid these provocations," he said.
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 stealth bombers over South Korea in annual military exercises.
The B-2 Spirit bombers flew more than 6,500 miles from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to South Korea, dropping inert munitions there as part of the exercises, before returning to the U.S. mainland, the U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement.
The mission by the planes, which can carry conventional and nuclear weapons, "demonstrates the United States' ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will," the statement 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 exercises are tantamount to threats of nuclear war against it.
But the U.S. military stressed that the bombers flew in exercises to preserve peace in the region.
"The United States is steadfast in its alliance commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, to deterring aggression, and to ensuring peace and stability in the region," the statement from U.S. Forces Korea said, using South Korea's official name. "The B-2 bomber is an important element of America's enduring and robust extended deterrence capability in the Asia-Pacific region."
And the disclosure of the B-2 flights comes 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. There are several hotlines between North and South Korea.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone to his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, on Wednesday evening, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said, noting the "heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula."
The U.S. military's announcement earlier this month that it was flying B-52 bombers over South Korea to participate in the routine exercises also prompted an angry reaction Kim's regime.
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.
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 regime.
Pyongyang has expressed fury over the sanctions and the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, due to continue until
the end of April.
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.