On Monday, South Korean and US troops undertook annual military exercises, while North Korea carried out threats to cut off a military hot line and nullify the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement, as tensions on the peninsula remained high.
The South Korean Unification Ministry said that a routine morning call on the hot line failed to go through, indicating that Pyongyang had followed through on its threat to suspend military contact with Seoul.
North Korea also repeated its threat to no longer recognize the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War. But that may be more of a theatrical move than a harbinger of hostilities, says Bong Young-shik, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul.
“They’ve cut off communication before and it restarted. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to talk to South Korea forever. They cut off the line just to put pressure on the US and South Korea,” says Mr. Bong.
North Korea has complained bitterly about the South Korea-US exercises, branding them a threat to its existence. Washington and Seoul insist the 11-day drill, which involves 10,000 South Korean soldiers and 3,500 US troops, is defensive and meant to prepare South Korea’s military to assume wartime operational command for the United States by the end of 2015.
This year the exercises come at a particularly tense moment in inter-Korean relations, a month after North Korea’s third nuclear test and days after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2094, which imposed tougher sanctions as punishment for the test.
North Korea’s official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, ran a story on Sunday that claimed that military units had “entered the final all-out war stage” and “are awaiting the final order to strike." North Korea is believed to be preparing military exercises on its own on the country’s east coast.
Part propaganda, part paranoia
“Partly for propaganda purposes and partly out of a kind of paranoia that makes them fear for their security, North Korea regards the exercises as a threat, even though they are defensive in nature,” says Yonsei University professor Moon Chung-in.
The 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island began after North Korea determined that South Korean forces had fired into their water during military exercises. North Korea then fired on the South, in what they considered to be a defensive response.
The North depicts South Korean military exercises as a threat because the North Korean state draws much of its legitimacy from the perception that its military strength allows it to defend its territory from what it says are hostile forces, specifically the US and South Korea. To keep this afloat, the North Korean state must be able to point to external actions as evidence of an active threat, say analysts.
How will Seoul respond?
The most pressing issue in South Korea is what Seoul will do if the North does carry out a military strike. The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 resulted in the deaths of four South Koreans, and the Seoul government at the time was heavily criticized for what was seen as a weak military response.
The government has pledged not to repeat that response. Kim Yong-hyun, operational director of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week: "If North Korea pushes ahead with provocations that would threaten the lives and safety of our citizens, our military will strongly and sternly punish the provocations' starting point, its supporting forces, and corps-level commanding post."
If the North does engage in fire this time around, which is unlikely given the war-ready state in the South and the fact that North Korea usually times its provocations to be unexpected, a military clash would, indeed, be the likely outcome, say analysts.
"There is deep concern in South Korea and among US policymakers that North Korea might carry out a conventional attack in the western sea or along the DMZ [demilitarized zone] that would trigger a very serious South Korean response and that we would be caught in an escalatory situation that could be extremely dangerous. South Korea cannot afford a repeat of 2010 when North Korea carried out two serious provocations free of any consequences,” says Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford University.
A key difference between now and 2010 is that South Korean forces were caught unprepared and made only a hasty response to the shelling, while this week, forces throughout the country are on high alert and ready to respond to any action by North Korea.