In recent weeks, North Korea has been directing new vitriol at the United States and South Korea, threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and launch nuclear strikes on U.S. targets.
Two Washington-based analysts said it is unlikely North Korea will go to war with the United States. The greater danger, they said, is that Pyongyang does something to provoke a conflict between the two Koreas.
Concern in Yellow Sea
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said fighting could occur in the Yellow (West) Sea near the maritime boundary created at the end of the Korean War in 1953. North Korea has never recognized the boundary and redrew it in the late 1990s, bringing five South Korean islands into its own sphere.
"There are five islands just south of the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime boundary, and recently North Korea has moved additional artillery down to that area," Klingner said. "[North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un visited several of the islands. The rhetoric is very specific about the South Korean Sixth Marine Brigade on one of the islands. So that is causing growing concern both here and in Seoul.”
Major instability in the region last surfaced in 2010, when a torpedo sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Seoul blamed the attack on Pyongyang, which denies carrying it out. Also that year, the North fired artillery at Yeonpyeong, one of the five South Korean Islands, and killed four more people.
Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Pyongyang must be dissuaded from making provocations.
"If there’s any provocation like the Cheonan incident, South Korea will respond kinetically, and if there’s any miscalculations or any accident during this response, this could easily escalate into a larger conflict,” said Kim.
South Korea did not retaliate for the incidents in 2010. But South Korea's new president Park Geun-hye recently said she will "deal strongly with North Korea's provocations."
According to Klingner and Kim, North Korea has been so bellicose partly because it is angry about being hit with new U.N. sanctions. The sanctions were imposed after the North's long-range rocket test late last year and its nuclear test last month.
North Korea's "hard-line" approach
UN Security Council Resolution 2094
Condemns in strongest terms North Korea's ongoing nuclear activities
Imposes new financial sanctions to block transactions in support of illicit activities
Strengthens states' authority to inspect cargo, deny port, overflight access
Enables stronger enforcement of sanctions by U.N. member states
Imposes sanctions on new individuals and entities
North Korea has been railing against the new U.N. measures.
As for North Korea's 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, Ellen Kim said she hopes he understands the "danger of his actions" and is not a "risk taker." She noted he may be more "reckless" than his father, the late Kim Jong Il.
"We thought when he initially came into power he brought some changes, at the very surface level," said Kim. "So everybody was hoping that Kim Jong Un takes North Korea in a different direction. But now a lot of people are disappointed, and they don’t think Kim Jong Un is a reformer, and it seems like he’s going back to his father’s hardline policy in a much more dangerous direction.”
Klingner sounded pessimistic when asked if Kim Jong Un is surrounded by rational people who can influence him to back off.
"They are the same leaders, the same advisors who were in place when Kim Jong Il lashed out against South Korea, sinking a South Korean naval ship in South Korean waters, shelling a civilian island," he said. "So it's the same advisors around the new leader.”
Earlier this week, North Korea announced it had cut its last military hotline with South Korea. The North said such communication links are no longer necessary since "war may break out at any moment."
Klingner said it is unknown if Pyongyang is trying to communicate with Seoul possibly by using a back channel such as China, North Korea's top ally.
"There is a possibility the U.S. or South Korea can contact the North through what’s called the New York channel, the permanent mission that North Korea has to the U.N. in New York," Klingner said. "There’s also ways of passing messages via China. We don’t know if North Korea is accepting messages or initiating any messages.”
On Wednesday, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. remains "prepared to engage constructively" with Pyongyang provided it lives up to its international obligations and refrains from provocative behavior.