CIA official predicts North Korean provocation on Columbus Day

A top CIA official for the Korean Peninsula warned Wednesday that the U.S. should be ready for a new provocation by North Korea on Columbus Day on Oct. 9, which coincides with the anniversary of the founding of the political party that governs in Pyongyang.

"Stand by your phones," Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA's Korea Mission Center, said while speaking at a conference organized by the agency at The George Washington University.

Lee did not speculate what North Korea might do, though it frequently carries out missile launches or nuclear tests on major state anniversaries, such as the birthday of leader Kim Jong Un or other dates associated with the lives of his father or grandfather. Oct. 10 marks the anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1945.

Tensions with North Korea have reached new extremes in recent weeks, following months of increased weapons tests combined with new U.S. appraisals that Pyongyang is close to perfecting or perhaps already has made an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead and hit targets accurately.

RELATED: Countdown to a standoff: A timeline of tension with North Korea

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Countdown to a standoff: A timeline of tension with North Korea
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Countdown to a standoff: A timeline of tension with North Korea

Jan. 6, 2016:

After four years in power, Kim Jong Un says his country can produce a hydrogen bomb, the first step toward a nuclear weapon that could target the United States. The nation tests a device, but Western experts are not convinced it is a genuine hydrogen bomb.

Feb. 7, 2016:

North Korea sends up a satellite. The United States calls this a disguised test of an engine powerful enough to launch an ICBM.

March 9, 2016:

North Korea claims it can miniaturize a nuclear device to fit onto a missile.

June 23, 2016:

North Korea says it has successfully tested an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), with a range of 2,000 to 3,400 miles. Kim Jong Un claims the country can now attack "Americans in the Pacific operation theater," including the territory of Guam.

Sept. 9, 2016:

North Korea conducts its fifth and largest nuclear test on the anniversary of the country's founding. It says it has mastered the ability to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile.

April 15, 2017:

North Korea reveals a new ICBM design, displaying the missiles at a military parade to mark the birthday of founding leader Kim Il Sung. Within three months, the missiles are tested.

July 4, 2017:

North Korea tests an ICBM for the first time, saying it can launch a missile that can reach the continental United States. The missile, Hwasong-14, is tested again three weeks later, this time in a night launch.

Aug. 8, 2017:

North Korea's army threatens to fire missiles towards Guam in an "enveloping fire." The message comes hours after President Donald Trump warns Pyongyang that it will be "met with fire and fury" if North Korea does not stop threatening the United States.

Aug. 23, 2017:

North Korea publishes photographs of Kim beside a diagram of what appears to be a new ICBM. Weapons experts say it will be more powerful than the missiles tested by Pyongyang in July, and could have Washington and New York within range.

Aug 29, 2017:

North Korea fires an intermediate range missile over northern Japan, prompting warnings to residents to take cover. The missile falls into the Pacific Ocean, but sharply raises tensions in the region.

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Lee added that Pyongyang historically has been controlled by its fear of the Chinese abandoning its support for the Hermit Kingdom, or that the U.S. would carry out a military strike. Kim Jong Un no longer has those fears, Lee said.

"There's a clarity of purpose in what Kim Jong Un has done," Lee said.

He added, however, that the likelihood remains low of North Korea purposefully starting a war with the U.S. or its allies like South Korea.

"The last person who wants conflict on the peninsula is actually Kim Jong Un," Lee said, adding that Kim, like all authoritarian leaders, wishes to rule for a long time and die in his own bed. "We have a tendency in this country and elsewhere to underestimate the conservatism that runs in these authoritarian regimes."

President Donald Trump, who continues to utter and tweet threats against North Korea, will visit South Korea, Japan and China on a trip throughout Asia in November.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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