March 11, 2013

SKorea, US begin drills as NKorea threatens war

Foster Klug and Hyung-Jin Kim / The Associated Press

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.

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