SEOUL -- In the latest in a series of escalating threats, North Korea's top command announced Tuesday that it has put its artillery and strategic rocket units under what it called "No. 1 combat readiness," targeting the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, Guam and South Korea.
The communist state's news agency, KCNA, carried the supreme command's statement, which warned of "actual military action ... to protect the nation's sovereignty and highest dignity."
The Stalinist state has been ramping up its bellicose rhetoric in recent weeks in response to new U.N. sanctions and joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea.
The joint drills, called "Key Resolve," ended last week. They involved 13,000 South Korean and U.S. troops.
North Korea has warned of a second Korean War, as well as turning Washington into a "sea of fire."
On Monday, North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, oversaw a "national level" military drill, staged by several army and navy units in the eastern coastal area, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
[Updated, 9:38 a.m. March 26: U.S. officials do not believe North Korea has developed a long-range missile capable of striking the continental United States and have said there is no evidence the North has a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. The Taepodong 2 missile in theory could reach areas of Alaska, but it is plagued by technical problems.
Nonetheless, the U.S. military this month announced plans to add 14 interceptors to the anti-missile system in Alaska in reaction to North Korean threats.]
Experts say that the recent moves by North Korea appear to be little more than amped-up verbal threats, yet they warn that the South should remain alert for Pyongyang's provocations.
"Even though I served in the army in North Korea for 20 years, the so-called 'No. 1 military readiness' is something I've never heard before," the head of Free North Korea Radio, Kim Seong-min, told South Korea's Joongang Daily. "I think it's a term created by the North to raise the level in order for their requests to be accepted by the Western world."
[Updated, 9:38 a.m. March 26: The North Koreans are seeking relief from international sanctions, including new measures imposed by the U.N. Security Council this month after the North tested a nuclear warhead on Feb. 12, which followed its successfully launch of a three-stage rocket in December.]
Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the Pyongyang statement "indicates a quasi-state of war at its highest tension." If North Korea were to take concrete follow-up measures, such as tightening the border region or taking stronger control over fisheries, he said, "then we can start to think that the North's rhetoric should be taken seriously. But for now, we don't see such signs."
The North Korean statement came on the day South Korea was paying tribute to 46 sailors who were killed in the sinking of the warship Cheonan three years ago, which Seoul said was caused by a torpedo attack by North Korea. North Korea denied any involvement.
South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, attended a ceremony Tuesday at the national cemetery in Daejon, south of Seoul, to pay her respects to the dead. In her speech, Park strongly urged North Korea to change and to step away from focusing on nuclear arms development.
"North Korea should stop further provocations that will bring the sacrifice of the young and a vicious cycle of confrontation," she said. "They must choose a virtuous cycle that will bring peace and prosperity in the Korean peninsula."