South Korea is responding firmly to North Korea's threat to abrogate next Monday the peninsula's truce agreement and resume military action.
"If North Korea conducts any provocations that threaten the life and safety of South Koreans then it should be clear there will be strong and decisive punishment not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces, but also the commanding element," South Korean army general Kim Yong-hyun told reporters Wednesday at the Ministry of National Defense.
The South Korean response follows some of the most explicit threats of action in years from the North.
The Wednesday edition of the North Korean worker's party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, says Pyongyang will be compelled to take action because joint annual drills involving U.S. and South Korean forces are actually intended as a surprise "preemptive nuclear strike" against the North.
No Plans To Reduce Participation In Joint Drills
U.S. Forces Korea spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick says "there are no current plans to reduce participation or scope" of annual defensive joint drills, including the Key Resolve command post exercise set to commence March 11th. Key Resolve will involve 3,500 members of the U.S. forces and about 10,000 South Korean military personnel.
The North's official news agency, KCNA, quotes the army's supreme command as saying it intends to counter the American-led military operation with a "diversified precision nuclear strike means of Korean style."
North Korean radio and television late Tuesday preempted their 8 p.m. newscasts to carry a ten-minute statement read by General Kim Yong Chol, head of the army's General Reconnaissance Bureau.
The four-star general, with a reputation as a hardliner, declared the armistice will be "totally nullified" and that the hotline between North Korean and U.S. forces at the Panmunjom truce village will be cut.
North Korea “will make a strike of justice at any target anytime it pleases without limit, not bound to the armistice agreement and achieve the great cause of the country reunification, the cherished desire of the nation,” Kim said.
North Korea made a previous threat, in 2009, to abrogate the armistice.
North Korean Intentions Difficult To Predict
Japan's Kyodo news agency, in a report from Pyongyang, says “indications of North Korea preparing for a war were observable in the capital” as people began covering buses and trains with camouflage netting. The report adds that according to North Koreans it is the first time in many years such preparatory measures to evade attack have been taken.
Analysts say it is difficult to predict Pyongyang's intentions. North Korea has, in the past, backed away from brinksmanship while at other times its rhetoric has been followed by action, including military strikes.
Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher with the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, says these kind of statements are intended for domestic political consumption to maintain a sense of crisis among the North Korean people. But Chang cautions the possibility of an actual military provocation by Pyongyang is now higher than normal. He explains it is hard to predict what will happen or when. But he says the North Koreans do not want to conduct an offensive action that would lead to full-scale war.
South Korea's semi-official Yonhap news agency quotes military sources in Seoul as saying North Korea has begun submarine drills in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and increased preparations for its own nationwide military exercises next week.
Past Military Drills Have Sparked Skirmishes
South Korea blames the North for a 2010 torpedo attack on one of its coast naval vessels that killed 46 personnel. Later that same year North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island in what it says was retaliation for a South Korean military drill. The artillery attack killed four people, including two civilians.
Asia analyst Mike Chinoy at the University of Southern California tells VOA he is concerned about the possibility of an accidental clash next week when military exercises are under way on both sides of the DMZ.
"All it would take is one helicopter that has a mechanical problem and has to come down on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone, or some firing exercises in which somebody puts in the wrong coordinates and an artillery shell goes in the other direction," says Chinoy. "These kinds of accidents, which have happened before, could in the current circumstances create a dynamic of escalation that would be harder to manage.”
Tokyo is "continuing to prepare for all contingencies" in order to maintain its peace and security, Japanese deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Wednesday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday described the latest threats from North Korea as "not new" and urged it to heed "President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations."
United Nations Poised To Enact New Sanctions
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, is poised to enact new sanctions in the wake of North Korea's rocket launch in December and its third nuclear test last month.
A draft resulting from an agreement between U.S. and Chinese negotiators targets illicit activities of North Korean diplomats believed to be abusing their immunity privileges. It also tightens scrutiny on transfers of bulk cash and further restricts travel.
South Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Sook, told VOA the full Security Council will make a decision soon and his government, at the moment, is satisfied with the language contained in the draft.
Diplomats from several countries say the enhanced U.N. sanctions include mandatory inspections of vessels entering or leaving North Korean waters suspected of carrying prohibited items, including luxury goods such as jewelry and automobiles.
The draft also calls for additional "significant measures" in the event of further North Korean launches or nuclear tests.
Some critics contend sanctions, until now, have been largely ineffective in preventing North Korea from developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul Bureau and Victor Beattie in Washington contributed to this report.