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North Korea threatened an “unimaginable strike” on the US. Here's why you shouldn't panic.

North Korea is definitely on edge over a US military exercise. But its language shouldn’t be taken literally.

North Korea is really angry that the US and South Korea are carrying out a major joint military exercise close to the Korean Peninsula. And it has responded in the most North Korea-y way possible: by threatening an “unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time” against the US.

On Thursday, North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA published the strongly worded warning while arguing that the exercises, which began on Monday, are deliberately creating “tension on the eve of war.”

The American and South Korean militaries routinely carry out joint exercises, much to the chagrin of North Korea. They’re meant to simulate combat operations against the country, which has threatened its neighbors and the US with war for years and shot down American aircraft.

The current 10-day exercise, which began on Monday, involves naval ships, helicopters, fighter jets, submarines, and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.

North Korea claimed in its statement that the drill “proves that the US and South Korean puppet authorities are attempting to ignite a war on the Korean peninsula at any cost.”

It warned that “countermeasures have been fully prepared to make the strike end in smoke at a single stroke.”

North Korea is never happy when the US and South Korea carry out these kinds of joint exercises, but the new statement is unusually harsh. That's because the US and North Korea are locked in a nuclear standoff that has raised the genuine prospect of war.

“This kind of language is stronger than usual for these types of exercises, as all threats back and forth between the US and North Korea have escalated,” said Jenny Town, a Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University.

That being said, there’s little reason to think this threat should be taken literally.

North Korea’s bark is louder than its bite

North Korea is famous for making bombastic threats — and not following through on them.

In August, for instance, Pyongyang said it was “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike in August near US territory of Guam, which houses 6,000 American troops. It never followed through.

In September, right after the US pushed punishing new sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, North Korea threatened to destroy the United States, South Korea, and Japan. In its statement, Pyongyang said the US should “be beaten to death as a stick is fit for a rabid dog.”

The North’s bellicose rhetoric used to be a lot less menacing in past years than it is these days because the country didn’t have a missile that could hit the US mainland. But now it likely does.

On July 28, North Korea tested one that could theoretically hit major US cities like Chicago, New York, or even Washington, DC.

Most (though not all) experts say that Kim is rational and that the principle of mutually assured destruction — the idea that he knows if he uses a nuke, the US will destroy his country — should prevent him from acting too rashly.

But President Trump's penchant for using threatening language has moved the decades-old dispute into uncharted territory. Experts say that North Korea finds it hard to read Trump — and that could make the North Koreans more likely to use force.

For now, North Korea is sticking to rhetorical attacks, not real ones. The leaders of pretty much every country hope it remains that way.

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