Russia is urging the U.S. and North Korea to end an escalating cycle of dangerous provocations after Pyongyang put its missile forces on high alert and American stealth bombers flew practice bomb runs over the Korean Peninsula.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking Friday in Moscow, said the tit-for-tat moves were becoming a "vicious cycle" that could "simply get out of control," Reuters reports.
Lavrov, apparently referring to U.S. actions, said Russia is concerned that in addition to U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at Pyongyang's nuclear program, "unilateral action is being taken around North Korea that is increasing military activity."
The Russian foreign minister's remarks follow a ratcheting up of rhetoric and Cold War-style moves as North Korea eyes joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises with suspicion.
As we reported earlier, the U.S. command in South Korea made a rare announcement Thursday that a pair of B-2 stealth bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, had flown an "extended deterrence mission" from a base in Missouri to a range in South Korea. Normally, such missions are not made public.
In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his medium- and long-range missile forces to be on standby for a possible attack on Hawaii, Guam and South Korea, according to KCNA, the official North Korean news agency.
KCNA said Kim had "judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday that "these provocations by the North are taken by us very seriously, and we'll respond to that."
"The North Koreans have to understand that what they're doing is very dangerous," Hagel said. "I don't think we're doing anything extraordinary or provocative or out of the ... orbit of what nations do to protect their own interests."
As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, Seoul has become more resolute in its desire to respond to North Korean threats since Pyongyang's forces shelled a South Korean military base in 2010.
Last week, the U.S. and South Korean militaries also signed a "counter provocation" plan spelling out how a combined U.S.-South Korean response to any such future incident might play out.
As a result, Pyongyang might think twice about any action that could draw a joint response, Gjelten says.
On Friday, KCNA reports that Kim is leading the nation's defense in the face of "the grave situation where the U.S. anti-DPRK [North Korea] hostile acts have reached the brink of a nuclear war."
Exactly what North Korea's missile capabilities are has been the subject of intense speculation among Western observers in recent months.
Its KN-08 medium-range missile is both mobile and is believed to have a range that would allow it to hit Japan.
In December, Pyongyang launched its first satellite into orbit, demonstrating at least a rudimentary long-range missile capability that would potentially put Guam and Hawaii within range. But the accuracy and reliability of those rockets, as well as how many Pyongyang might possess, is still a question mark.
But for now, North Korea's bellicose language continues. As NK News reports, the photograph at the top of this post shows a chart in the background marked "U.S. mainland strike plan", with missile trajectories that look to terminate in Hawaii; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles.