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North Korea steps up rhetoric: How far will it push?

While North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike against the US, analysts say they are paying attention to these new threats.

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South Korean armored vehicles move during an exercise near the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom in Jeokseong, South Korea, Friday. North Korea grabbed international headlines yesterday by threatening to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against both South Korea and the United States.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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The war of words between North and South Korea, brought on by United Nations sanctions meant to punish Pyongyang for its latest nuclear test, reached a new height on Friday, with Seoul officials responding to North Korean threats with harsh words of their own.

“If North Korea attacks South Korea with a nuclear weapon, Kim Jong-un's regime will perish from the earth,” said a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson today.

North Korea then stepped up its typically fiery rhetoric even further, saying it will soon nullify all non-aggression pacts with South Korea and cut off some of the few lines of contact the two countries still have, causing international observers to ask just how far it will go.  
 
Still, all this bluster may just be North Korea’s attempt at being seriously acknowledged as a nuclear-armed, independent country. 

“These threats are North Korea’s way of expressing their discontent,” says Dong Yong-seung, a North Korea specialist at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. “They’re also sending a warning message to [South Korea’s newly elected] President Park. North Korea wants other countries to acknowledge them as a nuclear power and to start negotiations based on the fact.”  

North Korea grabbed international headlines yesterday by threatening to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against both South Korea and the United States. Shortly before the Security Council meeting where the sanctions were to be voted on, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the measures an “act of war” and threatened to turn Seoul and Washington into “seas of fire.”

Bombastic threats by North Korea about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” are nothing new, and neither are threats to pull further away from South Korea, but they are clearer and more specific than typically seen. And while the North does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike against the US, and few experts believe it would actually get into a nuclear war, analysts say they are paying attention to these new threats.
 
 “I am taking this more seriously [than previous threats]”, says Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford University. "This is a notch up from anything we have seen before, really explicit threats that go beyond their normal overheated rhetoric."

Severing ties

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The most important such agreement that could be nullified is the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War. A peace treaty was never signed and the two countries have remained technically at war ever since. North Korea has also said it will close the “truce village” of Panmunjomon the border between the two Koreas, where the armistice was signed. Panmunjom is home to several buildings meant for negotiation between the two Koreas, outside of which soldiers from both sides stand face to face. 

The North announced it was cutting off a military hotline between the two countries. This is not the first time the North has pulled the plug on the hotline, which the American-led UN Command in South Korea maintained with the North through the village. Though not an official diplomatic channel, it is mostly used to communicate the times and locations of military activities in order to prevent unintended clashes like the one that happened in 2010. When North Korea determined that South Korean soldiers had fired into their waters during a military exercise, they returned fire, causing widespread damage on Yeonpyeong Island, and killing four South Koreans.

Shutting down the hotline as the US and South Korea conduct their annual field training exercises, which have contributed to the general uptick in regional tensions, does not bode well, say analysts.

And South Korea reported it detected signs that the North was carrying out its own exercises off the country’s east coast earlier this week. Then on Friday, Kim Jong-un reportedly paid a visit to North Korean military units guarding the border with South Korea, raising questions about whether the military exercises on both sides could lead to an actual confrontation.
 
 However, according to at least one analyst, the military exercises could actually make it less likely that North Korea will initiate any conflict, and that this current patch of discord could pass without any direct clash.

“I don’t think North Korea will do anything during the US and South Korea’s exercises because at that time there are a lot of high-tech weapons and elite forces in the area,” says Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul. 

How people in Seoul see this

While news about the North dominated the day’s media coverage in South Korea, on the busy streets of Seoul, most citizens are more concerned with getting through the day than they are with what North Korea might do next.
 
 “I’m don’t have much interest in North Korea’s crazy behavior,” says Lee Byung-ok, a key cutter in central Seoul. “The governments need to deal with that. They should just talk to each other and take care of any problems.”

South Koreans work longer hours than citizens of any other OECD country and are generally too caught up in life in a highly competitive society to pay much attention to North Korea. With so many cycles of threats from Pyongyang in the past having already passed without major incident, few feel the need to be too concerned.

Last point of contact

If the threatened nullifications do go ahead, that would leave the Kaesong Industrial complex as the only major point of contact still functioning between the two Koreas. 

Kaesong has managed to continue operating despite the recent rounds of sanctions and generally cold relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though the North appeared to be on the verge of cutting the ties there in 2010.

North Korea more recently threatened to close the economic complex in February, after South Korea sanctioned the North for its April 2012 long-range rocket launch. South Koreans work as technicians and managers at some 100 factories and around 50,000 North Koreans work in the complex, special administrative region, providing inexpensive labor for South Korean companies and earning sorely needed funds for North Korea.

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