North Korea brandishes threats as UN debates Cheonan sinking

North Korea vowed a military response if the UN Security Council reprimands it for the sinking of the South Korean Navy's ship Cheonan. 
Fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang is common, but comes at a particularly tense time.

Jin Sung-chul/Yonhap/AP
Intelligence officers from Asian and Pacific nations pass by wreckage from the South Korean Navy's ship Cheonan, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, June 11. The ship was sunk near the maritime border with North Korea in March.

If rhetoric could kill, the Korean Peninsula would have been strewn with corpses Wednesday, felled by fresh verbal volleys from Pyongyang warning of nuclear war.

As it was, South Korea’s military dismissed the outburst as “routine rhetoric.” But tensions between the two Koreas are dangerously high at the moment.

So high, said North Korea’s main newspaper Rodong Sinmun in a commentary, that “a minor accidental incident could trigger an all-out war and develop into a nuclear war.”

The warning followed a veiled threat by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sin Son-ho, that if the UN Security Council reprimands Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean warship last March, “follow-up measures will be carried out by our military forces.”

North Korea denies having anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan and the death of 46 seamen aboard. An international inquiry blamed Pyongyang for the attack, and Seoul has taken the issue to the Security Council.

China, wielding a veto, will almost certainly protect its ally from any resolution imposing new sanctions on the hermit regime. But even a nonbinding statement by the Council condemning North Korea for the Cheonan tragedy would trigger military “follow-up,” Mr. Sin threatened on Tuesday.

Tensions peak

Such rhetoric has indeed become almost mundane in the crisis that has rumbled on for years over North Korea’s nuclear program.

And analysts do not believe Pyongyang has the technical capability to use a nuclear bomb on the battlefield. Nor does anyone expect Seoul to start a hot war that would send its economy into a tailspin.

But in the current atmosphere of tension it is not hard to envisage how the situation might get out of hand. One flash point is South Korea’s announcement that it will resume anti-North broadcasts from loudspeakers ranged along the heavily armed border.

North Korea has said its soldiers will shoot at any loudspeakers carrying propaganda from the South. And the South Korean defense minister has warned repeatedly that his men will return any fire with overwhelming intensity.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that while closing its ears to the rhetoric, South Korea’s military is keeping its eyes open. “We are maintaining our vigilance,” an officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was reported as saying on Wednesday.

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