Why North Korea is turning up the heat again

North Korea's military is vowing to cancel the 1953 cease-fire that effectively ended the Korean War, straining frayed ties in the region as the UN moves to impose new sanctions.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP
In this undated file photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a consultative meeting with officials in the fields of state security and foreign affairs at undisclosed location in North Korea.

It’s been a dramatic week on the Korean Peninsula, culminating with a threat from North Korea to break the 60-year truce with the South and the subsequent terse warning from South Korea's military Wednesday that it would respond to any attack from North Korea with “strong and stern measures.”

In case you missed it, this comes on the heels of China's agreement to sanction the North, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s debrief on his basketball diplomacy trip to the world’s most isolated country – and, lest we forget it, rumors of an expansion of the Kim dynasty

The North's bombast also comes ahead of planned military exercises during an especially tense period. The US and South Korea’s regular combined field-training exercises are set for early next week, and North Korea has been observed planning their own exercises, which could set the stage for a clash as happened in 2010. The deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island broke out after North Korea claimed that the South had fired into its waters during routine exercises. 

The Christian Science Monitor points out that the North’s threat of violence is of course nothing new – each year the US and South Korea have joint military exercises and each year the North loudly protests with threats. North Korea has even claimed to abandon its armistice with the South once before – in 2009, when, like today, it was facing a new round of sanctions for a nuclear test.

“Maybe North Korea should check its files, because they already abrogated the armistice in May 2009,” says Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “They said at the time they had abrogated it and were no longer bound by it,” Mr. Klinger says, “so I guess you could say history is repeating itself.”

And it remains to be seen how strictly China will impose the new sanctions. 

Cheng Xiaohe, a Korea watcher at Renmin University in Beijing told the Monitor’s Peter Ford there:

“China and the DPRK need each other.” While Pyongyang depends on Chinese aid and trade to stay afloat, Beijing is anxious to keep at least one regional nation friendly in the face of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia, which is widely seen here as a bid to contain China.

Still, he says:

Since coming to power a little over a year ago, Kim Jong-un “has brushed aside Chinese friendship and made China feel extremely uncomfortable.”

And that has made Beijing’s leaders more apt to do more to express displeasure, such as urging the North to show restraint.

"The Korean War armistice is significant in terms of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily press briefing Wednesday, reports Voice of America

Whether the North will listen is another question. 

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