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North Korea said on Wednesday it is considering plans for a missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam, just hours after President Donald Trump told the North that any threat to the United States would be met with “fire and fury”.

The sharp increase in tensions rattled financial markets and prompted warnings from US officials and analysts not to engage in rhetorical slanging matches with North Korea.

Pyongyang said it was “carefully examining” a plan to strike Guam, which is home to about 163,000 people and a US military base that includes a submarine squadron, an airbase and a Coast Guard group.

A Korean People’s Army spokesman said in a statement carried by state-run KCNA news agency the plan would be put into practice at any moment once leader Kim Jong Un makes a decision.

“The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the US major military bases on Guam, including the Anderson Air Force Base,” according to another statement on KCNA.

A B-2 Spirit bomber takes off from the runway behind another B-2 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam August 24, 2016. Photo: US Air Force via Reuters.

Guam Governor Eddie Calvo dismissed the North’s threat and said the island was prepared for “any eventuality” with strategically placed defences. He said he had been in touch with the White House and there was no change in the threat level.

“Guam is American soil … We are not just a military installation,” Calvo said in an online video message.

North Korea also accused the United States of devising a “preventive war” and said in another statement that any plans to execute this would be met with an “all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the US mainland.”

Washington has warned it is ready to use force if needed to stop North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs but that it prefers global diplomatic action, including sanctions.

The UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Saturday, that could slash the reclusive country’s $3 billion annual export revenue by a third.

Trump issued his strongest warning yet for North Korea in comments to reporters in New Jersey on Tuesday.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said.

The threat

North Korea has made no secret of its plans to develop a nuclear-tipped missile able to strike the United States and has ignored calls to halt its weapons programs.

Pyongyang says its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are a legitimate means of defence against perceived US hostility, including joint military drills with South Korea.

Asian stocks fell, with South Korea’s benchmark index and Japan’s Nikkei both closing down more than 1 percent, while so-called safe havens such as gold and the Japanese yen strengthened.

The United States has remained technically at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended without a peace treaty.

Seoul is home to roughly 10 million people and within range of massed North Korean rockets and artillery, which would be impossible to destroy in a first US strike.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned of an “effective and overwhelming” response against North Korea if it chose to use nuclear weapons but has said any military solution would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”

The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard against the North Korean threat. Japan hosts around 54,000 US military personnel, the US Department of Defense says, and tens of thousands of Americans work in both countries.

Many of the North’s missile tests this year have landed in waters off Japan, with at least one seemingly tested for a strike on a US base in the country, according to analysts who tracked the coordinates of the missile.

Japan, the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, on Wednesday marked the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city of Nagasaki by the United States.

“Tension is mounting when it comes to the international situation surrounding nuclear weapons,” Nagasaki mayor Tomihisa Taue told a ceremony marking the attack.

“Strong fears are spreading that nuclear weapons may be used in the not-so-distant future,” he said.

“War, War, War”

A senior official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House rejected talk of a crisis on the Korean peninsula, saying Seoul saw a high possibility of resolving the issue peacefully.

North Korea needed to realise that its repeated provocations are making the country more isolated and it should respond to the South’s proposal for dialogue, the official said.

In Dandong, a Chinese trading hub across the border from North Korea, residents said they were unperturbed by the escalating rhetoric.

“North Korea always talks about war, war, war, but it never happens,” said a restaurant owner who asked to be identified only by her surname, Yang.

“We now live in peaceful times. But if war does break out it will be us ordinary people that suffer,” she said.

Tensions in the region have risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two ICBM tests in July.

Japanese fighters conducted joint air drills with US supersonic bombers in Japanese skies close to the Korean peninsula on Tuesday, Japan’s Air Self Defence Force said.

On Monday, two US B-1 bombers flew from Guam over the Korean Peninsula as part of its “continuous bomber presence,” a U.S. official said, in a sign of Guam’s strategic importance.

Deeply troubling

Guam, popular with Japanese and South Korean tourists, is protected by the advanced US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system.

Madeleine Z. Bordallo, the U.S. Congresswoman for Guam, said she was confident US forces could protect it from the “deeply troubling” North Korean nuclear threat. She called on Trump to show “steady leadership” and work with the international community to lower tensions.

Republican US Senator John McCain said Trump should tread cautiously when issuing threats to North Korea unless he is prepared to act.

“I take exception to the president’s comments because you’ve got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do,” he said in a radio interview.

A Japanese government source said Japan was not asking for Trump to tone down his remarks, which were in line with his policy of not letting the other side know what the United States might actually do while keeping all its options on the table.

Former U.S. diplomat Douglas Paal, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington, said Trump should not get into a war of words with Pyongyang.

“It strikes me as an amateurish reflection of a belief that we should give as we get rhetorically. That might be satisfying at one level, but it takes us down into the mud that we should let Pyongyang enjoy alone,” said Paal, who served as a White House official under previous Republican administrations.

Nuclear missile?

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, according to a confidential US intelligence assessment.

But US intelligence officials told Reuters that while North Korea has accelerated its efforts to design an ICBM, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, and a nosecone robust enough to survive re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, there is no reliable evidence it has mastered all three, much less tested and combined them into a weapon capable of hitting targets in the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

“There’s a lot that we don’t know,” about the North Korean nuclear weapons program, including whether Pyongyang has developed “the guidance and control system, guidance and stability control, to move a rocket that distance without it breaking up,” US Air Force General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute on Aug. 3.

US intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said there is no certainty about the number of nuclear warheads North Korea has assembled, with estimates ranging from 20 to as many as 60 and most experts leaning towards the lower end of that range.

North Korea’s ICBM tests last month indicated it was making technical progress, Japan’s annual Defence White Paper warned.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held the door open for dialogue, saying Washington was willing to talk to Pyongyang if it halted its missile tests.

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