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The Sky Isn't Falling Over The Korean Peninsula — Yet

Almost every day, there's some new threat out of North Korea.

It's hard to determine how seriously to take these threats. War on the Korean Peninsula could be catastrophic, so the bluster can't be dismissed. On the other hand, North Korea has a long history of hyperbole, of making threats it doesn't follow through on.

This week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government upped the ante. The country's military claims to have "ratified" or approved the idea of striking the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Here's the bulletin Wednesday from The Associated Press:

"NKorean army spokesman: Military cleared to wage nuclear strikes to protect against US."

That's not something to be taken lightly. But it's a statement that cries out for some explanation if we are to understand whether it really represents an escalation between Pyongyang and Washington.

So, some context:

First – North Korea doesn't have the capacity to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons. Its missiles can't reach that far, and though the North has conducted three nuclear tests, the country has yet to miniaturize warheads that could fit on long-range ballistic missiles. It isn't even known if they have the capacity to deliver a nuclear bomb south of the demilitarized zone that separates the North from South Korea.

Second – Earlier this week, North Korea issued a revised nuclear-weapons doctrine. This is essentially the North Korean government's own rules for how and when it might use nuclear weapons, if it had the capacity to deliver them. Here's what the new document stated, in part:

"The nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes. ...

"The DPRK shall neither use nukes against the non-nuclear states nor threaten them with those weapons unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion and attack on the DPRK."

What's that mean? It suggests that North Korea would not conduct a first strike against the United States. That's an important caveat and means the threat to use nuclear weapons should be understood as something the North might do in response to an attack against it. Also, the document states that North Korea would not use nuclear weapons against South Korea or Japan or Guam (none of which have nuclear weapons) unless they joined in an attack against North Korea.

One last point: North Korea has previously threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States. For example, there was this news on March 7: "North Korea vows nuclear attack on U.S., saying Washington will be 'engulfed in a sea of fire.' "

So, as we all try to judge just what these threats from North Korea mean, remember these things when there are reports that North Korea plans to attack the United States with nuclear weapons:

-- North Korea doesn't have the capacity to hit the U.S.

-- North Korea says it has a no-first-use nuclear policy.

-- And, we've heard this before.

Bruce Auster is NPR's national security editor.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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