SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea staged dueling war games Monday as threatening rhetoric from the rivals rose to the highest level since North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island in 2010.
Enraged over the South’s joint military drills with the United States and recent U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang has piled threat on top of threat, including vows to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. and to scrap the nearly 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War. Seoul has responded with tough talk of its own and has placed its troops on high alert.
North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reported that the armistice was nullified Monday as Pyongyang had previously announced. The North followed through on another promise Monday, shutting down a Red Cross hotline that the North and South used for general communication and to discuss aid shipments and separated families’ reunions.
The 11-day military drills that started Monday involve 10,000 South Korean and about 3,000 American troops. Those coincide with two months of separate U.S.-South Korean field exercises that began March 1.
Also continuing are large-scale North Korean drills that Seoul says involve the army, navy and air force. The South Korean defense ministry said there have been no military activities it considers suspicious.
Despite the heightened tension, there were signs of business as usual Monday.
The two Koreas continue to have at least two working channels of communication between their militaries and aviation authorities.
One of those hotlines was used Monday to give hundreds of South Koreans approval to enter North Korea to go to work. Their jobs are at the only remaining operational symbol of joint inter-Korean cooperation, the Kaesong industrial complex. It is operated in North Korea with South Korean money and knowhow and a mostly North Korean work force.
The North Korean rhetoric escalated as the U.N. Security Council last week approved a new round of sanctions over Pyongyang’s latest nuclear weapons test Feb. 12.
Analysts said that much of the bellicosity is meant to shore up loyalty among citizens and the military for North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.
“This is part of their brinksmanship,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea with the International Crisis Group think tank. “It’s an effort to signal their resolve, to show they are willing to take greater risks, with the expectation that everyone else caves in and gives them what they want.”
Part of what North Korea wants is a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, instead of the armistice that leaves the peninsula still technically in a state of war. It also wants security guarantees and other concessions, direct talks with Washington, recognition as a nuclear weapons state and the removal of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Pinkston said there is little chance of fighting breaking out while war games are being conducted, but he added that he expects North Korea to follow through with a somewhat mysterious promise to respond at a time and place of its own choosing.
North Korea was responsible for an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans in 2010. A South Korean-led international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship that same year, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies sinking the ship.
Among other threats in the past week, North Korea has warned Seoul of a nuclear war on the divided peninsula and said it was cancelling nonaggression pacts.
Its vow to scrap the 1953 armistice is one it has made previously, and it is believed to be incapable of making good on its threat to unleash a long-range nuclear missile on America.
Still, South Korean and U.S. officials have been closely monitoring Pyongyang’s actions and parsing its recent rhetoric, which has been more warlike than usual.
One analyst said Kaesong’s continued operations show that North Korea’s cutting of the Red Cross communication channel was symbolic. More than 840 South Koreans were set to cross the border Monday to Kaesong, which provides a badly-needed flow of hard currency to a country where many face food shortages, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
“If South Koreans don’t go to work at Kaesong, North Korea will suffer” financially, said analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “If North Korea really intends to start a war with South Korea, it could have taken South Koreans at Kaesong hostage.”
Under newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s Defense Ministry, which often brushes off North Korean threats, has looked to send a message of strength in response to the latest comments from Pyongyang.
The ministry has warned that the North’s government would “evaporate from the face of the Earth” if it ever used a nuclear weapon. The White House also said the U.S. is fully capable of defending itself against a North Korean ballistic attack.
North Korea has said the U.S. mainland is within the range of its long-range missiles, and an army general told a Pyongyang rally last week that the military is ready to fire a long-range nuclear-armed missile to turn Washington into a “sea of fire.”
While outside scientists are still trying to determine specifics, the North’s rocket test in December and third atomic bomb test last month may have pushed the country a step closer to acquiring the ability to hit the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction. Analysts, however, say Pyongyang is still years away from acquiring the smaller, lighter nuclear warheads needed for a credible nuclear missile program.
But there are still worries about a smaller conflict, and analysts have said that more missile and nuclear tests are possible reactions from North Korea.
North Korea has a variety of missiles and other weapons capable of striking South Korea. Both the warship sinking and island shelling in 2010 occurred near a western sea boundary between the Koreas that North Korea fiercely disputes. It has been a recurring flashpoint between the rivals that has seen three other bloody naval skirmishes since 1999.
Last week, Kim Jong Un visited two islands just north of the sea boundary and ordered troops there to open fire immediately if a single enemy shell is fired on North Korean waters.
Kim was also quoted as saying his military is fully ready to fight an “all-out war” and that he will order a “just, great advance for national unification” if the enemy makes even a slight provocation, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.