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North Korea has threatened a U.S. attack for years. Why aren’t you scared?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with participants in the Fourth National Conference of War Veterans in Pyongyang in an undated photo released by North Korean state media on July 30. (Reuters/KCNA)

Things are a little tense right now with North Korea. Since two South Korean soldiers were injured earlier this month in a mine blast in a Seoul-controlled part of the demilitarized zone between North and South, the two governments have launched a propaganda broadcast war on their shared border. The timing is especially worrying: On Monday, South Korea and Washington launched an annual joint military drill that Pyongyang routinely describes as a rehearsal for an invasion.

In response, North Korean officials have leveled serious threats against the United States. RT reports that a spokesman for North Korea’s National Defense Commission warned that it had weapons "unknown to the world" that made it an "invincible power," while the state news agency KCNA warned that "if [the] United States wants their mainland to be safe" they should end the military exercises.

That sentiment was echoed in a prior statement from North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which warned that South Korea and the United States' "strongholds of aggression and provocation," including the White House and Seoul's presidential Blue House, could be attacked because they are "within the sight of ultra-precision striking."

The idea of a North Korean attack on the U.S. mainland clearly resonates in popular culture. In the 2012 remake of the Cold War blockbuster "Red Dawn," it was North Korea rather than the Soviet Union and Cuba that invaded the United States. A somewhat similar premise underlies the computer game "Homefront," set in a dystopian future after a united Korea becomes a global superpower.

Those scenarios were greeted with considerable derision, however. Wired Magazine dubbed the 2012 "Red Dawn" the "dumbest movie ever," and foreign policy experts dismissed the idea of a North Korean invasion of the Umited States as "silly, ridiculously silly."

But why don't we take threats from North Korea seriously? Part of it is a simple boy-who-cried-wolf situation. North Korea has threatened to attack the United States many, many times before. Here's just a short list:

  • In May, Park Yong Chol, director of North Korea's Institute for Research into National Reunification, told CNN that the North has the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear missile, and would do so if the U.S. "forced their hand."
  • In February, officials warned that North Korea would cause the "final ruin of the US" with its "precision and diversified nuclear striking means."
  • In 2014, following an alleged North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures, a North Korean official threatened attacks on  "the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland" if the United States retaliated.
  • In 2013, North Korea warned it could attack Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland with rockets.
  • In 2009, North Korea announced that it had "tremendous military muscle and its own method of strike able to conquer any targets in its vicinity at one stroke or hit the U.S. on the raw, if necessary."
  • In 2005, a North Korean official said that if war broke out, the country would "first of all strike all bases of US imperialist aggressors and turn them into a sea of fire."
  • In 2002, following their inclusion in President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that "the option to 'strike' impudently advocated by the U.S. is not its monopoly" and that North Korea could "mercilessly wipe out the aggressors."

These threats pale in comparison to some of the threats Pyongyang has made against South Korea. Just this week, the North threatened the South with "indiscriminate" military strikes unless the joint military exercises were called off. Pyongyang has repeatedly warned that it could turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" — a threat that prompted panic buying in South Korea in 1994 when first used. Often, the language used to threaten South Korea has become inventively personal: "Let Us Cut Off Windpipes of the Lee Myung Bak-led Swarm of Rats," suggested one North Korean state media article criticizing the then-South Korean president.

The sheer volume of the threats can make it hard to take them seriously, but experts say there has been some correlation between words and action in the past. John Delury, a professor at South Korea's Yonsei university, told the BBC in 2013 that an artillery attack on a South Korean island in 2010 had been presaged by threats against military exercises in the area. "You see there were very clear warnings," Delury said.

Worryingly, the number of threats against the United States does appear to have risen recently, Adam Cathcart, editor of the SinoNK Web site, writes in an e-mail. "General threats against the US have been around since the Korean War," Cathcart says, "but with the growth of the country's ballistic missile program there has been a bump, certainly, in rhetoric about taking the fight to the U.S. homeland."

There are some signs that a North Korean attack on the United States may be becoming more plausible. Earlier this year, North Korea announced that it had created a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland, although a number of foreign experts cast doubt on the claims. Adding to the concern, in July, analysis of satellite imagery raised fears that North Korea might be trying to expand its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Even with these developments, most experts still argue that a North Korean nuclear strike remains extremely unlikely. "There is a near zero chance of a premeditated North Korean nuclear attack," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told NK News earlier this year, though Kimball added that a miscalculation by either side could pose a serious risk. Instead, North Korea seems to view its nuclear weapons as a deterrent and threats as a means of gaining political concessions. Cathcart notes that if North Korea is able to move up on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, it may be able to achieve some progress with the Obama administration "as it moves into late second term mode, which is historically when US-DPRK relations have made strides."

Some, including former South Korean president Kim Young-sam, suggest that part of the reason North Korea makes such awful threats is because they are well aware that there won't be a military response. “Looking back,” Kim told the New York Times in 2009, “I think the North Koreans think they can say whatever they want because no matter what they do, the Americans will never attack them.”

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