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According to various news articles, such as this, North Korea is threatening to mercilessly attack the USA or it's allies. This is a quote from the article:

"North Korea's supreme military command said in a statement this morning that The White House and Pentagon had been notified that "reckless operations'' using nuclear weapons had been approved"

However other sources claim that North Korea's threats are only threats of retaliation:

For example, on this site, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/world/asia/north-korean-missile-moved-to-coast.html?pagewanted=all,

It is stated that North Korea has authorized its army to “take powerful practical military counteractions”.

So is it true that North Korea is threatening the USA with preemptive strikes, or is North Korea merely threatening that they will retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked by the US?

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Yes, at least according to the North Koreans.

And there are enough reasons for the North Koreans to pronounce this threat as a retaliation to specific recent western actions taken against DPRK, even if the West might not agree on the definition.

  • all the data in this answer is based on news reports and articles published until the time of the original posting (2013-04-04 13:08:14Z). If there are updates on the issue that happened after that time, they will not appear here.

The news articles that you cited and many others (CNN The Guardian BI for example) tell the same story "North Korea threatens to attack US main land".

Who is the provoker?

According to the North Koreans they do this as a retaliation to US diplomatic and military steps, source from the Economist:

These are not normal times. The North Korean leadership has reacted bitterly to the latest round of UN sanctions, imposed after its third nuclear test of February 12th. China’s support of the sanctions, which target financial transactions suspected of supporting the North’s nuclear programme, may have increased Pyongyang’s sense of isolation. This week, America singled out North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank for sanctions, because of its suspected role in nuclear armament.

To add to the tensions, annual joint military exercises between America and South Korea, known as Key Resolve, started on March 11th, involving troop manoeuvres near the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries.

...

Complicating the situation is the fact of new leadership in South Korea, which threatens to raise the stakes if there is an attack. A spokesman for the defence ministry said on March 12th that any provocation would be met with a response that ensured the North will “suffer far more”. The former president, Lee Myung-bak, faced criticism for failing to order vigorous punishment of the North in November 2010, following a deadly attack on Yeonpyeong, another border island held by the South. The new president, Park Geun-hye, will want to be careful to avoid making a similar impression of weakness.

And there was the 2 B-2 Bombers that flew from the US to South Korea and back, just to show to the North Korean Leadership who has the bigger bomb. source from Reuters

Are they serious?

According to all the western media sources, North Korea doesn't have missiles that can reach the US main land. From the NYT source:

Most analysts do not believe that North Korea has a missile powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States mainland or that it is reckless enough to strike the American military in the Pacific.

And there are even pictures:

NK missiles source: The Guardian

On the other hand, North Korea have published a picture with an attack plan on US main land:

Attack Plan

The text apparently reads "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan" (which is not subtle). The four cities that are targeted are Austin, San Diego, Honolulu, and Washington DC.

source: Business Insider

And the USA takes at least some precautions:

the United States announced Wednesday that it was speeding the deployment of an advanced missile defense system to Guam in the next few weeks, two years ahead of schedule in what the Pentagon said was “a precautionary move” to protect American naval and air forces from the threat of a North Korean missile attack.

from the NYT article

Lastly, there is an article by Foreign Affairs, which I found very interesting, that say that if a conflict breaks out, it'll quickly escalate to a nuclear conflict by the North Korean.

  • such an attack does not have to be a missile (fired from North Korea). Several countries known to be associated with the DPRK have technology to launch intermediate or short range ballistic missiles from surface ships (including Iran) and it's quite likey the DPRK has that as well. A launcher is easy to hide inside a modified cargo container, park a few ships say 50nm off shore from the US eastern and western seaboards, and those Nodong missiles can hit most every major city in the USA. – jwenting Apr 4 '13 at 14:10
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    Austin and San Diego really? Am i missing something here?? – Stefan Apr 4 '13 at 15:04
  • @Stefan - I have to admit, as a non-American I also didnt quite get what was so special about Austin (or SD for that matter). Im sure there is a reason. Large military bases perhaps? – Jamiec Apr 4 '13 at 15:10
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    @Jamiec - yes, there appear to be military bases in those locations... Although, is it just me, or do those 'routes' appear to be bizarrely straight? I mean, even orbits are great-circle routes, right? – Clockwork-Muse Apr 4 '13 at 16:00
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    I would tentatively propose that the billboard does not contain real military secrets, but is just mocked-up propaganda for the North Korean audience. (Presumably they are almost as geographically-ignorant about the USA, as I am about North Korea.) The Business Insider article seems to admit as much. – Oddthinking Apr 6 '13 at 0:52
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According to The Guardian newspaper:

An unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang's foreign ministry said the North will exercise its right for "pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors"

According to the North Korean government blog

The U.S. and its followers kicked off again the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercises to stifle the DPRK by force of arms by mobilizing huge armed forces of aggression.

It is the unshakable stand of the army and people of the DPRK and the mode of counteraction of Mt. Paektu style to counter enemies coming in attack with a dagger with a sword, a rifle with an artillery piece and nukes with precision nuclear strike means of Korean style more powerful than them.

...

The KPA warned the U.S. and south Korean bellicose force to stop the joint military exercises. If you ignite a war of aggression by staging the reckless joint military exercises against the DPRK, from that moment your fate will be hung by a thread with every hour.

(my emphasis)

There's no obvious mention of preemptive strikes as such, but one interpretation is that the N Korean government regards US military participation in military exercises in and around the Korean peninsula as an act of war warranting a military response. As you can see, their policy is that their response should always represent a major escalation (artillery response to rifles etc)

The N Korean state news agency KCNA reports

Pyongyang, April 3 (KCNA) -- The dear respected Marshal Kim Jong Un issued an order for action at an operation meeting on the performance of duty of the Strategic Rocket Force of the Korean People's Army on firepower strike. This is the final decision of justice prompted by the matchless grit of the brilliant commander of Mt. Paektu to put a definite end to the long-standing history of showdown with the U.S. imperialists and blow up the dens of evils.

(my emphasis)

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