Such factors may help explain the fiery nature of the escalation in rhetoric from Pyongyang. “This kind of rhetoric that we’re seeing now spoken by Kim Jong-un himself seems to me unprecedented because it’s at such short intervals,” Mr. Kim said. “The intimidation level that the rhetoric is trying to portray is the highest I’ve seen since the Korean War, really.”
He said the situation stands apart from another incident that raised global tensions in 2010, when the military forces of Kim Jong-il carried out a surprise and deadly submarine attack that sank a South Korean naval ship and fired more than 150 artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong Island, where South Korean military forces are stationed.
“Those did not take place before any kind of warning,” said Mr. Kim. “They took place secretively and perhaps by small, trigger-happy factions within the military.”
Alternatively, Kim Jong-un appears bent on building a reputation as a leader who favors warnings and threats as the best tactic for drawing international attention.
North Korea’s state-run news agency reported Tuesday that the nation’s atomic energy department has plans to “readjust and restart” all of the nuclear facilities at its main nuclear complex, in an area north of Pyongyang known as Yongbyon.
The news agency said the facilities include a uranium-enrichment operation and reactor that was disabled in 2007 as part of an agreement reached during talks involving North Korea, the United States and four other nations.
In response, Mr. Kerry said reactivating the facility would be “in direct violation of their international obligation” and a “provocative act and completely contrary to the road that we have traveled all of these years.”
Officials were monitoring the North Korean statement carefully at the White House, where spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the Yongbyon facility “has been dormant as part of an agreement, which North Korea, at least with this announcement, seems to be willing to violate.”
“There’s a path open to North Korea to achieve the security, international respect and economic development that it seeks, but this is surely not the path,” Mr. Carney said.
Other world leaders weighing in Tuesday included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean who criticized North Korea for ramping up tensions but also called on all sides to temper their statements.
“The current crisis has already gone to far,” he said. “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions, and fuel fear and instability.
“China reportedly has added a layer of complexity to the situation by placing some of its military forces on heightened alert in response to the tensions between North and South Korea.
China maintains close ties to North Korea’s leadership, but Beijing has appeared willing to work with Washington and the United Nations toward encouraging Pyongyang to engage in peace talks.
There is also debate in the Washington foreign policy community over the extent to which China intends to honor military agreements with North Korea.