As NPR's Louisa Lim reported Monday on Morning Edition, a week of inflamed rhetoric from North Korea — including talk of a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. — is being followed by word that the North has carried through on its threat to annul the 1953 armistice that ended open warfare on the peninsula and has stopped answering calls on the telephone hotline to the South.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korean militaries have begun their annual joint military drills — exercises that the North views as provocative. Tensions, always high on the Korean peninsula, have been ratcheted up even further.
Here's more from Louisa's report:
South Korean news is headlining Operation Key Resolve: war games involving 13,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers. Every year, it's a time of tension. But this year, the North seems to be acting on its threats. A hotline between the South and North rang unanswered today. And Pyongyang's state mouthpiece is warning the ceasefire that ended the Korean war is now invalid.
A South Korean official reportedly told parliament that unilateral cancellation isn't legally binding. Pyongyang has made that threat half-a-dozen times before. But this time the context is different.
As Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in South Korea, says, "the rhetoric is always bellicose. What we're hearing is a change of degree and not kind." He believes the North's new young leader, Kim Jong Un, is more military-focused than his father, Kim Jong Il.
"The problem, of course, is [that] the more Pyongyang threatens the United States and South Korea, the more it puts itself under pressure to do something," Myers says. "So I think it's very likely that North Korea will engage in some significant disruption of peace this year, as it does every year.
What does North Korea want? It wants a formal peace treaty with the U.S.. — and more. The most recent insight, of course, came from a surprising source, former, NBA star Dennis Rodman. Last month he paid a surprise visit to the North and spent time with the young leader.
Speaking to ABC News' George Stephanopoulous, Rodman relayed a message from the North Korean leader.
"He wants Obama to do one thing – call him," Rodman said.
But Kim's bellicosity is putting limits on how the U.S. and other nations can respond to the North. South Korea just inaugurated a new conservative president, Park Geun-hye. Her cabinet meets for the very first time today. She campaigned on a platform of leaving the door open to dialogue with the North, but that position is no longer tenable. Hahm Chai-bong, the president of the Asan Institute in Seoul, says North Korea has made that very clear: "It has very quickly and very assuredly slapped President Park Geun-hye's outreached hand."
Elsewhere, North Korea's traditional ally, China, is also undergoing a leadership transition. As its new leaders gather in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing seems to be recalibrating its position. The Chinese supported tougher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang after its most recent nuclear test. Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group has been in Beijing; he says Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated:
"The Chinese government has not developed working relations with Kim Jong Un. We've seen some reports from party officials in the international media that maybe China should cut off North Korea — I don't believe that's intended for Chinese consumption. I think it's because formal North Korean channels aren't working and they're trying to get North Korea's attention. They're very unsettled."
Meanwhile, on North Korean television, the bombast continues... with footage of Kim Jong Un visiting the frontline army unit that shelled the South three years ago, killing four people. Now many observers are bracing themselves for the next North Korean provocation. The big question is just how serious will it be this time.
-- "North Korea Says It Has Scrapped Armistice That Ended Korean War." (The Washington Post)
-- "Pressure Rises On Korean Peninsula." (The Wall Street Journal)
-- "South Korea Seeks Dialogue With North Korea Despite Tensions," Unification Minister Says. (Yonhap News)
And don't forget Scott Neuman's story from Friday: "How Credible Are North Korea's Threats?"