The Korean Peninsula is fraught with tension as its new leaders engage in a battle of words and will — with the North on Monday voiding the cease-fire that halted the Korean War in 1953 and the South placing its troops on high alert.
The tense posturing on the divided peninsula shows no sign of easing soon: North Korea shut down a Red Cross hot-line that it and South Korea have used for general communication, as the South conducted military exercises with the United States on Monday.
North Korea's increasing belligerence under third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un has been a challenge and a disappointment for the South's new president, Park Geun-hye, who during her campaign last year offered to send economic aid to the North if Pyongyang moved to denuclearize the peninsula.
"She is no softie when it comes to North Korea, and will respond in kind if the North Koreans do something provocative," said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ms. Park, who was inaugurated Feb. 25, "will always be open to humanitarian assistance to North Korea, but not if the North Koreans are killing South Korean citizens," Mr. Cha said. "She talked about building trust in the inter-Korean relationship during her campaign, but at the same time she is no pushover."
Still, hostilities between the two Koreas haven't been as prominent since 2010, when the North shelled an island occupied by the South and killed two marines and two civilians. Earlier that year, 46 South Korean sailors died when their warship sank after an explosion — which an international probe determined was caused by a North Korean torpedo.
Provocations by the North have bred the latest tension, after it launched a three-stage rocket in December and conducted a nuclear test in February — both in violation of U.N. sanctions. The North also has threatened a nuclear attack on the U.S., but military analysts say the communist regime lacks the know-how to fabricate a missile with an atomic warhead.
National Security Adviser Thomas T. Donilon said Monday that North Korea will face "the full range of our capabilities" if it carries out its nuclear threat.
In a speech at the Asia Society in New York, Mr. Donilon called on China, North Korea's ally, to pressure the Kim regime: "We believe that no country, including China, should conduct business as usual with a North Korea that threatens its neighbors."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Pyongyang "will achieve nothing by threats or provocation, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia."
North Korea's bellicose rhetoric is a "major distraction" for the Park administration, said Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korea studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
"For a leader that is elected and has a term limit, at the start of her presidency, this is a most unwelcome development," he said. "Could she have thwarted it? I don't think so because Pyongyang has its own strategy and calculates it to be in its best interest to really paint the South Korean leader and the American leader into a corner at the start of their respective administrations."
But under its young leader Mr. Kim, the North has received only negative attention: The United Nations in January denounced its rocket launch and, with cooperation from China, the U.N. Security Council issued sanctions on Pyongyang.
On Monday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea for its role in supporting North Korea's program to produce weapons of mass destruction, and the State Department separately blacklisted three North Korean officials.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the 60-year-old truce between the Koreas is still valid and in force and that neither side can end it unilaterally.
Mr. Ban urged North Korea "to continue to respect the terms of the armistice agreement as it was approved by the General Assembly," spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
A state-run newspaper in North Korea reported that the regime had voided the cease-fire, but Pyongyang did not officially announce it had done so.
'Not over my dead body'
Mr. Lee of the Fletcher School said North Korea typically has ratcheted up its rhetoric with a view to eventually receive bigger concessions.
"We know North Korea is not suicidal, so there is no danger of an all-out war," he said. "[But] a confluence of various factors makes a North Korean attack highly likely."
Such factors include leadership transitions across North Asia, including in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing this month.
"These leaders have a strong incentive to downplay foreign policy crises because they are preoccupied with domestic issues, and that creates an appeasement-prone environment, which is very much in North Korea's favor," Mr. Lee said.
Analysts cite the absence of any visible movement of North Korean troops as evidence that Pyongyang is reluctant to ignite an all-out war.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, at the Center for a New American Security, said North Korea is "betting on the fact that the U.S., South Korea, China and other countries will lighten up the pressure out of fear that tensions will escalate."
Pyongyang says its angry response is a reaction to U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region and U.N. sanctions imposed in response to its Feb. 12 nuclear test. The 11-day U.S.-South Korea war games started Monday.
The U.S. and South Korea have been conducting joint military exercises since 1976.
Nonetheless, South Koreans are worried by the North's provocations. A survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies found that more than 63 percent of South Korean respondents feel insecure after North Korea's nuclear test.
Mr. Cha also worries about the potential for an inadvertent escalation of hostilities on the peninsula.
"Many times war starts with miscalculation," he said. "What you don't want is a combination of a young, rambunctious North Korean leader who thinks he can provoke this paper tiger in the south, not expecting a South Korean response, while you have a new president in South Korea who says, 'Not over my dead body.'"
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