The Obama administration sharply criticized Pyongyang Monday just hours after North Korean forces fired hundreds of live artillery shells across its disputed maritime border with South Korea, provoking a tit-for-tat response from its southern neighbor.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon all condemned the North’s salvo, with one official calling the move “dangerous and provocative.”
U.S. officials and analysts expressed concern that North Korea’s rogue regime, led by thirty-something Kim Jong-un, would further escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula that technically remains in a state of war.
What motivated the North Korean attack was unclear, but there is a real danger that things could get out of hand, said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If North Korea miscalculates with these provocations in ways that elicit a major South Korean military response, then we have a dangerous escalation dynamic at play,” he added.
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the developments on Monday were “an indicator of the fact that military tensions remain high in this area.”
“Both sides have indicated an intolerance to these provocations and signaled responses that could lead to military escalation,” he added, referring to the governments in Pyongyang and Seoul.
The poorly marked western sea boundary has been the scene of several bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas in recent years. In March 2010, a South Korean warship sank in the area following a torpedo attack blamed on Pyongyang that left 46 sailors dead. North Korea denies responsibility for the sinking. In November 2010, a North Korean artillery bombardment killed four South Koreans on Yeonpyeong island.
South Korea responded on Monday by firing around 300 artillery shells after hundreds of shells fired by North Korea in a live-fire drill landed south of the disputed western boundary in the Yellow Sea. Seoul also scrambled F-15s on its side of the maritime border. No shells fired by either side hit land or military installations.
South Korea’s semi-official news agency Yonhap reported that North Korea had fired more than 500 artillery shells — a number confirmed by U.S. officials — into the Yellow Sea’s so-called “Northern Limit Line” on Monday afternoon.
“We believe the North’s maritime firing is a planned provocation and an attempt to test our military’s determination to defend the Northern Limit Line and to get an upper hand in South-North relations,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told the Reuters new agency.
North Korea’s actions are in part intended to get the attention of the Obama administration, which has been preoccupied with Ukraine and other crises around the world, said Mr. Cha, who served in the George W. Bush administration as director for Asian affairs at National Security Council.
“But the more disturbing trend has been a steady drumbeat of military actions by North Korea since February 21, including everything from artillery to medium-range ballistic missiles,” he said.
North Korea’s military has conducted a series of test firings of rockets and missiles over the past six weeks, including KN-09 rockets, Scud missiles and FROG-7 rockets.
“The high tempo of these things right in the middle of [U.S.-South Korea] exercises suggests a higher-level of risk-taking by the North Korean leadership,” said Mr. Cha.
The exchange of artillery fire on Monday was the latest in a string of recent incidents involving North Korea.
Last week, North Korea fired two medium-range ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions that ban Pyongyang from conducting such tests. Both missiles fell into the sea.
On Sunday, North Korea said it “would not rule out” another nuclear test.
“[We] would not rule out a new form of a nuclear test aimed at strengthening our nuclear deterrence,” Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency. “The U.S. had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly.”
North Korea has conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The developments on Monday were a response to ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises as well as the stern response from U.N. Security Council following the missile launches last week, said Mr. Snyder, who is a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Pyongyang had taken a “deliberate decision to further escalate tensions.”
North Korea can “choose to further escalate, or they can choose to come in line with their international obligations and rejoin the international community,” said Ms. Harf. “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen recently particularly is the former.”
North Korea’s “continued threats and provocations aggravate tensions and further its isolation,” said Jonathan P. Lalley, spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea had engaged in a “dangerous” provocation and that it must stop.
Mr. Hagel will discuss North Korea’s behavior when he visits Beijing early this month. China is North Korea’s most significant ally.
North Korea took the unusual step of informing South Korea earlier on Monday that it would conduct live-fire military drills along the maritime border.
North and South Korea are still technically at war since the 1950-53 war ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. There are 28,500 U.S. troops deployed in South Korea as a deterrent to potential North Korean military aggression.
⦁ Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.