Pentagon Responds to North Korea's Latest Threats

The commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has said American forces remain ready to "protect the homeland" after North Korea threatened the U.S. over planned joint military exercises with South Korea.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are in Asia this week, meeting their Japanese and South Korean counterparts as President Joe Biden's administration looks to bolster American alliances and help contain China and North Korea. The trip comes ahead of the meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska next week.

Kim Yo Jong, sister and trusted aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warned Monday that the U.S. should be cautious. "We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land," she said in a statement carried by the North's state news agency.

"If it wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step," Kim said.

CNN also reported that U.S. intelligence officials now believe Pyongyang could be preparing its first missile test since Biden took office. Recent months have seen the North unveil several new weapons, raising concerns about the country's expanding ability to hit additional American and allied targets.

Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD, told reporters at a briefing Tuesday that his forces "have the capability to defend the homeland against a limited number of missiles from a rogue actor," adding they were "primarily focused" on North Korea.

"Capacity is the biggest challenge going forward to ensure that we maintain the ability with the number of ground-based inceptors we have to combat the additional capability that we've seen since the 10 October parade in North Korea," VanHerck added.

Pressed on the nature of the threat, VanHerck declined to go into detail, adding: "We always plan to defend the homeland. We always keep a look at our ability to deter as well as respond if needed."

VanHerck said the North Koreans now appear to have "up to three missiles that we assess could strike our homeland."

Pyongyang's expanding arsenal has broadened the threat from U.S. targets in Asia to the American mainland. North Korea's longest-range rocket—the Hwasong-15—has a range of more than 8,000 miles, putting every major American city in reach.

"We always maintain the ability to defend our homeland and, obviously, the right to defend the homeland," VanHerck said. "We're postured each and every day through ground-based interceptors which create deterrence by denial."

Recent rhetoric from Pyongyang has been aggressive, and ties between North Korea and the U.S. have deteriorated somewhat since former President Donald Trump's historic meetings with Kim Jong Un during his presidency.

For all their grand commitments to denuclearization, Trump secured little from Pyongyang, though Kim Jong Un has maintained his moratorium on nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile testing. By the end of Trump's term, bilateral talks were stalled and the North was again engaging in saber-rattling towards the U.S. and South Korea.

A senior Biden administration official told Newsweek Monday that Pyongyang has rebuffed all efforts at U.S. contact for more than a year. The new administration is currently conducting a review of North Korean policy that is expected to be completed sometime in April.

State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter on Tuesday refused to comment on Kim's specific threat. She directed reporters to comments made by Blinken during his meetings in Tokyo on Tuesday, when America's top diplomat said he and Austin were in Japan "to listen to our allies and to discuss how collectively we might seek to address the threat from North Korea."

On the campaign trail, Biden dismissed Kim Jong Un as a "thug" and said the "days of cozying up to dictators are over." North Korea last year called Biden a "rabid dog" that needed to be "beaten to death with a stick."

At the recent congress of the ruling Workers' Party, Kim described the U.S. as North Korea's "foremost principal enemy" and said he plans to expand the country's nuclear arsenal despite Biden's goal of denuclearization.

Man watches North Korea military parade
A man watches a television news broadcast of a military parade commemorating the 75th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party held in Pyongyang, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on October 10, 2020. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images