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North Korea amplified its saber-rattling Monday, putting its armed forces on alert and warning the West of war if any nation interferes with its planned satellite launch.
The United States and other countries believe the launch is cover for a test of Pyongyang's intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile, which can be armed with nuclear warheads, is capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii, at least in theory. (See a graphic with a map here and a political cartoon from caglecartoons.com here.)
The brinksmanship comes as the US and South Korea begin their annual large-scale military exercises today. North Korea fears such exercises could mask an invasion, and last week said it couldn't guarantee the safety of passenger planes flying near its airspace.
The Guardian reports that North Korea had been liberal in its threats.
"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," the north's military said in a statement issued by the state news agency.
It warned that a retaliatory strike "not only against all the interceptor means involved but against the strongholds" of the US, Japan and South Korea would result....
In a separate dispatch, the agency said the military had ordered all personnel to be "fully combat ready" so that they could "deal merciless retaliatory blows" to the enemy.
The Korea Times reported that the US and Japanese officials have suggested they might try to shoot down a North Korean missile, if launched.
Bloomberg reports that the North had also cut off its communication channel with South Korea, and barred South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex. It said that "more than 700 South Koreans were unable to enter the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea."
In an analysis piece, Jonathan Thatcher of Reuters said experts attribute the North's current belligerence to Pyongyang's wrath over South Korea's hardened line on its arms program and human rights. It may also be a bid to test new US President Barack Obama's mettle.
The latest threats come on top of months of furious criticism of the conservative South Korean government which, during its first year in office, has effectively cut off aid that once used to pour north across the heavily armed border. Seoul has said the aid will resume, accompanied by billions in investment, if Pyongyang stops trying to make atomic weapons.
It has also told the North to improve its human rights record, a touchy subject for a state analysts say locks away tens of thousands of political prisoners.
An editorial in the English-language edition of the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, noted that China had asked North Korea to halt the satellite test after a meeting Wednesday with the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth. Beijing's position ratchets up the diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.
Bosworth drew a clear line when it came to the missile launch. China had not made a public statement since Feb. 24, when North Korea gave notice of the launch, insisting that it was part of its satellite program. Yet following a meeting with Bosworth last Wednesday, Beijing asked North Korea to halt it, apparently as a result of fine-tuning with Washington.
Mr. Bosworth has urged North Korea not to go ahead with the planned test in remarks Saturday after arriving in Seoul, the paper reported. It quoted him as saying: "We've indicated our position to them on the question of the missile launch, or satellite launch, or whatever they call it. We think it's very ill-advised."
The Telegraph reported that North Korea's threat against civilian airlines was "beyond the standard fare of North Korean rhetoric." The report further quoted North Korea's statement via state media, explaining the communications cutoff:
"It is nonsensical to maintain a normal communications channel at a time when the South Korean puppets are getting frantic with the above-said war exercises, leveling guns at fellow countrymen in league with foreign forces," the North said.
The Daily NK, a website for North Korean news, in December quoted a report from South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs & National Security. In its annual report, the institute predicted that North Korea this year might challenge the new Obama administration.
North Korea might threaten the Obama administration by suspending of the denuclearization process, refusing to attend the Six Party Talks, firing missiles or nuclear tests, all for the purpose of maintaining the upper hand and subduing the U.S., according to the North's standard negotiation tactics.