Share story

SEOUL, South Korea — This week, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered underlings to prepare for a missile attack on the United States. He appeared at a command center in front of a wall map with the bold, unlikely title, “Plans to Attack the Mainland US.” Earlier in the month, his generals boasted of developing a “Korean-style” nuclear warhead that could be fitted atop a long-range missile.

And in the main square in Pyongyang on Friday, tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for a 90-minute rally to support Kim’s call to arms. Men and women stood in arrow-straight lines, fists raised as they chanted, “Death to the U.S. imperialists.” Placards in the plaza bore harsh words for South Korea, too, including, “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!”

But the missile systems that figure in Kim’s blitz of threats and showy orders do not have the range to approach U.S. shores. There is no evidence his nuclear weapons can be shrunk to fit atop a missile.

And a prominent photograph showing Kim’s military launching a Normandy-style beach landing appears to have been manufactured, raising questions about whether his forces could repeat the feat his grandfather pulled off in 1950, launching a ground attack to open the Korean War.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

On top of that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world. “You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret,” said Kim Min-Seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry. “We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology.”

It is the abilities that Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago on the Cheonan, a naval vessel, that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

The North has never acknowledged involvement in either, though the South believes it was responsible for both, as do U.S. experts.

“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military,” one senior administration official said Friday. He added: “We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”

The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings Kim seems to suggest are imminent, they are hard to trace back to North Korea, at least immediately.

As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and indeed, the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan.

In this environment, U.S. officials said they have focused more closely on what the North is doing than on what it is saying.

While a direct attack on U.S. forces on the mainland or in the Pacific seems unlikely, nongovernment analysts said the rising tensions increase the risk of a limited armed conflict.

North Korea recently cut off its military-phone lines with the South, which are used to coordinate logistics along the demilitarized border buffer.

Some experts noted the South has also adopted more aggressive rhetoric. Senior officials quoted anonymously in the media have suggested plans have been drawn up for “surgical strikes” in North Korea.

“The level and scope of the rhetoric is stronger than in the past,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s room for miscalculation right now,” he added.

Meanwhile, the doughy Kim, who took the helm of the country in December 2011 after his father’s death, remains an enigma. The country’s leaders have taken great pains in recent months to bill the world’s youngest head of state as a capable commander in chief.

International experts are trying to figure him out, too. “We’re all trying to put him on the couch,” said Jonathan Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “A year ago, the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form,” adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of external threats to solidify support at home.

On Saturday those threats were South Korea and “the Americans and their puppets,” the North said. The two Koreas “were back to a state of war,” it said, and the North’s foes “should know that everything is different under our peerless general and dear Marshal Kim Jong Un.”

Material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.