Tensions on the Korean peninsula escalated further today as North Korea announced it had placed its missile and artillery forces “on the highest alert”, while South Korea’s new President warned that the communist regime in Pyongyang could survive only if it abandoned nuclear weapons and ceased to provoke and threaten its neighbours.
This latest sabre-rattling came on the third anniversary of the deadliest recent incident between the two Koreas, the sinking in March 2010 of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan – apparently by North Korean torpedo – in which 46 sailors died.
The South’s President Park Guen-hye, who took office only a month ago, used the occasion to urge the North to end its isolation. But the North Korean military responded with the alert, declaring it was ready to hit the bases of “US imperialist aggressor troops” on the US mainland and on Hawaii and Guam, as well as targets in South Korea and its vicinity.
The verbal exchanges are the latest in a series of incidents since the regime of Kim Jong-un carried out the country’s third nuclear test on 12 February – the most technologically impressive yet. That drew renewed United Nations sanctions against North Korea, followed by more threats from Pyongyang. Earlier this month the US announced that it was beefing up its defences in Alaska with 14 new interceptor units, to defend against a North Korean missile attack.
At the same time US and South Korean military exercises are currently taking place – the statement from the North Korean military singled out the use of B-52 bombers, capable of delivering nuclear weapons, as justification for its vow to take “practical military action” to protect the country’s national sovereignty.
Despite its northern neighbour’s increasingly violent language, the defence ministry in Seoul said it had detected no suspicious North Korean military activity, adding that its officials were “analysing” Pyongyang’s warning. A direct attack right now appears highly unlikely – though that could change once the joint US-South Korean drills finish at the end of April.
As usual no one is sure exactly what lies behind the latest bellicosity in Pyongyang. One reason, almost certainly, is genuine anger at the UN sanctions, and the absence of promises from the US and its allies that North Korea will be rewarded if it ceases its provocations.
The threats may also be intended to prove the mettle of Kim – himself in office barely a year – and to boost his military credentials. The fear however is that, sooner or later, he will have to do something to show there is real menace behind the bluster.
Meanwhile, websites and organisations run by North Korean defectors to the South claim to have suffered cyber attacks, a week after computer systems at some South Korean banks and TV networks were widely disrupted. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Free North Korea Radio was also attacked.