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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered his troops to be in a “semi-state of war” Friday, issuing an ultimatum to South Korea to halt anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts by Saturday, or face military action.
It’s the latest threat amid a rise of tensions on the Korean Peninsula this week, after both nations exchanged fire Thursday. And it’s the "first major test" of Kim’s ability to manage a military clash with Seoul, reports The Wall Street Journal.
“South Korea will strongly retaliate against any kind of North Korean attacks and the North will have to take all the responsibility for such [actions],” The Ministry of National Defense said in a message to the North.
On Aug. 20 North Korea fired shells into South Korea near the demilitarized zone and the South responded with an artillery barrage. South Korean President Park Geun-hye put the nation on high alert and was photographed meeting with her security team.
Pyongyang claims it did not fire shells on Aug. 20.
Tensions began to rise earlier this month when a mine blast injured two members of the South Korean border patrol. The South accused the North of planting the land mines.
A week later the South began using loudspeakers to broadcast cold war-style anti-North messages across the border. It was the first time since 2004 that the huge speakers on the South's side of the border had been turned on, reports Al Jazeera. On Monday, North Korea began running its own broadcasts.
Annual military drills between the United States and South Korea, which often result in bombastic rhetoric from the North Korean regime, have just started. The US says it is closely monitoring the situation.
“The ultimatum is unusual. Because it’s a game of chicken – one side or the other has to back down, unless they find some sort of face-saving subterfuge,” John Delury, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, told the Los Angeles Times. “And it doesn’t seem like they’re looking for face-saving subterfuge.”
South Korea has brought up the possibility of restricting access to the joint industrial zone at Kaesong, which provides vital income for some 50,000 North Koreans.
The North’s bellicose rhetoric is not unlike other declarations in recent years, the Associated Press reports, “including repeated threats to reduce Seoul to a "sea of fire," and the huge numbers of soldiers and military equipment already stationed along the border mean the area is always essentially in a "quasi-state of war."
But, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the stakes for North Korea are higher than usual, since “Seoul loosened its rules of engagement to allow quicker, more powerful responses to North Korean aggression.”
The shift came after a 2010 North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island that killed four people and led to the resignation of South Korea’s defense minister, criticized for a weak response.
North Korea’s tactics so far appear to come from a military playbook it has used successfully for decades. Its attacks are often calibrated to maximize fear but avoid a descent into a major conflict its inferior military can’t win, experts say.
Thursday’s shells from the North landed in a remote area, so causing no loss of life—but generating concern in South Korea that further violence could follow. Pyongyang’s setting of a Saturday deadline is also a familiar gambit to increase anxiety and pressure from some inside South Korea to compromise
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group told Reuters that the military exercises involving the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea may reduce any risk of further escalation.
"This is a bad time to pick a fight with the South while it has all these resources there," Mr. Pinkston said.