SEOUL -- North Korea said Monday that it had "completely scrapped" the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, following up on a threat made days earlier and increasing the prospect of a strike against or a skirmish with the South, analysts said.
The North has made several similar announcements in the past, most recently in 2009, and analysts said this latest declaration could prove to be bluster rather than the marker of a wholesale shift in Pyongyang’s dealings with Seoul. Experts also note that Pyongyang -- whether bound by the cease-fire or not -- has occasionally ignored its terms, most notably with fatal attacks on the South in 2010.
Still, the armistice has kept a shaky peace on the peninsula for 60 years, and the North’s apparent withdrawal -- coupled with its severing of a communications hotline at the demilitarized border Monday -- makes it more difficult for South Korea and the United States to prevent or resolve disputes with Pyongyang.
Anxiety about the North is particularly high for the United States and its allies because they have little insight into the decision-making style of Kim Jong Eun, the young leader who took power of the opaque police state in December 2011 and now appears to be using the same brand of brinkmanship his father once did.
The North on Monday seemed to be trying to amplify that sense of unease, with its state-run newspaper saying in an editorial,
Though Pyongyang regularly makes threats about "sacred war" and attacks on "hostile imperialists," the rhetoric in the last few days has been particularly fiery -- a response to ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills and the latest round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, approved Thursday.
Last week, a powerful intelligence official, Kim Yong Chol, appeared on North Korean state television and threatened a "diversified precision nuclear strike" against the "U.S. imperialists." He also raised the prospect of withdrawal from the armistice. A separate statement from the Foreign Ministry threatened a "preemptive" nuclear strike on U.S. and other aggressors.
In another move watched carefully in Seoul, Kim on Thursday visited troops on several Yellow Sea islets off North Korea’s southern coast, not far from a South Korean island that was shelled in 2010. According to a state media account of the visit, Kim "reconfirmed in detail reinforced firepower strike means and targets of the enemy."
"They’re giving all the motions to make us believe that some sort of provocation is coming," said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership at CNA, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization. "Provocations are not necessarily imminent, but the probability is higher . . . and the ability to manage a provocation is much more difficult if they have withdrawn from the communication channels that existed under the armistice."
Gause added that the North’s latest threats were more specific than usual -- an escalation that has experts "scratching their heads about how willing they are to push the envelope."
South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said that the armistice cannot be nullified unilaterally. Ryoo Kihl-jae, South Korea’s new minister of unification, said Monday that promises between the North and South must be kept, and that, "despite the severe situation, it’s necessary to have dialogue to improve inter-Korean relations."
Many experts think that the North, by raising tensions and pulling away from existing lines of communication, is trying to pressure the United States into bilateral talks. In such talks, those experts believe, the North would seek a peace treaty, a major reduction of U.S. troops in the region, and recognition as a nuclear state -- a concession that Obama administration officials say they refuse to consider.
Denuclearization "is still the goal of U.S. policy," Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.