The North Korean army threatened late Monday of an immediate retaliatory strike if “a single shell” falls on its side of the disputed maritime border during scheduled South Korean-U.S. military drills.
A statement from the southwestern command of the Korean People’s Army said that any subsequent counterstrike would trigger an escalated military reaction that would see South Korea's border islands engulfed in a "sea of flames."
South Korean live-artillery exercises near the Yellow Sea border were an attempt to tip prevailing military tensions into an "actual war," said the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea moved two missiles primed for imminent test firing from a launch site, American officials said Monday, as North Asia tensions eased slightly on the eve of a U.S.-South Korea summit.
U.S. and South Korean officials had been worried Pyongyang would heighten a cycle of provocation, which has included threats of nuclear war, by firing the Musudan missiles, which have a range of up to 5,630 kilometers.
But a U.S. defense official told AFP on condition of anonymity: “they moved them,” and added that there was no longer an imminent threat of a launch.
Pyongyang, which rattled the world earlier this year by staging a nuclear test, would have to make detectable preparations if it changed its mind about a missile launch, two officials said.
As always, North Korea’s motivations under its young and unpredictable leader Kim Jong-Un, were not immediately clear.
But the move was revealed in Washington on the eve of a first summit between President Barack Obama and new South Korean President Park Geun-Hye at the White House on Tuesday, intended as a strong signal of unity to Pyongyang.
Earlier, a senior White House official warned that it was too early to say whether North Korea’s spate of bellicose behavior, which prompted Washington to send nuclear-capable stealth B-2 bombers over South Korea, was ending.
“It’s premature to make a judgment about whether the North Korean provocation cycle is going up, down or zigzagging,” said Danny Russel, senior director for East Asia on Obama’s National Security Council.
“Many analysts have anticipated that the North Korean provocation cycle would culminate in some sort of a grand fireworks display, and no one can rule that out,” Russel said.
According to AFP, Washington is making strenuous efforts to cement Obama’s relationship with Park, who arrived in Washington from New York, less than three months after being sworn into office.
Obama will host his visitor, the first woman to lead South Korea, in the Oval Office, hold an expanded luncheon meeting for both delegations, then appear with Park at a joint White House press conference.
Park will address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.
“I would say 90 percent of the U.S. North Korea policy now is simply staying tied tightly with the South Koreans, whichever direction they want to go in,” said Victor Cha, who was former president George W. Bush’s top aide on Korea.
Park has taken a firm stand against any concessions to North Korea but has also been careful not to close the door to future talks -- which U.S. officials say is ultimately the sole, albeit not ideal, way to deal with Pyongyang.