(CN) — Adding concrete details to its threats against the United States, North Korea announced Thursday that it is planning to fire four ballistic missiles into the waters surrounding Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory.
Targeting waters 19 to 25 miles from the island, which hosts 7,000 U.S. military personnel on two main bases and has a population of 160,000, the attack would be the North’s most provocative missile launch to date.
According to the country’s announcement, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could, in the next week or so, be asked to approve the plan.
Threats like this from North Korea are nothing new, but the country generally couches its announcements with language stating it will not attack the United States unless it has been attacked first or has determined an attack is imminent.
The latest announcement is edged, however, by the recent volley of equally bombastic language from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Citing U.S. intelligence that North Korea might be able to pair a nuclear warhead with a missile capable of reaching targets on the United States mainland, Trump warned the North on Monday that “it faces retaliation with fire and fury unlike any the world has seen before.”
North Korea’s launch of Hwasong-12 missiles at Guam would compel an immediate attempt by the United States to intercept, as well as escalate already heightened tensions.
Japan and South Korea vowed a strong reaction as well if the North follows through with its threat.
Itsunori Onodera, the defense minister of Japan, told Thursday’s parliamentary session that it would shoot down North Korea’s missiles with the Aegis destroyer ship-to-air missile defense system if, treating such an attack on the U.S. territory as a Japanese national emergency.
North Korea’s report says the Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures in Japan and travel “1,065 seconds before hitting the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.” It said the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force will finalize the plan by mid-August, present it to leader Kim and “wait for his order.”
“We keep closely watching the speech and behavior of the U.S.,” it said.
Such a move would not merely be a test launch, but a demonstration of military capabilities that could easily lead to severe consequences.
South Korea’s military responded by saying North Korea will face a “stern and strong” response from Washington and Seoul.
Guam lies about 2,100 miles from the Korean Peninsula.
Washington has been testing its missile defenses in response to the North’s stepped-up development and the current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the U.S. military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading toward Guam.
Even if the launch is intercepted, however, the ensuing consequences could be devastating. North Korea has missiles able to hit Tokyo and conventional weapons that could devastate South Korea’s capital of Seoul.
The Hwasong-12, which was revealed for the first time at a military parade in April, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile that is believed to have a radius of more than 2,300 miles. It can be fired from mobile launchers, making it hard to detect and destroy on the ground.
By launching a salvo of four, the North would be attempting to make it harder for the U.S. to intercept all of the incoming missiles. Its stated flight path over Japan is also very aggressive — it has recently tried to avoid flying over neighboring countries by shooting its missiles up at a very high angle to land in the ocean.